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Sneakers rule at school – and everywhere else, too

 

Samantha Critchell

Associated Press

July 8, 2008
 

NEW YORK – Soon all those flip-flops will be just a happy summer memory.

Once school begins, out come the closed-toe shoes, an increasingly routine requirement of school dress codes. For many students, the preferred closed-toe shoe is a sneaker.

Sneakers, though, are defined much more broadly than they were when today's parents were kids.

“It used to be that kids had play shoes and dress shoes, but today they're wearing sneakers for all kinds of occasions – it's more of an everyday fashion statement,” says Catherine Beaudoin, general manager of Gap Inc.'s online shoe shop Piperlime.

True, the same Converse Chuck Taylors that dad wore are still popular, but now the same brand might be found on his young daughter in hot pink with a hippie floral print.

His son's kicks might be orange Air Force 1s by Nike with bright green laces. Other styles you'll likely see on kids this year are Puma's Wheelspins, Adidas Superstars, Reebok's Marvel superhero sneakers with Iron Man and Hulk, Nickelodeon-branded Slimer sneakers and, for preschoolers, New Balance's classic running shoe decorated with Sesame Street characters.

“It's more practical and easy to wear sneakers,” says 15-year-old Elizabeth Laleman of Monroe, Conn. One of her favorite pairs last year? Plaid Pumas that she used her own money to buy.

“They were pink and blue – very feminine and you couldn't tell they were sneakers!”

From toddlers to teens, there will likely be more than one pair of sneakers per closet. Nike spokeswoman Kilee Hughes says the company's research finds that kids tend to have three:

1. The prized pair – a fashionable, bright high-top or mid-top sneaker that matches a handful of well-planned outfits. “Our focus groups say brighter is better,” Hughes adds.

2. A classic “sport” shoe, either for real athletics or a lazy Sunday.

3. A utility pair, probably mostly white, that's able to blend in with the rest of the wardrobe.

Andy Navarro, 16, of Norwalk, Conn., counts even more. He has his all-white and all-black pairs for school because they do indeed match more clothes. But for hanging out with friends, he has four pairs with distinct color combinations, including Air Force 1s adorned with the Puerto Rican flag.

Aside from two pairs of flip-flops, Andy doesn't own any shoes that aren't sneakers.

The shift toward sneakers for all occasions also reflects the popularity of comfortable, ath-leisure hybrid shoes among grown-ups.

“Most of what we see in the kids' market are pull-downs from adults,” Beaudoin says.

Pilar Guzman, editor-in-chief of Cookie magazine, says her son favors a pair of suede and leather shoes made by Gwen Stefani's LAMB label. She calls them sneakers because they have a rubber sole and Velcro tab, but they're a hybrid with hiking boots, she says. Anywhere he wants to wear them is fine with her.

“For me, the litmus test is, 'Can you run in it comfortably?'” Guzman says. “... If they're doing their duty by wearing a dress or a button-down shirt, let them have their sneakers.”

Many schools that have adopted closed-toe shoe policies cite safety concerns, says Tom Hutton, a lawyer for the National School Boards Association. But he's heard a secondary reason put forth, too: encouraging a more serious wardrobe.

Yes, sneakers are casual, but they're more respectful than flip-flops, he says. “At some level, a dress code is there to set a tone in school.”

And it can be hard to draw the line among sandals. “Teachers have better things to do than debate whether a shoe is a flip-flop,” says Hutton.

For children ages 6 to 12, sneakers made up 42 percent of U.S. footwear sales in July, August and September of last year – more than $500 million in sales, according to market research firm NPD Group. Not surprisingly, many fashion labels and indy skate and surf brands have gotten into the game alongside athletic companies, observes Bradley Carbone, lifestyle editor at hipster magazine Complex.

“Sneakers as fashion has always been big in the cities, but it has spread to the suburbs,” he says.

“Sneakers are very individual. It allows you to express your knowledge of street culture, but it also works vice versa for teens or tweens: You can wear them to a semiformal event or dinner with mom or dad and you can wear sneakers that are 'cool' but get away with what mom and dad think is acceptable fashion,” Carbone says.

Parents have long embraced sneakers for tots because they make hectic mornings run smoother: They're sturdy and, thanks to Velcro and Bungee-cord closures and slip-ons, easier for children to put on themselves.

Even younger children make their preferences known.

“Kids look for the cool factor, whether it be novelty or color treatment,” says Rachel Panetta, director of marketing at Stride Rite's children's group. “For girls, it's all about the fashion. They love sparkle, and pink or purple... . For boys, they love novelty shoes, such as those inspired by insects or shoes that they think will make them run faster and jump higher, such as shoes with SuperBalls built in the outsole.”

There's also an interest in styles from the 1980s, says Nike's Hughes, though even those shoes scream 2008 on the inside. You'll find more breathability, lighter weights, more flexibility, and shielded air pockets between the upper and the sole, she says, with perhaps a funky sock liner tossed in for fun.

 

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