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Sorry, These Big, Ugly Sneakers are Here to Stay

Jonah Weiner, the co-owner of the fashion newsletter Blackbird Spyplane, has been in a relationship with Hokas for years.

“I’ve had a saga of falling in and out of love that predates people knowing about them,” Mr. Weiner said in a phone call from Oakland, where he lives. After initially spotting the shoe in Outside magazine in 2015 (“they looked strange to me, in a way that I didn’t like in that moment, and yet they stayed with me”), he finally caved in 2018 and purchased an “unspecial pair” of Tor Ultra Lows he had seen older people wearing in a beloved Bay Area grocery store.

“I keep an eye on what the organic mushroom section is wearing,” he said, as any self-respecting hypebeast would.

In the fall of 2019, having bought a few more pairs for hiking, Mr. Weiner went to Zion National Park in Utah where, upon ingesting some hallucinogens, he crossed his legs and sat down. He wanted to see pleasing, harmonious, natural shapes in his altered state. And then he glanced at his feet.

“I was high, tripping on mushrooms, and they just looked so alien and unsettling, with that big fat sole,” he said, “I knew I had to liquidate my collection.” Which he did.

The trend spotter may simply have been ahead of his time. Hokas have been on a rocket ship to the upper echelons of sneaker brands, buffeted by the trend winds of “ugly shoes” during the pandemic, word-of-mouth among older and injured people and the brand’s utility to serious runners. Its hiking models (Anacapa), everyday shoes (Clifton) and trail runners (Speedboat) are instantly recognizable, with a bulbous sole that looks to be made of insulation foam and dreamy colorways that favor creamy orange and turquoise blue.

Celebrities, as well as runway designers, have given the shoes a warm embrace: Britney Spears was a fairly early adopter, tweeting pictures of herself in a blue pair in 2017. Gwyneth, Reese, Pippa — all have been photographed exercising or running errands in them.

Collaborations have helped Hokas reach a stylish crowd.Credit…Bodega x HOKA

It has not gone unnoticed that the pandemic’s shift toward comfort has been good to a shoe company built around the idea of a giant, cushy sole, but Steven Doolan, the vice president and general manager of Hoka North America, says that its growth trajectory predates Covid and work-from-wherever living. The brand was founded in 2009 and acquired in 2013 by Deckers, the same company that owns Ugg. Hoka now makes up 36 percent of its parent company’s revenue, up from 21 percent two years ago. In 2022, it broke the billion dollar mark in sales.

In earnings released in early February, Hoka’s dominance only increased, with its parent company reporting a 90 percent growth in Hoka sales from the same quarter last year, collecting over $350 million in revenue.

“It’s a growth brand,” said Drew Haines, the director of sneakers and collectibles at Stock X, a resale marketplace that, in its August report, named Hoka as the fastest growing sneaker brand. (In its January report, Hoka fell into the No. 2 stop, with year-over-year growth of 713 percent.)

“I live here in Miami, and I see people in Hokas in restaurants and bars,” Mr. Haines said. It’s a comfort thing but also a form thing. People are wearing them because it’s stylish and trendy.

It’s true that, as unlikely as it may have seemed a few years ago, Hokas are stylish and trendy. Their first fans were not sneakerheads, though. Hokas began their life in the French Alps, when three athletes and product developers, Nico Mermoud, Jean-Luc Diard and Christophe Aubonnet, collaborated on a trail-running sneaker that hit stores in 2010. From the beginning, the shoe had the oversize sole, an innovation designed to help people run down steep hills and mountains. According to Outside magazine, the first idea was to make a slip-on that you could put over your shoes. The big soles had a functional lineage, a kind of “oversized technology that had been successfully used in powder skis, mountain bike wheels and tennis rackets.”

Word spread quickly in the running community in the United States after a runner in Boulder, Colo., bought 770 pairs to sell after seeing the shoe at a trade show. By the end of 2010, it was on best-of lists and adopted by elite athletes.

But Hoka would not be where it is today if only runners had embraced the bulbous sneaker. Mr. Doolan, who has been with the company for 13 years, attested to the growth in markets, agreeing that the company is, broadly speaking, reaching streetwear and fashion types as well as runners, older people or anyone who is injured or needs a reason to embrace comfort.

Go bold or go home.Credit…HOKA

“I’d like to tell you that we had incredible sales and marketing in the early years, but we didn’t,” he said. “We had some individuals who truly believed in Hokas, as a brand, and would go out there and tell their stories.”

It’s hard to overstate the multigenerational appeal of the shoes. Hoka is still small, relative to juggernauts like Nike or Reebok. Mr. Doolan says that the company has only 440 individual unique shoes for men and women in different colors and widths. (A Harvard project estimated that Nike has 10,000.) Somehow, though, the shoes have crossed into the mainstream.

Many people, including those who work in the sneaker industry, learned about Hokas from their parents. “The first pair that I saw were ones that my dad had bought,” Mr. Haines said. “He’s in his 60s, an older guy who needs the best comfort and cushioning.” Dr. Karen Onel, the chief of pediatric rheumatology at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, said that her life was “literally changed” when she bought a pair a few years ago after suffering ankle and foot pain. Her youngest daughter recoiled from the giant soles when her mother began wearing them.

“My daughter, a senior at Cornell, called me last week and said, ‘I’m going to buy Hokas,’” Dr. Onel said. “I was like, ‘Excuse me? You swore you would never wear them.’” Dr. Onel laughed at this turnaround but noted that since she had gotten her Hokas, they have popped up in more and more places. “I’m a pediatrician and now I see the fashionistas, the fancy women, in them,” she said. “They are taking over New York City.”

Dr. Onel also noted that Hokas have replaced Dansko clogs as the go-to footwear for hospital workers who are on their feet all day — and are, of course, in a position to recommend shoes to people who have foot trouble themselves.

But as time passes, and the pandemic drive for total comfort gives way to other trends, one wonders whether the plush Hokas will remain ascendant. Mr. Doolan acknowledged that the pandemic trends have been kind to his brand but said that its evolution in shoe “geometry,” the insight that more cushioning could have benefits for trail runners, is not over.

“Anyone of the competitive set, they all have a shoe today that looks like a Hoka,” Mr. Doolan said. “I would be willing to state and debate that Hoka has changed the way running footwear is designed today in a way that hasn’t happened in a generation.”

Hoka aims to keep moving. Mr. Doolan said that the company would introduce a kid’s line this spring and will keep pushing designer collaborations. In January, it announced a line with the British designer Jean-Luc Ambridge, who’s “big in gorpcore,” per Mr. Doolan.

And then there’s the trend spotter himself, Mr. Weiner. He has watched the mainstream adoption of Hokas, and like many who were initially thrown by the shoe’s proportions, his eyes have adjusted.

“It’s not just ugly,” he said. “There is actual considered design that results in something surprising and genius.” In September, he purchased a pair of reissued taupe Tor Ultra Lows, the shoe that had triggered his Hoka sell-off at Zion only a few years before. So far, he said, so good.

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