When writing about dressing for the outdoors last week I mentioned that I recently had to retire my long-serving pair of hiking boots. This meant that, for the first time in about half a decade, I have been faced with the question of what walking shoes to buy.
To mix things up a little, I decided to go with something a tad out of my comfort zone. Most times when I’ve hit the trail over the last few years, I’ve done so in a set of sturdy but rather hot and heavy leather boots. On other occasions, when out running or occasionally on less athletic outings, I’ve also become increasingly keen on wearing trail runners instead of regular running shoes (for one thing, I find the wider tread agrees more with my crumbling 30-plus-year-old joints). So for my new walking shoes I wanted to get something that existed at the intersection of these outdoor options — ideally a lighter, synthetic, but nevertheless sturdy and waterproof pair of shoes that would see me through a range of outdoor terrains and climates.
After some consideration, it quickly became clear who the most obvious candidate in this category would be. As anyone who has been paying attention to outdoor clothing and mainstream fashion over the last few years would be quick to point out, Salomon has become something of a no-brainer in this particular category. Love it or hate it, there’s simply no avoiding this ever more ubiquitous entity.
Salomon is a brand I’ve been curious about for a few years now. I first clocked their shoes about a decade ago among a hardcore contingent of hikers and mountaineering types at my university. The kind of people who wear shorts even in winter and hiking boots regardless of context. I was quick to write them off as dull, ugly, and unworthy of consideration — the shoes, I mean, not the people wearing them (The latter always had a sense of weathered wholesomeness that was hard to dismiss, which in retrospect feels like an early sign that I should perhaps have taken their footwear choices more seriously).
Then a few years ago I started seeing Salomons pop up in some unexpected places. These shoes that I had dismissed as being irrevocably unsightly, suddenly started appearing with increasing frequency in some of the most glamorous settings imaginable. These erstwhile clodhoppers which I thought existed only in uninspiring shades of brown were being rapidly restyled ugly-duckling-like as some of the most eye-catching shoes on the market.
It turns out that my experience proved a pretty universal one by all accounts. Less than a decade ago — in seemingly no time at all and to the surprise of just about everyone who watched it happen — Salomon transformed itself from niche outdoor obscurity into a darling of mainstream fashion.
The full story begins back in 1947 when the company was founded in Annecy, a picturesque Alpine town in the southeast of France, by father and son duo François and Georges Salomon. At first, as a manufacturer of saw blades, they had nothing whatsoever to do with footwear, but with skiing beginning to take off internationally after the end of the Second World War, they set their sights on more sporty pursuits. Salomon pivoted to supplying skiing equipment and in time established themselves among the most trusted names in snowsport and mountaineering.
In fact, to trace the transformation of Salomon from being a small outfit making saw blades into a fashion darling strutting along runways reveals a canny, systematic progression that makes the whole metamorphosis seem a lot less unlikely. The key to their success appears to be some combination of being attuned to the needs of consumers and a flexible (albeit sometimes slow-moving) willingness to serve those needs in a high-quality manner.
It all started with making ski edges in 1947, then progressed through various binding innovations in the ’50s and ’60s (enough to turn Salomon into the world’s top-selling ski binding manufacturer by 1972, at which point they were producing a million of them annually), after which came their first foray into footwear with alpine ski boots in 1979. By the 1990s, they had expanded their reach to include the production of hiking footwear and, not long after, a growing range of gear and garments for a wide range of sporting activities, including snowboarding, inline skating, and surfing. In this way, over the course of several decades, they cannily inched their way from scrappy upstart to global outdoor supplier.
One of the most important developments in the context of Salomon’s current cultural standing came with the introduction of their first trail running shoes in the 2000s, particularly in the case of the Speedcross in 2006. By the company’s own account, the Speedcross was conceived of as a ‘very niche’ product, one that would sell ‘maybe 1,000 pairs in the beginning’. Instead, it became the brand’s signature shoe, selling in excess of a million pairs annually in Europe alone. What’s more is that it has transcended the ambit of trail running to become much more than a performance shoe.
The Speedcross’s big break in the fashion world happened in 2014 when it was unexpectedly picked up by The Broken Arm, an influential boutique that is, as GQ put it, ‘the Parisian ground zero of advanced taste’. It turns out two of the shop’s founders Romain Joste and Guillaume Steinmetz were keen trailrunners themselves and big fans of the Speedcross. In that same GQ piece, they sung its praises saying:
‘This shoe was created 12 years ago, but the design is still completely avant-garde and special. Salomon doesn’t try to be fashion, they try to propose an answer for the athlete of the hostile playground of a mountain. So first they think about function and materials, and sometimes it creates something stronger in terms of aesthetic than if you try to think of aesthetic first.’
With a covetous cosign from The Broken Arm duly issued, Salomon found themselves thrust into an entirely new domain. Luckily, conquering unfamiliar territory is pretty much the nature of their business. So the brand responded with a range of fashion-forward collaborations in subsequent years with uber cool creators and labels like Boris Bidjan Saberi, Palace, TheSoloist, And Wander, and others. They have also been adopted by celebs like Kanye West, Rihanna, Dev Hynes, and Emily Ratajkowski, alongside fashion royalty like Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo and long-time Salomon megafan, Ralph Lauren, who has famously worn them with everything from hardcore worwear to black tie.
The timing of all of this could not have been better. Salomon deftly capitalised on both the ugly shoe craze and the widespread embrace of technical wear in fashion to become one of the trendiest brands around — a sentence that few people would have believed were it written just ten years ago. According to Grailed, though:
‘Perhaps most impressive is that Salomon has managed to penetrate fashion—a new market for the company—without jeopardizing its identity. It has managed to make technical hiking shoes fashionable and cool, simply by doing what the company does so well, and impressing the right people along the way. It doesn’t appear to be a flash in the pan, either. By all indications, Salomon will be a mainstay in lifestyle and street fashion. The brand is now working with Études, CMMN SWDN, SSENSE, Dover Street Market and Totokaelo, in addition to The Broken Arm and Boris Bidjan Saberi, and claims that over 50 retailers have expressed some degree of interest in carrying lifestyle-driven Salomon shoes. As hiking wear continues to trend, Salomon will undoubtedly continue its expansion into fashion.’
That was written nearly four years ago and the hype has only grown in the interim. Salomon as a 75-year-old outdoor brand has an authenticity that can’t be faked and consumers can’t get enough of it. The company also seems to be doing a good job of not diluting their USP by dipping their toes in a new market. Those who love Salamon for their ski equipment and hiking shoes have not been given the boot in favour of a trendy fashion crowd, while the latter can rest assured that the brand’s lifestyle arm is the fastest-growing part of the business. However you slice it then, it seems safe to say Salomon isn’t going anywhere but up anytime soon.