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Fila Disruptor II trend history gen z
Illustration Callum Abbott

The story of the Fila Disruptor II, the internet’s most divisive shoe

They’re the target of memes, but have boosted Fila’s footwear sales by 60% – are the Disruptors really trash?

The Fila Disruptor II is a divisive shoe. You know it, even if the name doesn’t ring any bells: those chunky trainers with the zig-zag platform sole and F logo on the tongue, which look kind of like Britney’s Skechers had a baby with a pair of Baby Spice’s Buffalos. Love them or hate them (there is no middle ground when it comes to the Disruptors) they have proved impossible to ignore over the last 18 months.

This is for two reasons. One, because they’ve been worn by approximately every teenage girl in Britain, as well as some of their boyfriends. And two, because they’ve replaced the Nike Roshe Runs as the world’s most-memed shoe – most of which revolve around the fact they make your feet look enormous and are considered incredibly bad taste by anyone who thinks they know better. 

“They are an ugly blemish on our beautiful world. A truly repulsive piece of design. You would be better off barefoot,” came the damning verdict from writer, fashion consultant, and resident Cool Guy at NY Magazine’s The Strategist, Chris Black, barely 15 minutes after I’d hit send on an email asking his opinion on the shoes. Lawrence Schlossman, brand director at Grailed, agreed, calling them both “offensive” and “a crime against good taste everywhere”. 

Despite the derision, they are the go-to ugly sneaker for Gen-Z girls, seemingly more ubiquitous than previous adolescent favourites like Converse Chuck Taylors or even the trusty slip-on Vans. While the Disruptor II’s huge popularity came out of nowhere, there’s more to its history than might first be assumed.

The original Fila Disruptor – which is pretty much exactly like the Disruptor II – was released in 1996, into a world where Bill Clinton was President, Tamagotchis were a must-have, and the Spice Girls were promoting their debut album. Founded in Northern Italy in 1911 and focused mostly on underwear, Fila moved into sportswear in the 1970s. By the 90s, it was moderately popular for its tracksuits (as worn by a baby-faced Chloë Sevigny) and its trainers. Tupac was a fan of the Grant Hill shoe, Fila’s relatively unmemorable attempt to work with NBA player Grant Hill – like Nike had done with Michael Jordan. Still, unlike adidas and Nike, Fila never became a megabrand; the Disruptor was lost to history, only surfacing occasionally in the wasteland of Etsy listings.

And then, something happened. Fila’s comeback as a brand of relevance has a clear date: June 16 2016, when Gosha Rubchinskiy included it in a trio of collaborations with other then-passé Italian sports brands (Sergio Tacchini and Kappa) that debuted on his SS17 runway at Pitti. The famous logo appeared on sweatshirts with Rubchinskiy’s name in Cyrillic below it, with the designer himself taking his bow in a lime green collaborative sweater. Fila – which was sold to a Korean company in 2007 – was back in fashion.

Collaborations with MSGM, Phillip Lim, and most notably Fendi followed – debuting on the runway in February 2018, this collab saw the luxury label’s logo reimagined with the Fila F, with Nicki Minaj later photographed sitting front row head to toe in an outfit. Last September, Fila even joined the Milan Fashion Week schedule, with a 67-look runway show that featured branded bucket hats and vintage-inspired pieces that felt lifted from the company’s archive. 

But what about the Disruptors? It seems natural to place the blame for the shoes’ popularity at the feet of Demna Gvasalia, who debuted the Balenciaga Triple S on his menswear runway in January 2017, kickstarting a wave of oversized, unwieldy trainers. According to Marc Canipa, Fila UK’s head of footwear, though, the Disruptors’ return came several years before this – in 2014. The decision to look at the archive was more inspired by Raf Simons’ reimagining of adidas’s Ozweego in 2013 than the Triple S. 

“(In 2014) Fila had a ready-made, fit for purpose shoe – which was developed way back in 1996 – sat, gathering dust in the archive,” Canipa says. “We upgraded materials, updated the fit and there we had the first access price point, chunky sneaker ready to go to market.” Uptake from retailers was slow at first, Canipa says, but then the model really took off – per Google Trends, searches for the Disruptor were low before picking up slowly in Spring 2017, and soaring in popularity in December 2018. They’ve since been released in a variety of colourways and varying silhouettes, from sandals to platforms.

According to Gen-Z shopping behemoth Depop, year on year from 2017 to 2018, there was a 583 per cent increase in searches for the Fila Disruptor in the UK. Today, there are well over half a million posts on Instagram under the hashtags #filadisruptor and #filadisruptor2. And although the shoes are gender neutral, a look through the hashtags shows they’re mostly popular among women. 

