BOOT HILL Hiking shoes are walking right over sneakers in climb to top of the casual-footwear market

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like any fashion-savvy teen-ager, Andy Cosner keeps his closet well stocked with the essentials of adolescent survival: boots. Three pairs of them. Boots?

That's right, today's young adults may not be hiking the Matterhorn en masse on weekends, but they've got the footwear to do it. And so do their parents, for that matter.

In fact, experts who follow the footwear industry say a nation that established Reeboks and Nikes as the height of casual fashion is trading in its gym shoes for boots -- bringing to an end one of the most enduring fashion trends in history.

"I used to wear tennis shoes. I've always worn Reeboks, but a lot of times boots are more comfortable and have better support. There's more padding involved," said Mr. Cosner, 18, who will graduate next month from Baltimore's City College High School.

Wearing boots -- made by such companies as Timberland, Doc Martens and even Nike -- is "very big" now, he said.

Sales of traditional "athletic footwear" -- the pricey sneakers familiar to teen-agers and their parents for the past two decades -- appear to have hit a peak of 379 million pairs in 1989. They have been on a steady decline ever since, hitting just 350 million last year, according to the newsletter Footwear Market Insights.

Meanwhile, sales of hiking boots have more than doubled, from 11 million pairs sold in 1992 to an estimated 28 million sold last year, according to the Nashville, Tenn., newsletter. Sales were up 22 percent last year alone. Meanwhile, athletic-shoe sales were off nearly 3 percent from the year before.

There are two chief reasons for the shift, says Michael Kormos, president and editor of the newsletter: "It is a function of wardrobe saturation and demographic changes."

Athletic shoes took the American marketplace by storm, creating a whole new category of footwear and adding a pair and a half of shoes to the average person's wardrobe between 1970 and 1990 -- something no other shoe trend has done in modern times. Whole new companies, like Nike, Reebok and L.A. Gear, blossomed.

"There's been nothing like the athletic shoe in the shoe industry," Mr. Kormos says.

However, people have stopped adding new models of gym shoes to their wardrobes. For manufacturers, most of the sales are now in the "replacement market," Mr. Kormos adds. And the country is aging, with the greatest growth in people 45 and older -- a group that has never been especially keen on gym shoes.

"Personally I think there is a degree of boredom, too. The athletic shoe has been around a long time," Mr. Kormos says.

Gym shoes have been a fixture in most closets for 50 years, going back to the days of the canvas Chuck Converse. In the 1970s, a boom in running led to a boom in running-shoe sales. But even then -- as now -- only about 20 percent of all athletic shoes were actually used for the intended sport.

The aerobics boom of the 1980s broadened the appeal of multi-purpose athletic shoes, especially among women. Soon it became an acceptable fashion: Women wore them with suits to work, changing at the office. David Letterman wore Nikes with his suits on the air. Cybill Shepherd even wore a pair of red gym shoes with a formal gown to an Emmy Awards ceremony.

Then, about five years ago a dowdy pair of black work boots called Doc Martens caught on, first in America's inner city, where creative resistence to mainstream fashion is a fashion in its own right. Doc Martens soon gave way to woodsier boots, part of a flannel and knit cap look in favor with hip-hoppers.

Rappers began wearing boots on music videos and eventually the style spread to the suburbs and TV programs such as "Beverly Hills 90210." Viewers of that show saw trendy, youthful actors wearing hiking boots and began wearing them, too, says Dan Kellams, a spokesman for the Athletic Footwear Association.

"I think people were looking for something new to wear," Mr. Kellams says.

Advances in materials, such as the breathable yet waterproof Gore-Tex, made possible a whole new class of lightweight, comfortable boots suitable for year-round wear. The boots movement was under way.

Don't worry about Nike. It and the other shoemakers were quick to spot the trend and soon developed products with names such as Pathfinder, Euro Hiker and Hi-Tec Lady Sierra Terra to compete with Timberland and other giants of the outdoors.

"The result is most of the outdoor footwear that is purchased today is made by athletic footwear makers," Mr. Kellams says.

And even if the total number of gym shoes sold is falling, sales as measured in dollars have remained stable because of the popularity of more expensive, specialized athletic shoes. Sales of $11.4 million last year were off only about 6 percent from the peak in dollar sales, $11.7 million posted in 1991.

Gym-shoe makers also can take some comfort in the fact that sales of hiking boots did not break through the $1 billion barrier until last year. Toss in sales of hunting and fishing shoes, and newfangled athletic sandals that are also popular, and the athletic-shoe industry is well prepared to chase the fickle fashion changes.

Andy Cosner, the City College senior, said he'll be "hiking the jungle of the city" this summer in one of his three pairs of boots.

"With the bus fare hikes -- and taxis are unbelievable -- a lot of people are walking a lot more," he said. "I think it's becoming less and less popular to wear plain tennis shoes."

SHOPPING GUIDE

BOOT HILL

PAGE 21 -- Euro Hiker boot, $110, by Timberland at Hecht's.

Pub Date: 5/16/96

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