For sneaker lovers, there is a sneaker for every taste and individuality. Arva Heider explores the pop culture fashion of his favorite footwear, from Satan’s shoes to individual creations.
Boxfresh or battle-scuffed; on the court, on the catwalk, in the club or the corner store, sneakers (or sneakers, or athletic shoes, or whatever you want to call them) seem to combine all forms, functions and fantasies – in sports, fashion, art, film and music. For several decades, sneakers have secured the status of the currency of pop culture. In 1986, New York hip-hop legends Run DMC created a groundbreaking anthem (and landed a $1.6 million brand endorsement deal) with their hit single, My Adidas—and since then, the sneaker talk and serenades have been going hard and fast around the world. whether it’s Dr. Dre. showcasing their pristine supply of Nike Air Force 1s or Lil Nas X’s recent controversial/collectible ‘Satan Shoes’. London’s Design Museum also dedicated its latest exhibition Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Streetto the phenomenon of shoes.
“I was interested in telling the story of sneakers in a design context because they are such ubiquitous pieces of everyday design that have become so important in so many people’s lives,” says Ligaya Salazar, curator of Sneakers Unboxed. Salazar’s own background in fashion and art, as well as his time spent playing semi-professional basketball as a teenager, resonates with the exhibition’s layered overview; the subject is treated with clinical precision (one of the opening exhibits dissects the “anatomy of a sneaker”) but also in a way that offers a vital emotional punch. Many of his defining images derive from the street scenes and innovations of black culture; the show includes Martha Cooper’s vivid early ’80s photographs of New York breakdancers donning rugged Puma Clydes; elsewhere, Grace Ladoha’
“In fact, in the late ’70s, sneakers became a style item and a symbol of identity,” Salazar tells BBC Culture. — It was the culmination of basketball (or soccer in the UK), style and youth culture coming together to form the foundations of what we now understand as sneaker culture.
“A series of events subsequently occur that cumulatively contribute to the sneaker’s popularity and status: Adidas endorses Run DMC (the first non-athletic endorsement); first reissue of the Nike Air Force 1 at three retailers in Baltimore due to popular demand. buyers; and, of course, Nike’s endorsement of young North Carolina rookie Michael Jordan — all in the mid-’80s. This continues throughout the 90s before [кросівки] really picked up the big brands and re-sold them as limited editions and collaborations, ultimately creating exclusivity and desire.”
“Nowadays, it seems like every pop culture event is heralded by a rare sneaker”
There have always been powerful opposing forces at work, also rooted in youth culture: the desire to stand out versus the need to belong (and to deviate from fads). At Sneakers Unboxed, I spot an immaculately worn set of white Adidas Adicolor Three Stripes (1983), designed as a “blank canvas” for customization.
It makes me think of the stress of wearing the “right” brand of sneakers at my schools in the late 80’s and 90’s. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, LA Gear pastel shoes with criss-cross laces were all the rage; when i got back to south london the shoe pressure increased. I was scolded for “someone else’s” (unrecognizable) shoes. Another girl in my high school was bullied for wearing plain, off-brand sneakers (we would never use the American term “sneakers”); Wanting to be accepted, she wrote “NIKE” in large letters with ballpoint pens on the sides – and after that they began to abuse her even more mercilessly.
When I think of my classmate’s sneakers now, her DIY branding actually seems brilliant but full of pathos. Plus, it long predated the anti-cool craftsmanship of Edmond Louis’ Adidas IKEA Ultraboost custom shoes (also featured on Sneakers Unboxed) or the 2021 Tik Tok trend of simply customizable “$15 Walmart sneakers,” as seen in various viral dance videos.
I’ve never really belonged to a sports team or style (Sneakers Unboxed highlights many fascinating examples, from British soccer “casuals” to Japanese collectors and Mexican “Cholombianos” who combine sneakers with sacred iconography); pop culture shaped my sneaker choices. Growing up, I was drawn to Converse All-Stars because of their association with musicians of all genres, as well as their colorful assortment (early 20th-century founder Chuck Taylor set the tone with both his basketball prowess and marketing prowess). ). There’s a seemingly endless playlist of sneaker-inspired songs; American rap dominates as shown in Complexmagazine’s 2013 “The 50 Greatest Sneaker Mentions in Hip-Hop History” (including Nas, A$AP Rocky, Jay-Z and, obviously, Run DMC), but French hip-hop crews also name the signature shoe, on dark tracks like L’Uzine’s AirMax (2011) from the outskirts of Paris.
