A series of decisions changed the market
Ever since 1998 and the launch of the original Nike Mercurial, synthetic boots have slowly gone from being a small part of the market to becoming the dominant force. This accelerated after 2014 with Nike launching the Magista Obra which led to the rise of knit boots. These days, almost every single major brand either has a majority of their boots made out of synthetic or knit. For a while it even seemed as if many of the brands would drop leather boots from their lineup. Although leather has become more prevalent again thanks to brands either releasing high quality product (like Mizuno) or finding a new way to blend tech and traditional leather (like adi’s fusionskin), leather is no longer the highest selling material in the boot market.
At first, the reasons for the change seem fairly obvious. Over time more and more people simply bought more synthetic and knit boots over leather. It seems as if people had also been wanting lighter and more streamlined boots. A lot of players see leather boots as being bulkier and less responsive. And in quite a few cases both of the previous statements are right. But if we begin to dig a little deeper, we can understand that this is not the case.
Part of the reason why leather boots began to lose their popularity is because a lot of brands brought product to the market that didn’t have anything interesting about them. I absolutely love leather boots, but if you look at a lot of the leather boots around in the late 90’s and early 2000’s especially, there wasn’t a lot of difference between some of them. This obviously didn’t apply to every leather boot at the time, with the Predator series, the Mizuno Wave Cups, and others. But boots like the Lotto Stadio, Tiempo Premier in addition to others were far too similar and outside of brand loyalty as well as price there wasn’t much to differentiate between them. Brands just decided to go where the market was trending towards.
Another reason is because the cost of import tariffs on leather products began going up over time so brands had to learn to make their leather products cheaper to make, which made the boots not as nice or appealing, which led to sales dropping, which led to brands not wanting to invest the time and money into leather boots. It was a vicious cycle the only started let off in the past few years. But because the cost of importing leather boots rose in so many countries, brands decided to start putting their money towards developing synthetic and knit boots which didn’t suffer from as high tariffs.
But the biggest and probably least thought about reason why leather boots dropped off so much in popularity is to do with the brands themselves. It can be strongly argued that leather boots became less popular because the brands decided to make them less popular. Leather is more expensive to produce than a synthetic or knit. While the initial cost of a new synthetic or knit material tends to be quite high, it gets cheaper as time goes on. This is why Nike uses Flyknit on everything, since they don’t have to re-invent the wheel with every new boot. Starting with Nike, brands saw an opportunity lower their longer-term costs which allowed them to have higher profits. It is always about the money when it comes down to it. This is also why so many modern leather boots from the big brands have nowhere near as much leather as they used to, and takedown models are rarely full leather in any of the “traditional” silos. It is all to mitigate the costs.
It didn’t have to be this way either. Brands could have easily continued the innovate with leather but following Nike’s lead, many chose not to. This is why brands like Mizuno stand out so much and have such a loyal following. They are willing to take the time and spend the money to develop higher tech leather boots. Same with adidas and the Fusionskin uppers that the Copa series has. The fact that Nike can’t come up with anything to truly compete with either of these shows not only how far behind they have fallen with leather boots, but also how unwilling they are to make that financial commitment. Nike also knows that they can’t get away with charging the same prices as Mizuno and adidas because their leather boots are nowhere near the same standard.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if at some point in the near future Nike stops offering a leather Legend completely. After all, it has quietly been their goal since at least 2010. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that Nike will be the first brand without a leather boot in their line-up at some point in the future.
In the meantime, other brands will be more than happy to play in that gap in the market that some of the bigger brands have left. It’s doubtful leather will ever go away.
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