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How the lowly sneaker became cool

How the lowly sneaker became cool

A new book shows how this simple, rubber-soled shoe became an emblem of cool – and a luxury item

A new book shows how this simple, rubber-soled shoe became an emblem of cool – and a luxury item

Luke Leitch | December 5th 2018

This is the age of the trainer – or, as so many more people on the planet call it, the sneaker. What was created in the 19th century as a rubber-soled, simply uppered form of footwear named “sand shoes” or “plimsolls” has evolved in the 21st into a product of fantastic variety upon which hundreds of millions of people spend tens of billions of pounds a year. The vast majority of them have a casual relationship with their sneakers; they might recognise that there is a difference between Nike, Puma, Adidas and Reebok – four trainer titans in a marketplace that jostles with brands – without being more than vaguely engaged in the subtleties of that difference. Yet there is a footwear cognoscenti for whom the sneaker is a subject of deep fascination. Over the last few decades, this dedicated tribe has fuelled the sneaker’s transformation into a valuable commodity. 

Even connoisseurs will learn a thing or two from “The Ultimate Sneaker Book”. Published by Taschen, it is an engagingly written and beautifully designed digest of the greatest stories in sneakerdom. It covers the extraordinarily out-there work of American designer Jeremy Scott for adidas (his sneakers incorporated wings and teddy bears) and explores how Kanye West, a rapper and producer who has designed trainers with Reebok, Nike, Louis Vuitton and adidas, has changed the way they are marketed. It looks back at sneaker ancient history, with fascinating essays on Reebok’s 1980s Pump sneaker technology (the first trainer – pictured above – that could be inflated around the foot thanks to a valve hidden in the upper), and includes interviews with the creators of Nike’s enduring Air series. Diversions into what might seem like dull footnotes to footwear history – such as the boom-and-bust stories of Eighties skate brands Airwalk and Vision Street Wear – are brought to life. Reading this fully indexed, 669-page whopper of a tome will turn even the most disengaged sneaker wearer into a fully fledged expert.

The book is based on the content of Sneaker Freaker, a magazine and website that was founded in 2002 and has since become to sneakers what Wisden is to cricket and Vogue is to fashion. Its rise coincided with the elevation of the lowly sneaker into both a luxury-good category and an emblem of cool. As Simon “Woody” Wood, Sneaker Freaker’s founder and this book’s editor, notes in his foreword: “Strange, isn’t it, that a few bits of leather and suede sewn onto a slab of rubber and wrapped in nylon thread could mean so much to so many.”

 

 

In 1973 Puma recruited Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the New York Knicks’s star player, to endorse a basketball sneaker – the first time any basketball player had put his name to a shoe. It was produced in combed suede and several colourways, with Frazier’s initials stamped in gold on each upper. Puma sold 2m pairs of the shoe in its first year of production. As Frazier says, “They couldn’t keep them in stores in New York City! I tell you it was an ego trip to have that shoe named after me.”

 

In the late 1970s Steve Van Doren of Vans, at the time a family-run California sneaker brand, recalled: “I was just out of high school and I noticed kids were colouring in their Vans with a checkerboard pattern, so we started making shoes like that.” Vans later sent the trainers to the production staff of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” (1982), a Hollywood film that would go on to become a cult classic. They featured heavily. Vans would go on to sell in their millions.

 

Run DMC – the New York hip-hop pioneers, pictured here in Paris in 1985 – became synonymous in sneakerdom with the adidas Superstar shoe, which they habitually wore without laces. This was reputedly a nod to the fact that American prisons sometimes removed the laces of inmates’ shoes to prevent them from attempting suicide. In 1986 the group released the track “My Adidas”, and shortly afterwards signed an endorsement deal with the German footwear company. This was possibly the earliest example of a sportswear brand sponsoring musical artists. 

 

The Nike Dunk Low SB is one of the 21st century’s most-collected and -coveted sneaker designs. In 2005 the Pigeon edition sparked a minor riot in Manhattan when it was released in limited numbers, making the front page of the New York Post. The shoe pictured here is the eBay Dunk; it is one of just two pairs ever made. It was named after eBay because it was auctioned on the website, reaching a price of $26,000. The other pair, this sample, was chainsawed into pieces to ensure the uniqueness of the sold-off lot. 

 

In 2009 Kanye West designed three sneakers in collaboration with Louis Vuitton. The resulting shoes each retailed at $1,000 a pair, yet the huge fanbase of their designer and the reputation of the fashion house ensured that demand was high. Ten years later this still seems like a lot of money to spend on a pair of shoes, but as Sneaker Freaker notes: “any resellers who ponied up on release day would today be very happy with their investment.”

Sneaker Freaker. The Ultimate Sneaker Book (Taschen) by Simon Wood