The Difference Between $50 Sneakers & $500 Ones

We demand a lot from our sneakers: We want them to protect our feet during marathons, and cushion them as we run errands. We want them to wick away odor and match our outfits. We want them to last forever, and to communicate our values and identity: into fashion or couldn’t-care-less; hip-hop or pop; athlete, professional, or professional athlete.

But no matter how many things you’re able to say with a pair of sneakers, they seem to only exist in three price categories: Below $50, around $100, and way above $100. To find out why, we talked to three experts: Suzette Henry, director of the sneaker design school Pensole’s materials lab; Sébastien Kopp, co-founder of the sustainable and fair trade French-favorite Veja, and Joseph Zwillinger, co-founder and vice president of sustainability and innovation at sneaker brand Allbirds. As it turns out, there’s a reason for this (and, contrary to what you might think, the more you pay doesn’t necessarily mean the more you get).

A few things to note: This is not prescriptive, but more of a general guideline. Each shoe company will mix and match on options to yield an ideal cost and price. It’s a cliché, but true: You get what you pay for — and sometimes all you're paying for is brand recognition. Also important: Direct-to-consumer products are often higher quality for a lower price, because you’re not paying for the profit margin of department stores. “Consumers are trained to only buy shoes on discount. That puts an extreme amount of pressure on the brand,” says Zwillinger. So, if you’re talking about a direct-to-consumer brand, take everything here and subtract about $50.

Finally, consider companies that specialize in sneakers, rather than fashion labels that also happen to market sneakers. “A lot of times, brands chase other brands or license out their designs, and they give away the strength of the brand just to keep up with trends and designer price tags,” Henry explains. “I believe if a brand believes in its product and the craftsmanship that has gone into it, that’s talked about on the website.”

With those guidelines out of the way, here’s what you’ll get for each price:
Photographed by Molly Cranna.
Below $50
- For everyday wear, not performance
- Polyester/synthetic textile upper
- Synthetic rubber sole
- Manufactured in China, Vietnam, or Indonesia; countries with less expertise in sneakers
- Factory has no environmental protections, doesn’t pay living wage, and exposes workers to toxic fumes
- Insole is a thin sheet of rubber that is glued down
- Several seams on inside decrease comfort
- Sloppy construction and paint lines
- Exposed petrochemical glues emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- No structure, collapses when your foot isn’t inside
- Uneven sole
- Designed to last for one season before breaking down

Around $100
- Built for fashion or sustained athletic performance.
- Name-brand athletic label
- Synthetic or cotton uppers
- Synthetic or real rubber soles
- No-sew construction eliminates most or all interior seams for better comfort.
- Manufactured in Korea or Taiwan, two countries with the best expertise in sneaker manufacturing.
- Padded insole
- Depending on brand, glues may or may not emit VOCs.
- Designed to last for a few seasons before breaking down

$500
- Luxury label
- Built for fashion (not athletic performance)
- Flawless, high-quality Italian leather or exotic skin uppers that age well
- Real rubber soles
- Manufactured in Italy in factory with safe working conditions and environmental protections.
- Open-cell polyurethane insole, which helps with odor
- More quality stitching than gluing
- Holds shape when off foot
- Will last many seasons before breaking down
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