Retro Sneaker Styles Give Shoemakers a Boost

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Seventeen-year-old Boris Becker, wearing his eponymous Puma high-top sneakers, at Wimbledon in July 1985. ENLARGE
Seventeen-year-old Boris Becker, wearing his eponymous Puma high-top sneakers, at Wimbledon in July 1985. Photo: Robert Dear/Associated Press

T-shirts and bluejeans have company among casual clothes gone Establishment: sneakers.

Athletic shoes have become core lifestyle footwear, not only in street culture but also for fashionistas and corporate types. Sneakers are more commonly being paired with men’s suits. And it’s the retro styles that are raising the game for shoemakers. Skaters, celebrities and brides are posting pictures of themselves on social media in sneakers such as the signature styles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Billie Jean King wore.

“They’ve finally been around long enough to become classic,” says Russ Bengtson, senior editor at urban-culture site Complex.com.

Reissued or “heritage” shoes were the fastest-growing footwear category in the U.S. last year, according to analysts NPD ADDYY 3.53 % Group, which estimates sector sales rose more than 50% and accounted for about 20% of the $17.2 billion U.S. athletic footwear market.

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It is good news for Germany’s venerable Adidas AG ADDYY 3.53 % and Puma PMMAF -6.53 % SE, which are working to reprise their classics. Both companies have struggled to regain their disco-era cool in today’s highly competitive market, and each has seven decades of products to mine.

At Adidas, the world’s second-largest sportswear maker after Nike Inc., NKE 1.21 % the cash cow is a range of leather tennis and basketball shoes dating back to the 1960s. Now part of the company’s ‘Originals’ business, the line is “the backbone of our success,” says Arthur Hoeld, Originals general manager.

Originals’ surge was a top reason Adidas last year achieved sales growth of almost 20% from 2014, the company says. Overall revenue for 2015 was €16.9 billion ($19.12 billion); Originals grew at a “double digit” percentage rate. The rise included a strong rebound in the U.S., where Adidas has struggled.

Adidas says it sold 8 million pairs of its Stan Smiths last year—compared with about 50 million pairs sold in the past half-century. The company also sold 15 million pairs of Superstars in 2015, with Adidas’s signature triple stripe. Both models average about $70.

“They’re the crown jewels,” says Mr. Hoeld of the heritage shoes.

Puma CEO Bjørn Gulden is more circumspect.

“Heritage sneakers are an important part of our business,” but perhaps not for long, he says. “Trends come and go.” He noted that retro basketball shoes are hot now, while retro running shoes were recently trendier.

Puma’s 2015 revenue was €3.4 billion, up from €2.9 billion a year earlier.

The retro-style trend has been decades in the making. In 1982, rap duo Run-DMC’s hit “My Adidas” breathed life into the company’s decade-old Superstar line. “I wanted to bring a positive representation to the sneakers that break dancers, DJs, MC’s and the graffiti writers were wearing,” says Darryl McDaniels, who goes by DMC and still wears Adidas.

When Madonna a decade later performed in old Adidas Gazelle sneakers, the company upped production of past best-sellers.

Nike jumped on Michael Jordan’s retirement in 1994 to reissue its Air Jordan basketball shoes from the 1980s. It did so again in 1998 when he retired a second time.

They’ve finally been around long enough to become classic.

—Russ Bengtson, senior editor at urban-culture site Complex.com

Today, sport shoes are generally split between “performance” models aimed at serious athletes and “lifestyle” footwear for people who don’t necessarily aim to break a sweat. Many of today’s lifestyle shoes are yesteryear’s performance models.

Nike, whose most popular back-catalog items stem from the 1980s and ’90s, has long been more aggressive at marketing and capitalizing on its retro products than Adidas or Puma, says John Guy, an analyst at MainFirst bank. Nike still sells more heritage sneakers than any rival, says NPD analyst Matt Powell.

Nike also owns Converse’s Chuck Taylor All-Stars, introduced nearly 100 years ago, which have long been in demand.

Nike says it saw “strong value in celebrating our heritage,” according to a spokesman, though reissued models use new materials and construction. Today’s Nike’s Air Max and Air Jordan retail for about $150 and $100, respectively.

What distinguishes today’s renaissance is who’s sporting sport shoes. Older sneakers from Adidas and Puma are kicking aside traditional dress shoes and opening new sartorial frontiers.

When Adidas relaunched Stan Smiths in 2014, it wooed the fashion world. High-end designers Phoebe Philo, Raf Simons and Marc Jacobs all wore the white-and-green leather sneaker. U.S. designer Alexander Wang presented catwalk outfits inspired by the shoe.

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Nike’s retro sales, such as past resurgences of Adidas and other heritage brands, largely have focused on young and athletic buyers. “Adidas is targeting a broader range of consumers,” says Matt Halfhill, founder of sneaker site Nicekicks.com.

Adidas appears to have a leg up on Nike in respectable retro, observers say, because its sneakers date back to when baby boomers were babies. Stan Smith played tennis when rackets were made of wood and sportswear essentially was modified casual attire.

Adidas’s retro models are “kind of ‘pre-style,’” says Mr. Bengtson at Complex.com. “People aren’t going to stop you on the street and say ‘Ew, that’s awful’.”

A delicate issue brands face managing the current fad is avoiding overexposure. Adidas executives admit they mishandled their Run-DMC lift by flooding the market and killing their own cachet.

Mr. Hoeld at Adidas says the company is managing retro popularity in “a very cohesive manner,” with a steady flow of variations to maintain interest.

Most important, says Mr. Gulden at Puma, is to limit marketing exuberance and “have a good balance between performance, new lifestyle shoes and heritage.”

Ellen Emmerentze Jervell at ellen.jervell@wsj.com



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