Fashion is a game of taste. A new roast-worthy sneaker debuts every week and with it comes a corresponding deluge of ridicule, humor and scathing criticism. One need look no further than the comment section of any new shoe for proof. Long before the Under Armour “Chef Curry” 2 Lows erred the wrath of sneakerheads worldwide, however, there was another sporty sneaker that suffered the slings and arrows of streetwear’s sharp-tongued critics: the Nike Roshe Run.
The original Roshe Run was introduced to the public back in 2012 as an affordable, minimalist entry in the runner category. The selling point for many was that the shoe’s EVA sole did not require the use of a mold, allowing the silhouette to hit a modest $70 price point. Drawing on his own experiences meditating, Nike designer Dylan Raasch took inspiration from the aesthetic simplicity and balance of Zen Buddhist gardens: the sole was inspired by steppingstones; the insole imitated the look of a freshly-raked lawn of sand; even the original “Iguana” colorway took cues from the moss found growing in and around temples. Roshe is actually pronounced “roshi,” based on the Rōshi title bestowed upon Zen Buddhist masters, but the name had to be changed for legal reasons.
The shoe’s Zen inspiration shone through in its publicity run, or rather the lack thereof. The affordable sneaker was released without a promotional campaign: that means no press release, no flashy videos or short films, no celebrity endorsements. Nike let the product speak for itself. The entire Roshe project was an exercise in lean, minimal marketing and a case study in bypassing the hype cycle. The Roshe became both ubiquitous and effectively resale-proof, while still retaining an air of collectibility. On paper, the Roshe ticks many of the boxes that fashion-savvy consumers look out for.
At first, response was nearly unanimously positive: the Roshe was welcomed warmly be sneaker blogs and the public at large. The shoes spawned a cult-like following: the TeamRoshe community on Instagram, for example, has amassed a following of nearly 300K followers. Nike began rolling out sneakerboot silhouettes that incorporated some of the Roshe’s elements, as well as more luxe, upscale, and exclusive colorways and collaborations. The affordable runner had a noted influence on the silhouette and style of the much-coveted adidas Yeezy Boost 350, so much so that customizers took to painting their Roshes with turtledove patterns. Nike CEO Mark Parker even wore a rare, then-unreleased pair of fragment design Roshes when he met with U.S. President Barack Obama (see image above).
This begs the question: what’s not to love?
four pins killed the roshe run
— Four Pins (@Four_Pins) May 26, 2016
The wheel of fortune turned on the Roshe when, much like the aforementioned Curry 2 Lows, it became the target of widespread memes and roasts. Four Pins, the late streetwear blog turned fire tweet repository, and its loyal readership proved to be particularly vehement in their distaste of the silhouette, ridiculing the shoes as a sign of tastelessness; the Roshe Run became the unofficial shoe of “the most swagless homie.” Retweeted tweets and memes about the Roshe would regularly go viral, until the shoe became practically synonymous with basic sensibilities. Former Four Pins editor-in-chief and Grailed branding director Lawrence Schlossman notes that the meme was inspired by the shoe’s proliferation: “I’m all for democratic fashion and it’s undeniable that the Roshe changed the game and whatnot. I’m unashamed to admit I owned a pair.” Schlossman notes that there was a tipping point: “I get that they’re practically collectible in a sense, because of all of the colorways that you can pair with other awful shit, but there were just so many and they were fucking everywhere and they were so affordable.”
Ubiquity and affordability, however, does sell. Despite the memes, Schlossman notes that the Four Pins effect is “a drop in the ocean” compared to Nike’s ability to market and sell shoes. In point of fact, the Roshe One recently topped a list of the most popular shoes on eBay and came in second place in terms of demand. The Yeezy Boost might draw record crowds and resale prices, but demand vastly outweighs supply. The Roshe balances the two, while also catering to a more sensible price point. The same can be said of the Chef Curry Lows, which did gangbusters in sales despite nearly universal design criticism. Speaking to Vice about what differentiates the Roshe from the Yeezy, Freshness’s Yu-Ming Wu had the following to say: “You have the Nike Roshe Run and the Yeezy 350 Boost. To an outsider, they look pretty damn similar. But to insiders, one is on one level, and [the other is] just fresher.”
It pays to remember that most consumers count themselves as outsiders when it comes to fashion; conversely, sneakerheads willing to camp out for Yeezys are still a relative minority in the general population. Hence the popularity of accessible and available silhouettes like the Roshe. In the end, the Roshe Run and the Curry Lows are case studies both in marketing and in the age-old adage that there really is no such thing as bad publicity. As long as a silent majority of consumers hits the mall to buy their gear, memes will never hurt business.