Home / Celebrity Style / ‘It connects first ladies with rap stars’: why the white trainer defined the decade

‘It connects first ladies with rap stars’: why the white trainer defined the decade

You own the It shoe of this decade already, even if you don’t know it. I’m not talking about the fur-lined backless Gucci loafer that nearly broke the internet in 2015. Nor do I mean the girls-night-out vibes of the deathless Valentino Rockstud, with its studded straps. I have no idea whether you own the Isabel Marant Dicker ankle boot, the one that never seems to leave the Paris front row.

I’m talking about your white trainers. Your Adidas Stan Smiths, perhaps. Or maybe you recently bought into the new ethical brand, Veja. You might wear Reebok Classic or Nike Cortez or have gone full ironic dad-trainer in chunky Fila. Possibly you are loyal to a pair of Converse worn thin as a cotton T-shirt. Maybe you’ve bought a new pair of white trainers this year already; maybe you’ve been wearing the same pair for five. Maybe you keep them in a box and clean them with a special toothbrush. Maybe you didn’t even know that keeping trainers in a box and cleaning them with a toothbrush was a thing.

Zoom out on the optics of a decade as it draws to a close, and the zeitgeist comes into focus. When you look at the big picture of the last 10 years – of catwalk shows and front rows, of street style and wellness, of Netflix-and-chill and gender-fluid wardrobes, of athleisure and the new rules of workwear – a constellation of white trainers twinkles across the board, touching every zone of fashion. The white trainer unites sportswear giants with niche brands, crosses from menswear to womenswear. It connects the young with school-run mums, first ladies with rap stars, style obsessives with utilitarian dressers. And it defies burnout: white sneaker sales are booming.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sets a white trainer example in Sydney. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

It was the last decade, not this one, that was supposedly obsessed with shoes. And in the noughties, “shoes” meant “heels”. Sex And The City ran from 1998 to 2004, during which time only the balls of Carrie Bradshaw’s feet touched the ground. A passion for beautiful but impractical shoes was a badge of honour. Spending a pay packet on a pair of trophy shoes became a rite of passage. (In the words of Carrie Bradshaw, “I want you to know I’m getting married – to myself. And I’m registered at Manolo Blahnik.”) In 2008, the year she became a designer, Victoria Beckham pushed back on an interviewer who queried how she could work in heels by saying that, on the contrary, she “couldn’t concentrate” in flats.

Phoebe Philo at the Celine show in 2011. Photograph: Michel Dufour/WireImage

The white trainer trend that came to define this decade was born on 6 March 2011. Fashion editors all remember the day Phoebe Philo took her bow in Paris, after her fourth Celine show, wearing an olive green rollneck, straight cut trousers and white Adidas Stan Smiths. She was on the catwalk for seven seconds, but that was enough. A new era of cool, grown-up minimalism was dawning, and this shoe was the perfect fit.

The Adidas Stan Smith has a paperback-slim sole. Compared to the Tiggerish bounce of an Air Max, it lends itself to a quiet, padding gait. The circular rise at the heel, with a flash of green, is a nod to the tennis ball. With an aesthetic that is not aggressively active, it was the perfect sports shoe to infiltrate fashion. In 2013, the supermodel Gisele appeared in French Vogue, styled by editor Emmanuelle Alt and photographed by Inez Vinoodh, wearing Stan Smiths, white socks and nothing else; cult status was assured. A timely reissue in 2014 capitalised on its cool, and within months everyone at Frieze art fair was wearing Stan Smiths; a year later, every fortysomething-but-still-got-it mum, from Samantha Cameron to your local playground, was wearing them, too.

The Stan Smith changed how we wore trainers, because it bridged the gap between the obsessive “sneakerhead” and a wider fashion culture, which until then had viewed trainers as something to be worn to the gym, on the commute, or by teenagers. Trainers as a status symbol used to be something you grew out of. Now, trainers are a front-row staple.

The white trainer as status symbol is a shapeshifter. It can be fuelled by scarcity, as Kanye West’s Yeezy brand was, in his pre-Trump-supporting glory days. It can be hyped by an inflated price tag. (The Off-Court high-top by Off-White retails for £415.) It can be grounded in decades of with-the-band backstory (the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star) or bedazzled with Bond Street glamour (Gucci’s Ace trainers have distinctive red and green livery, and embroidered golden bees). It can be knowingly ironic (the cartoonishly inflated lines of the Balenciaga Triple S) or conspicuously virtuous (Meghan Markle’s V-10s by Veja.)

Jennifer Aniston shows how to nail white trainers with jeans and a blazer. Photograph: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP/Getty Images

Searches for white sneakers on the global fashion search platform Lyst are 152% up on 2014. Most searched for right now are: Adidas Stan Smiths, Converse Chuck Taylors, Common Projects Achilles, Nike Air Force 1 ’07 SE, and Meghan’s Veja V-10s. At high street store Schuh, the bestseller is the classic Nike Air Force 1, with the all-white Fila Disruptor a close second.

The contrast between dressed-up and dressed-down used to be epitomised by women in skirt suits wearing incongruous trainers on their commute, with heels in their handbags ready for a quick change on a doorstep or in the office loo. The casualisation of dress codes has seen this scenario sidelined. The popularity of the white trainer is partly down to the fact that it is almost a negative image of the black brogue or loafer of traditional workwear, and can be worn in much the same way. A white trainer has a minimalism that blends seamlessly into a wardrobe of tailored clothes, shirting, clean-lined knits and block colours. Where power dressing for women once meant lacquered hair, red lipstick and heels, it now means white trainers with a trouser suit for day (as worn by Kate Moss), or with jeans and a blazer on the red carpet, as seen on Jennifer Aniston.

Not all cult trainers are white. The Balenciaga Triple S has seen some eye-popping colourways (Lucozade orange with sky blue, lemon with Pepto-Bismol pink), while the £1,080 Gucci Flashtrek has brightly coloured gemstones and faux pearls strapped over panels of metallic lilac and silver, and a swollen sole the colour and texture of a Werther’s Original. But it is the white trainer that has become a classic. Among fashion show-goers, white has virtually replaced black as the default shoe colour.

As clothes have become more colourful, the black shoe has lost its footing. It used to look sophisticated; now it looks basic. And clothes now need to look good on screen. Colourful clothes get more hits from online shoppers, and more likes on Instagram – and where technology leads, taste follows. The shoe’s summeriness is also increasingly fashionable. White shoes are traditionally associated with summer – in the US, etiquette once dictated they were not to be worn after Labor Day in September – and summer fashion, once an afterthought, has become big business. Alongside the rise of social media and the performative summer holiday has come the business of styling it – with inflatable flamingos for the pool, a kaftan wardrobe and white shoes. Lyst reports its highest search rate for white trainers came last August.

For retailers, the white trainer has the added appeal of built-in obsolescence. The boxfresh dazzle of a new pair is a dopamine hit that wears off as the grime sets in – making repeat purchases necessary. Or that was the case until this year, when Gucci launched its “vintage, distressed” Screener, which sells for £615 and comes with the ground-in grime and Tarmac-tinted scuffs that would take 10 years to achieve naturally. So if you’ve been wearing your white trainers all decade, you’re in luck: they are more in vogue now than ever.

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