At first blush, the footwear and beauty categories couldn’t be more different. Heels, sneakers, boots and sandals seem to have nothing in common with makeup, skin care and fragrances in terms of the actual products and the functions they serve.
And yet, a closer look at the industries at large have revealed startling similarities between the two, with sweeping trends that have shaped, disrupted or propelled them forward.
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“If you think of the bigger trends that are happening in beauty — gender neutrality, inclusivity, sustainability and more — they can also be applied to the footwear industry,” said Larissa Jensen, executive director and beauty industry analyst at market research consultancy The NPD Group Inc. “These are broader changes that both of these industries are trying to work through; it’s what legacy brands are doing to keep themselves relevant.”
And a side-by-side revenue comparison shows that one isn’t significantly outpacing the other either. Rather, both are seeing steady growth in their respective markets: For January to August, the U.S. footwear industry is up 2%, while beauty is up 1%, according to data from NPD.
What’s driving this growth? What are they doing right? And how can they do better? For two industries that are dissimilar in so many ways, we pinpointed five areas in which footwear and beauty share common ground and are learning from one another.
1. Paying attention to digitally native brands
Across every product category, digitally native brands have been responsible for completely disrupting the retail landscape. Both the footwear and beauty industries have seen their fair share of nimble, internet-born startups that have been able to cut through a saturated market to bring to their consumers a level of unheard-of transparency, accessibility and affordability — all without compromising design integrity or quality.
In footwear, some of the biggest direct-to-consumer breakouts have been Allbirds with its comfort-driven runners crafted from both wool and tree fibers; Rothy’s, known for its commuter-friendly woven flats; and Veja, whose eco-conscious sneakers are now a fashionista essential. All three are digitally native and all were born with a do-good mission embedded in their DNA. More on that later.
While startups exist in beauty, some of the buzzier labels in the space lack some of the virtues of such shoe brands, though that hasn’t necessarily hurt them. Kylie Jenner, for example, harnessed her fame to help launch her hyped-up beauty brand Kylie Cosmetics, which is said to have sold out of its lip kits in 10 minutes on the first day. Another breakout is Emily Weiss’ millennial-favorite brand Glossier, which disrupted the space with its cute packaging and a more-accessible approach to beauty. ColourPop, too, quickly amassed a huge following for its insanely affordable, trend-driven offerings.
But all digital-natives have one characteristic in common: to serve the consumers and what they’re demanding. “For both industries, it’s the younger generations that are driving the changes we’re seeing in digital natives,” Jensen said.
She notes that the one thing in beauty that’s largely missing from footwear is the rise in women-founded and women-led brands. “Female founders is something that’s relatively newer, and if you’re looking at our data [at NPD], these brands that are founded by women are growing double digits in the softer market. Sharing your story and explaining why your brand is important — that’s big right now, especially in an industry that primarily targets women but is run by men. I think this movement — around more female-founded brands — is going to continue and hopefully, change things for the better.”
2. Practicing sustainability & banking on wellness
As the large international marches and online campaigns have highlighted this year, climate change is at the forefront of many people’s minds. In fact, in a 2019 CivicScience survey by NPD, it found that 40% of consumers say eco-friendly or sustainable materials are important to them.
“Sustainability is a huge trend,” said Beth Goldstein, executive director and fashion footwear and accessories analyst at NPD. “Consumers — and particularly those of younger generations — are shopping smarter and letting manufacturers and retailers know they intend to purchase from brands that embrace the same values they do.”
Startup footwear brands that prioritize sustainability — such as Allbirds, Rothy’s, Veja and Everlane — already have a leg up in that area by developing product from day one made from plant-based materials or upcycled plastic fibers. “Everyone is trying to find a way to be more sustainable and it’s not easy nor cheap,” Jensen said. “It’s especially difficult if you have a legacy brand that’s been in the market for 100-plus years.” That’s not to say it’s impossible. Adidas Parley is one shining example of a how an established brand can make strides in the world of sustainability.
As for beauty, Jensen says “sustainability is still a work in progress,” though there are brands that pride themselves on ethical goodness with their natural, locally sourced, “farm-to-face” products, including Tata Harper, Juice Beauty, Farmacy and Vintner’s Daughter. Consumers, too, have taken it upon themselves to reduce environmental waste with the #ShopYourStash movement that encourages finishing existing products before buying new ones.
But it’s clean beauty, which could be a $25 billion industry by 2025, that’s making more of an impact. An offshoot of the overarching wellness and self-care trends, clean beauty promises formulas that are stripped free of bad-for-you ingredients like parabens, synthetics, phthalates, ethanolamines and other toxins. Since beauty is a self-regulated industry, each retailer or brand has a different definition on what “clean beauty” means.
