Some trends take a while to hold water. Over the past year or so, there has been plenty of praise and hand-wringing regarding the aesthetic grip that water-adjacent, normcore shoes—such as Crocs, the Vibram FiveFingers, or the Merrell Hydro Moc—has assumed over the footwear realm. But for all the splashy headlines, the legitimate fashion crossover of conventionally unattractive, tactical footwear into the mainstream has felt like a slow burn. Clunky water sandals felt akin to the puffy dad sneaker craze, but about its non-sandal, non-sneaker sibling? Make way for the slim, kicky silhouette of the literal water shoe, just like the slip-one ones you might have been forced to wear at summer camp as a kid.
But here’s the thing. For grown-ups, water shoes, when worn in or around a body of water, are practical. Water shoes, when worn nowhere near a body of water, are freaky.
So, freaky it is. As recently as yesterday, amphibious footwear—as apparently those in the industry call it—is coming at us from all sides. At London Fashion Week, Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena, the design duo behind the freaky-deaky, folkloric brand Chopova Lowena, showed their first foray into menswear, underlined by pairs of grippy little water shoes in blue and pink. And while presumably not actually waterproof, Kanye West and Adidas introduced a new Yeezy shape, the “KNIT RNR,” which the internet likened to both Mickey Mouse’s mustard-hued, absolute-unit footwear and, you guessed it, water shoes. (Interestingly enough, the Knit Runner’s predecessor, the Foam Runner, is partially made from hydroponically produced algae.) And like any good 2020s microtrend, this one’s gender neutral; at the Sandy Liang presentation in New York earlier this month, models came down the runway in mini dresses and softshell Salomon Snow Mocs. Water… sometimes it freezes!
Perhaps this can all be traced back to Balenciaga’s apocalyptic fall 2020 presentation, which has proven to be as, if not more, prophetic as it seemed at the time. Taking place on the first day of March 2020 in Paris, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down Europe, Demna Gvasalia sent rubberized, suspended-heel FiveFingers toe shoes down a runway covered in water, its coveted front-row seats entirely submerged. A few months later, West released the aforementioned Foam Runner, whose otherworldly, trypophobia-triggering silhouette quickly became so ubiquitous (and meme’d) that it’s startling to remember that they were only released last summer. And of course, as the stars would cross, Ye made Balenciaga FW20 part of his—and his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian West’s—official uniform for the Donda era.
But the question remains: who’s actually wearing these? For all of their Balenciaga love, neither Kim nor Kanye have taken the frog leap into a pair of Demna-designed toe shoes. (Rihanna, naturally, has been spotted in a heeled version.) For all of the trend pieces, when are we going to start seeing people wear softshell water shoes to the mall? There’s something polarizing about its second-skin construction—so flush to the foot, nearly demure—that toes the line of vulnerability. But a Kanye co-sign has a way of making the most unlikely things cool. Perhaps the tides are turning.