The Newest Addition to the Office Wardrobe? Serious Athletic Sneakers


When Adam and Ryan Goldston founded the footwear company APL—an abbreviation for Athletic Propulsion Labs—in 2009, their goal was to improve sports performance. The brand’s first release, Concept 1, introduced a proprietary technology that allows wearers to jump higher. It garnered immediate attention and was quickly banned by the NBA in 2010.

Their next move was a running sneaker line, and the fashion world took notice. “Our first retailer for men’s sneakers was Saks Fifth Avenue, and right away we became the two top-selling shoes there,” Ryan says. “It was evidence that there were men who wanted products that spoke to them in many different ways.”

In 2016 the Goldston brothers became the first people from an athletic brand to be inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America—proof that performance wear could be considered a form of luxury fashion.

The global sneaker industry generated $131.1 billion in 2021, according to a report from Allied Market Research. It’s anticipated to be valued at $215.6 billion a year by 2031. One of the main reasons for this continued growth, the report says, is that people are wearing sneakers in new environments—the office among them.

A pair of Nike Air Pegasus ‘83 SE sneakers in pail ivory and stadium green are now appropriate for the office.Photographer: Evan Ortiz/Bloomberg

Buttoned-up workplaces have already begun to embrace sporty footwear as professional attire. “Offices in the US have been leaning away from penny loafers and more toward self-expression,” says Mel Peralta, brand vice president at Atmos, who leads the global streetwear retailer’s partnerships with brands such as Adidas. “Businesses are saying, ‘We’re listening to our teams.’ You can look so much more stylish and be 10 times more comfortable.”

Inder Bhatia, general manager of North America for the Japanese footwear brand Onitsuka Tiger, agrees. “The transition into business casual with cool sneakers has been going on for years,” he says. (Onitsuka is the purveyor of the unisex Mexico 66 silhouette sported by Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films.) “People want to express themselves, and having cool and colorful sneakers is one way of doing that,” he says.

These aren’t the “office sneakers” of yesteryear—the woven suede slip-ons from Bottega Veneta, the shiny cap-toed kicks from Lanvin or the monochromatic offerings from Common Projects and Maison Margiela. Now athletic sneakers from Allbirds, APL, Asics, New Balance, Nike, and other fitness brands are included in the list of business-acceptable options.

Instead of the staid brown, tan, navy, and black of traditional dress shoes, these athletic shoe companies are embracing bold combinations of hues. As Ryan says, “If you are sitting at your desk and you look down and you’ve got a colorful pair of shoes on, it makes you feel good.”

The decision often starts with the commute. “I love to wear sneakers, as they help me get to work and meetings much quicker by walking and taking the subway,” says architect and designer Jeffrey Beers, the founder and chief executive officer of New York-based studio Jeffrey Beers International. “When I come into World Trade 7 wearing a pair, it’s a sign that my focus will be on my studio and our design projects.”

The transition into business casual with cool sneakers has been going on for years.Photographer: Westend61/Westend61

In decades past, workers would swap out their commuting sneakers for something dressier. But a new category of footwear—called “luxury performance” by APL—now means the second pair has been staying home. “There’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to wear performance footwear throughout the day,” says APL’s Adam. “It’s comfortable. It gives you tons of support. We always set out to make it so that you can change your clothes throughout the day but keep your footwear the same.”

Material innovations have also contributed to an improvement in the way sneakers feel. “We love to leverage natural materials like merino wool, eucalyptus tree fibers and castor bean oil,” says Ashley Comeaux, vice president for product design at Allbirds, a Silicon Valley favorite. These soft, breathable, flexible materials can be beneficial in office settings where employees are on their feet for extended periods of time. The quiet, lightweight design of Allbirds doesn’t clack on an office floor, either.

Underscoring these developments is the belief that feeling good can also be dressy. An Atmos collaboration with New Balance resulted in the future-forward 2002R shoe in cybernetics blue, inspired by The Terminator’s T-800 character. “New Balance has taken their technology, and they’ve been able to say, ‘You don’t need to be running in the New York City Marathon in order to wear these,’ ” says Atmos’ Peralta.

Other collaborations—such as menswear designer Todd Snyder for Vans or footwear trailblazer Ronnie Fieg and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for New Balance—have also elevated the perception of sneakers.

“Sneakers have become so much more than just a piece of exercise equipment,” says Sarah Slutsky, a stylist for the Wall Group. She’s styled pairs from companies such as Paris-based vegan brand Veja with a full-suit look that swaps a collared shirt for a basic tee. The sneakers, then, become “a symbol of hobbies, preferences and lifestyle,” she says.

These changes, both technical and cultural, are starting to outweigh tradition. “People work better when they feel better,” says stylist Michael Fisher. With the emergence of the luxury performance sector, ethical material advancements, and a range of possibilities for personal expression, the acceptance of athletic sneakers in the workplace speaks as much about an employer as it does an employee.

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