While they were technically reissued before Balenciaga kickstarted dad shoe mania, the trend – along with a rise in late 90s fashion nostalgia – helped them gain momentum they lacked to begin with. The Disruptors’ proximity to more expensive styles was a key selling point: an Elle article in January 2018 entitled “I Love These Ugly Grandpa Sneakers” praised their similarity to other celebrity favourite designer sneakers, including the Triple S and Louis Vuitton’s Arclight. And they had some famous fans too: Emily Ratajkowski was spotted in a pair, as were various runway models off duty at fashion week. “The Sneaker Taking Over Your Instagram Feed Is Only $70” wrote InStyle. “Fashion Girls Can't Get Enough of These Affordable Sneakers” claimed WhoWhatWear

“The silhouette alone grew the Fila footwear business by more than 60 per cent over three seasons – this was the highest volume of sales I’ve ever seen in my career to date for a single shoe,” Canipa shares. The sweet spot was the price: Disruptors retailed for around £70, while Buffalos were closer to £150, and Balenciagas were over £600. “Filas were the first platform trainers that were really accessible to people my age before adidas and Nike started doing them,” 14-year-old Aimee explains. “They are also available in stores like Urban Outfitters which make them more appealing.” 

For her, the 90s-inspired style played a role in the shoe’s popularity – she cites Rachel from Friends as someone her and her peers look to for inspiration. The Disruptor IIs also have a more practical reason for their success: “I’m 5ft 2 so I like that they’re clunky and have a bit of a platform,” wearer Brit, who first spotted the shoes on a girl at the pub, says. “I’m convinced they make me look taller even if they don’t.”

“The silhouette alone grew the Fila footwear business by more than 60 per cent over three seasons – this was the highest volume of sales I’ve ever seen in my career to date for a single shoe” – Marc Canipa, Fila UK head of footwear  

Disruptor detractor Chris Black categorises the wearer thus: “Their Urban Outfitters frequent shopper card is full, they love to Juul, they listen to Billie Eilish, and they think Marilyn Manson was actually edgy.” Writer Hannah Rose Ewens spent the last few years meeting and interviewing teenage girls for her book Fangirls, an exploration of female music fan communities, and noted the popularity of the Disruptor II among those she met. “They were enormous among girls!” she says. “They’re representative of the first moderately pricy, but affordable shoe girls will pick themselves and buy with their own pocket or weekend job money.” 

While there’s some truth to Black’s categorisation – “they’ve been massive for Billie Eilish fans” admits Ewens – she thinks we’re quick to ridicule things that are beloved by young women. “Fashion trends adopted by young girls are just as derided as music trends or fan cultures, and often come hand in hand. Teenage girls are in the throes of exploring their identity – who are they, what do they stand for, who do they want to be? All of that is seen as inherently embarrassing.”

Grailed’s Lawrence Schlossman acknowledges the shoe’s tremendous popularity, but considers it the “death knell of the ‘ugly sneaker’ trend” – the Disruptor might not have started it, but in the way that trends get so big they pass into irrelevance, it finished it off. “What started with Balenciaga’s meta, heavy-handed trolling and the appropriation of normcore brands like New Balance has culminated with the worst possible version of this particular aesthetic,” Schlossman says. “Thanks to a bottom of the barrel barrier of entry from both a sticker price and availability perspective, the Fila Disruptor has gone absolutely fucking nuclear. You hate to see it.”

“What started with Balenciaga’s meta, heavy-handed trolling and the appropriation of normcore brands like New Balance has culminated with the worst possible version of this particular aesthetic” – Lawrence Schlossman, Grailed 

In other words, we have reached peak Disruptor, the ultimate ugly trainer saturation point – we’ve moved past the spike of designer dad shoe popularity and into the comedown of mainstream popularity and the associated fatigue. “Global searches for the Fila Disruptor in the past 12 months peaked in September 2018, and have been on a steady decline ever since,” the Depop rep states. “If we compare this past month (July 23-August 23) from 2018 to 2019, there’s been a 52 per cent decrease in searches in the UK.” Google Trends shows a sharp drop off after December 2018, and teenager Aimee says that there’s a simple (and classic) reason for the decline in popularity: “They became cool around the Christmas holidays – then when everyone came back to school and realised they had the same shoes they became less cool.” 

Still, Fila is laughing – literally. “In honesty, when anything has a huge cultural moment there will be backlash from those who move on fastest once that item has exhausted its cool factor within that cohort,” Canipa says. “We love the memes – for one they reinforce the success that we have seen with this shoe, and for two – they’re funny as hell!” While a brand ranking its success on how savage the memes about its product are feels like a real window into our current internet and consumer culture, there’s another lesson here: never underestimate the spending power of teenage girls.