Saturday, June 6, 2009

Brief outline of the history of designer sneakers

People in the 19th century loved trains and when a five working day week became norm, urban families clambered to visit the seaside particularly in the summertime. Working boots were discarded as day trippers wanted to shoes walk through the sand. Sand shoes were lightweight canvas topped rubber soled shoes and thanks to vulcanisation of rubber were cheap, flimsy and usually wore out after a day’s wear. To reinforce the shoe a thin, flat rubber band was wrapped around the shoe and because this looked like a plimsoll line, they were called plimsolls and usually painted white. The significance of the colour was form a distance they could resemble white croquet shoes (made from kangaroo skin) and worn by the well to do. White plimsolls became a fashion icon of the younger working class and promenaders keen to look their best wore them with flannels and a Madras jackets. The simple plimsoll evolved into many other forms including the tennis shoe where sole patterns were added to improve grip; and in the US the high top shoe was worn to protect the ankle in games like basketball and baseball. In the US at the turn oif the 20th century Converse introduced the high top Converse All Stars (or Chucks - named after Chuck Taylor a famous 30s basketball player). During the wars servicemen were issued with canvas topped rubbers for exercise and most took them home as souvenirs. Soon their older kids were wearing them to dance to quick tempo dance music of Swing and Jive. By the end of the thirties an Australian called Adrian Quist was a tennis champion and realized ground traction was the secret to better foot control on grass surfaces. Eventually he convinced the Dunlop Rubber Company to include tread patterns on their tennis shoes and Dunlop Volleys were born. Younger children wore gym shoes when the schools’ curriculum started to include compulsory physical exercise. The appeal of American sneakers was confirmed when James Dean and Elvis Presley were photographed wearing low cut canvas topped rubber soled shoes. Chucks and Keds became a byword for teenage rebellion.

Today the big footwear companies target inner city youth Afro-American, Hispanic and Asians demographics. Promotions rely heavily on “cultural influencers,” like bold colours and logos to appeal to cultural sensitivities in “ethnic pride.” Commodifying ethnicity is a deliberate marketing strategy to attract new and brand loyal consumers among inner city, low socio-economic groups. High priced designer trainers have obvious appeal to street gangs keep expressing their individualism and sartoria. US street gangs like LA Crips and Bloods wear specific designer trainers as part of their uniform. Preferred brands are those worn by popular hip hop gangsters and rap artists. Colours play an important role in gang clothing i.e. blue in Crips’ and red for Bloods. As a result many leading sport shoe companies deliberately court the patronage of popular rappers and some continue to make reference to gang behaviours in their lyrics or videos. Probably the most obvious and up front example is in Michael Jackson's Extended Music Video, “The way you make me feel “. The video starts with the Crip Walk and Michael Jackson is wearing a blue shirt. Some shoe companies have had to distance themselves from affinity with street culture by renaming some of their shoe lines such as adidas did with their 'Hemp" range, which was renamed “Gazelle natural, after public outrage. Also things like ‘stash pockets’ feature less in shoe design. Many high schools and universities have now banned footwear associated with gangs. Subsequent merging of music with fashion has seen leading sneaker companies working in close tandem with well-known graffiti, tattoo and sneaker artists to create an individual aesthetic which attract collectors. The popularity of Retro sneakers (reintroduction of older classic styles) is principally to allow the younger customers the opportunity to own a pair of originals. Another reason for the retro perspective is many of the companies are now reaching critical birthdays which give them ideal opportunity to niche market classics. Corporate take-overs have also seen a crop of retro styles make comebacks as new parent companies are keen to see new life breathed into old established names like Converse (1908) and Reebok. Up until quite recently being smart definitely did not mean being ostentatious but all that changed as more rap royalty become actively involved in shoe retail and design. Run–D.M.C arguably started the pimp shoe movement by immortalised their favourite runners in song “My adidas.” This started a landslide of interest with rappers designing their own footwear range. Hip hop impresario Jay-Z was the first rapper to receive a sneaker deal with a mainstream shoe company. He then went on to set up his own clothing and accessories line. Reggaet├│n, Daddy Yankee released his signature collection of athletic footwear DY and many others have followed.

The move from competition to freestyle skateboarding in the 90's meant boarder (now called slashers) were no longer restricted to skateboard parks. The popularity of thrashing brought a revolution in clothing which was heavily influenced by hardcore punk and hip hop. Skateboard shoes (decks) was another mutation of canvas topped trainers made by independent companies like Vans, Airwalk and Vision Street Wear. These sold in huge quantities and were bought by young people keen to avoid the shoes sold by sport shoe giants like Nike and adidas. Skateboard attire became a fashion counter culture more in tune with Grunge than Bling- bling.

Experts believe the drive for the sneaker phenomena relates to a mix of popular culture, nostalgia, technology and investment. In the past, high profile sports personalities were used by the major companies to endorse their products but due to recent falls from grace and spurious claims that sport shoes either prevent injuries or improve competitive times have caused the companies to rethink their strategy. Whilst the main bulk of sport shoes are sold for sport a significant market is directed at ath-leisure or fashionable trainers. The shelf life of a trendy trainer is short (3 months) and companies like Nike and adidas are forever introducing new lines. To add incentive companies offer "quick hit" shoes which is a clever marketing ploy and involves the sale of a small number of limited edition shoes as a special offer in selected outlets for a limited period of time only. With minimum advertising these events are hurriedly communicated through networks, websites and SMSs. Sneakerheads range from casual fans of sneaker fashion to those who buy and sell shoes like blue chip investments. The shoes can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars depending on their cachet. Some wear them, and have multiple pairs (in case one gets scuffed); whereas others keep them in their boxes and store in a bank and or display them, unworn. Shoe collectors will often determine what will sell and companies are obliged to follow. There are many web sites ( and Sneaker Freaker), magazines (Sole Collector), books, songs and even radio shows all dedicated to sneaker culture. The phenomena have caught the media’s attention and now there are several TV documentaries on the subject.

1 comment:

  1. I am not that aware about history of designer sneaker until i came across this post...thanks for sharing this one...

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