“Natural brands in skin care are what’s driving that category right now because it’s tied to wellness,” said Jensen, calling attention to the fact that the skin care category is up 7%. “Brands that come across as natural or are actually natural are performing at a stronger rate than the overall category.”
Similarly, Goldstein has found that wellness is manifesting itself as comfort in footwear, which is “part of the driver for the athleisure category and fashion footwear.” In fact, she said much of the growth in the industry can be attributed to the demand for sport leisure or the “fashion athletic” category.
3. Embracing inclusivity
When Rihanna launched her Fenty Beauty makeup line in 2017 with an incredibly inclusive range of 40 (and now 50) foundation shades, it was completely unprecedented at the time. It sparked the “Fenty Effect,” driving other beauty brands to, for the first time, cater to women of all colors. “For many years, a brand would come out with a foundation range of about 12 to 15 shades,” Jensen recalled. “Now, if you come out with less than 45, you get called out.”
That trend hasn’t quite caught on in the same way in footwear. However, major high-end brands like Stuart Weitzman and Christian Louboutin have made headlines for expanding the shade range on their nude shoes, but there continues to be a void in the market at a contemporary price point. Which is precisely what Rebecca Allen wanted to address with her namesake line of nude pumps for women of color.
“I worked in finance for years as a black woman, and all the white women wore nude pumps — it was such a wardrobe staple because it went with everything,” said Allen, who in her own research found that, on average, white women owned four to five pairs of nude shoes. “I couldn’t find a nude in my shade.”
She added that a black pump felt heavy during warmer weather, a natural brown leather style wasn’t dressy enough and wearing the standard-issue nude color “looked ridiculous, like a pop of color instead of that elongating, seamless-leg look.” After a year of perfecting the color palette, she launched her brand in spring ’18 with five shades. “It was important to me to have no one left out of the conversation,” she continued. “I wanted to define women of color broadly, from Southeast Asian women to Latinas.”
But in footwear, skin tone isn’t the only issue left out of the inclusivity conversation. “There are plenty of other opportunities for the [footwear] industry to become more inclusive in terms of size and width options and ease of use,” Goldstein said. “Some brands are offering adaptive footwear — designing products with those with disabilities in mind — which can lead to a really good product from which all can benefit. Beauty was a pioneer in inclusive marketing by using ‘real’ women, and fashion and footwear brands have begun to follow suit.”
4. Going gender-neutral
Another area of inclusion getting attention in the beauty market is gender neutrality. Not only is there greater representation in marketing with models of different races and ages, but there’s more acceptance of all genders. CoverGirl made history by tapping James Charles as its first CoverBoy. And Jensen notes that some of the biggest beauty influencers are men, pointing to Charles, Jeffree Star and Patrick Starrr as examples.
While beauty is beginning to prioritize gender neutrality, unisex footwear has been around for years in such classic styles with universal appeal as the Adidas Stan Smith, Vans Slip-Ons, Crocs clogs, Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, Dr. Martens and Timberland 6-inch boots. But with ballet flats making more than one appearance on the spring ’20 runways during Men’s Fashion Week, at Thom Browne, Dries Van Noten and Jil Sander, the industry is beginning to see the first signs of true gender fluidity.
“[Men’s ballet flats are] probably not going to be a huge trend, but it’s indicative of a shift in mind-set,” Goldstein remarked.
5. Watching the economy
Like the larger retail world, the shoe and beauty industries are readying themselves for the economic impact of looming tariff increases on imports from China. The Trump administration is expected to impose an additional 15% tariff on Dec. 15, on $300 billion in Chinese imports, including footwear, apparel and other consumer products.
A recent analysis by NPD forecasts that necessities will be affected the least. And even though some aspects of beauty are not essentials, like fragrances and makeup, Jensen argues that certain elements, like cleansers and moisturizers, are necessities to consumers. It’s why she believes that, along with today’s emphasis on wellness, skin care is up 7% while makeup is down 5% (even in light of HBO’s immensely influential hit show “Euphoria” and its liberal use of experimental beauty looks).
“And if you were to bring it back to footwear, it’s why heels aren’t doing as well,” Jensen continued. “If you wanted to compare the two, heels are like makeup; it’s an extra thing that gives you the boost, while comfortable flat shoes like sneakers are performing well.”
But Goldstein makes a difference case. Looking back at the last recession, she recalled that the beauty industry stayed afloat while footwear struggled because a new lipstick or eye shadow was more affordable than an outfit or a pair of shoes. “I would expect this to happen again,” she reasoned.
Then again, it’s hard to determine what’s in store for both. At the end of the day, it boils down to how consumers choose to spend their money, and today they have a tremendous amount of power. “The Internet allows for customers to be intentional and mindful of who they support,” Allen said. “They’re savvy, they demand transparency and they have the ability to vote with their wallet.”