Fashion-Forward Safety Shoes

Fashion labels and designers are forging licensing and collaboration deals in the occupational footwear sector with increasing frequency. This is a category that has built a track record of very successful long-term licensing agreements with closely related brands, but it still offers plenty of space for fashion and lifestyle properties and other types of IP.

The segment as a whole is attractive in part due to its healthy growth trajectory. A December 2023 study from Persistence Market Research estimates the global industrial protective footwear market will increase from $10.3 billion in 2023 to $15.3 billion in 2030, representing a compound annual growth rate of 5.8%. The report cites more workplace regulation and increased awareness about workplace safety, as well as a large and diverse global industrial base from which to seek potential customers, as reasons for the strong prospects.

The occupational footwear category includes shoes and boots for a wide variety of industries, including construction; landscaping; agriculture and fishery; hospitality, restaurant, and foodservice; medicine; warehousing and manufacturing; postal and delivery; gas, oil, and mining; waste management; military and law enforcement; and auto racing. Safety footwear is also designed for some consumer leisure activities, such as hunting and other outdoor pastimes.

Some examples of recent deals involving fashion IP entering this space:

  • Authentic Brands Group licensed its DC Shoes and Roxy labels to Warson Brands, in a deal announced in November 2023, for protective and safety shoes, including men’s and women’s styles for DC and women’s styles for Roxy. The deal builds on ABG’s existing relationship with Warson, which has served as a licensee for ABG’s Reebok in this category for a decade and which acquired rights to the licensor’s Frye and Volcom brands in 2022. Warson also holds other occupational footwear licenses ranging from Rockport to Florsheim and worked with Converse for 15 years before the latter left the space and Warson signed with Reebok.
  • British fashion designer Nigel Cabourn, known for luxury outerwear and apparel inspired by vintage and military styles, has paired with Cat Footwear for multiple protective boot collaborations. Most recently, in October 2023, the partners created two boots inspired by the 1956 expedition to Antarctica known as Operation Deepfreeze. The two styles were adapted from a previous collaboration in late 2022 that featured two heritage- and military-styled boots called the Utah and Omaha, named for the beaches stormed on D-Day and incorporating features from World War II styles worn by sailors and soldiers.
  • In April of 2023, the Givenchy label and its streetwear-inspired designer Matthew M. Williams paired with Timberland for a pair of luxury Timberland work ankle boots in three colors, one of them distressed, available in Givenchy boutiques and online. Timberland has done similar luxury collaborations over the years with the likes of Jimmy Choo, Supreme, and Off-White.
  • Lucky Brand collaborated with Wolverine Worldwide in October 2022 for a limited-edition collection of four men’s boots that are functional for a work setting—with lightweight welt construction and sole reinforcements for all-day, lower-fatigue wear—as well as fashion-forward for everyday use. The collection adapts four Wolverine styles with signature Lucky design details, such as patches of denim. The partnership was Lucky’s first entrée into work boots.
  • High-end fashion house Han Kjobenhavn paired with safety footwear brand Airtox in 2020 for a two-piece capsule of water-repellent microfiber safety sneakers in green and black, inspired by Copenhagen’s working class suburbs. Both brands are based in Denmark. The shoes featured treaded outsoles, mesh linings, and a reinforced toe box and were available through the luxury fashion e-commerce site Ssense.

All of these agreements, with the exception of the ABG examples, have taken the form of short-term collaborations rather than long-term, traditional licensing arrangements. But licensing has for decades played a very significant role in this space. In fact, some of the leading protective footwear brands are licensed products, tied to IP with relevant positioning and/or expertise.

Cat Footwear, which specializes in occupational styles, launched in 1988 with then-Caterpillar licensee Jerryco. It is now a division of Wolverine Worldwide after the latter acquired the license in 1994. Michelin, meanwhile, has been marketing safety footwear in the U.S. since 2004, at first through its global footwear licensee Gear Six and then with Rocky Brands starting in 2006, when the latter signed as the specialist licensee for the occupational footwear category. Dunlop teamed with Liverpool Rubber Co. in 1927 to debut the Dunlop boot and other protective footwear. Dutch protective footwear company Hevea purchased the business in 1996 and acquired another safety boot company, U.S.-based Onguard Industries, in 2016 to help expand the Dunlop boot business in North America.

Goodyear has been involved in the footwear category since 1901 as a natural extension of its core rubber products. It has been marketing protective and safety footwear in partnership with licensee SCL Footwear Group since 2015. The products emphasize durability, grip, technical innovation, and performance in weather extremes. And finally, Puma Safety launched in 2003 and has worked with several licensees in the category. They include German safety footwear company ISM, which has been a Puma licensee for 20 years and in 2023 won a prestigious Red Dot design award for its vintage streetwear safety sneakers, and Ranpro, which launched a line of Puma Technics safety shoes for the Canadian market in 2010. In 2022, Puma Safety paired with Shoes for Crews for a line of slip-resistant industrial safety shoes.

The entry of fashion designers into occupational footwear is closely related to other trends in this sector, from chefs lending their names to comfortable and safe shoes for all-day work in the kitchen—a subset of the trend covered here—to fashion designers and other properties becoming involved in workwear collaborations.

A reminder that Raugust Communications’ January e-newsletter hits in-boxes tomorrow, January 16, 2024. The Licensing Topic of the Month takes a look at the many recent mergers affecting the licensing business, while the Datapoint research spotlight examines the very active cosmetics category. If you are not yet a subscriber to this free publication, please sign up here.

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