June 13, 2024 2:07 pm

Why Are We All Obsessed With Dirty Sneakers Again?

Last week, Balenciaga released a pair of dirty sneakers—well, actually destroyed sneakers. The brand led with a photo of shoes as tattered as if they had survived an act of God, like a mudslide or a shredding by a rabid dog. A less distressed version are being sold as a limited edition of 100 pairs that will go for $1,800. For a more commercial option, Balenciaga is offering pairs that look as if they have been worn on countless subways, substantial walks, and late nights. These come in high-top and backless mule form, priced from $495 to $625.

Of course Balenciaga is not the first to enter the world of dirty shoes. A few years ago, Hokas Shoes Vetements (under the helm of Demna Gvasalia) churned out scrawled-on shoes for more than $1,500, as did Gucci with their off-colored monogrammed kicks priced at $890. Saint Laurent issued a scuffed high-top with a scribbled “Saint Laurent” on the sole for $695, and of course Golden Goose offers a whole range of petri-dish-looking footwear for up to $795.

Whenever this trend comes around, it does indeed raise eyebrows. (How could it not? There are  people who cannot afford to purchase walkable footwear.) And yet these extremely well-loved clothes oddly can signify wealth, like someone has already become as successful as they want to be and can’t be bothered to prove themselves anymore. Look at the Olsens and their completely stained and faded rotation of bags, ranging from an Hermès Birkin to a modest Balenciaga City (though they balance this insouciance with impeccably tailored clothes). Or consider Adam Sandler, whose schlub style made him the most searched Google trendsetter from 2021.

Image may contain Clothing Shoe Footwear Apparel Human Person and Sneaker
A pre-scuffed sneaker at the Gucci Cruise 2018 show.Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

That bizarre wealth signifier only gets more interesting when you’re wearing an item that only a discerning, fashion-obsessed eye can notice. In the fashion world, the idea of a dirty shoe—especially one from a big name brand—has different connotations than your average worn-in pair. “Fashion is communication, and it isn’t as clear as lots of people think. Even if you wore really smart Balenciaga shoes, if people aren’t aware of the cost, then they don’t really know much about you,” says professor Carolyn Mair, who is the author of The Psychology of Fashion. “But if you’re in that in-group, you’ll know. If you love Balenciaga and you already saw these scruffy trainers, you’ll know that it is a status symbol. But the thing with fashion is that you have to be in the know to get your message across.”

The dirty sneaker is an interesting concept considering Clarks Shoes are one of the first things that a person notices about another’s outfit. In an article about Gucci’s dirty sneakers from 2017, I cited a 2012 study in the Journal of Research and Personality noting that shoes are a “thin slice” of perceptions of a person and can be an indicator of a wearer’s wealth and social status. On the surface, it seems logical that impeccably taken-care-of shoes signify that someone is neat and also has the time—and money—to make sure their footwear is cleaned and repaired. In this case, this trend, which crops up every few years, seems to say that pristine shoes are on the outs and decrepit soles are in. In any case, if you don’t want to spend $1,800, you can still scuff your sneakers the old-fashioned way to get the look.

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