Certain sneaker songs defy the street; in the country tune A Pair of Old Sneakers (1980), Tammy Wynette and George Jones complain about a faded romance (“worn out an’ comin’ undlued”). More recently, the quirky 2014 Chinese track My Skateboard Shoes (translated as “I felt the power moving my feet/ With my skateboard shoes, I’m not afraid of the night”) had brief viral success for singer Panmailang. . Elsewhere, shoes conjure up escapist magic in K-pop star Ha Sung-woon’s Sneakers (2021); in the video, he’s unboxing a pair of All-Stars that go perfectly with his pink hair.
While pop culture connects sneakers to the international masses, the growing focus on ultra-limited editions and luxury brands (such as Kanye West’s extravagant Yeezy line for Balenciaga) also makes them desirable and untouchable. These days, seemingly every pop culture event is heralded by a rare sneaker release – such as the seminal Manchester club’s 25th anniversary Hacienda/Factory (2007, 250 pairs), designed by Peter Saville, architect Ben Kelly and bassist Peter Hook. for Y-3 (Yohji Yamamoto/Adidas fashion collaboration).
The aforementioned Lil Nas X “Satan Shoes” became instant legend: a limited run of 666 pairs of diabolically modified Nike Air Max 97 sneakers (reportedly with a drop of human blood in the sole) by artist collective MSCHF, they’ve sparked a lawsuit. from a sportswear brand. Sneakers Unboxed showcases MSCHF’s previous “Jesus Shoes” model, which features “holy water” in the sole.
“Artistic expression through sneaker customization has been an integral part of sneaker culture since the beginning,” notes Salazar. “Interesting that Nike chose to respond to the ‘Satan’ version of the shoe rather than the ‘Jesus’ version…”
Sneaker culture has been on screen in feature documentaries, including the stellar Just for Kicks (2005), but feature films also fuel its mystique. When martial arts legend Bruce Lee wore Onitsuka Tiger sneakers in the early 70s, he started the Japanese brand’s cult appeal; Uma Thurman’s costume in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) would have been influential in itself. A brilliant promo poster for Aliens (1986) proclaimed, “REEBOK Unveils Shoes You Won’t See in 150 Years,” featuring sci-fi heroine Sigourney Weaver in Tuan Lee’s laceless Alien Stomper (short). dictated by the climactic scenes of the film);
Sneaker privilege isn’t just about how rich you are, it’s also about your status in the industry – Ligaya Salazar
In Back to the Future II (1989), Michael J. Fox’s time-traveling character wears high-tech self-lacing Nike Mags; the 2016 edition of this sneaker currently retails for £198,928 on resale site StockX. In Space Jam (1996), Michael Jordan, inspired by the fighter and NBA sneakers, took to the court with the characters of the Looney Tunes cartoon; LeBron James will star in the 2021 sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy, which also brings a new generation of Nike lace-up sneakers.
The intense level of detail makes certain sneaker designs look like elaborate delicacies; Chris Hill, Reebok’s senior manager of pop culture and streetwear collaborations, describes the Ghostbusters “Classic Leather” sneaker series in the brand’s blog (October 2020): “People dress up in costumes all the time [Мисливців за привидами]so it’s kind of like a shoe version of that… On the sole, one of them has a green glow-in-the-dark spot, like you’ve stepped in slime. Then there’s a little yellow and black danger band around the heel to highlight it a little bit.”
Meanwhile, contemporary art perpetuates the sneaker as an object of desire – from the large-scale landscapes of the Nike collections by German photographer Andreas Gursky to the Holy Trainerty paintings by British artist Ruben Dangur.
Cradle to Grave Sneakers: Brands Miniaturize Their Iconic Designs as “Crib Booties”; while Accra-based casket artist Paa Joe created colorful bespoke Air Jordan shaped funeral caskets. Specialized programs monitor the breakneck speed of new releases, while the impact of consumption begs the question in today’s world (Sneakers Unboxed also looks at ethical and sustainable production). For some reason, sneakers remain all-encompassing, yet exceptional.
“There’s a growing term in sneaker culture that describes it perfectly: sneaker privilege,” says Salazar. “This privilege depends not only on how rich you are, but also on your own status in the industry. Online lotteries were supposed to make it more democratic, but there is a lot of debate surrounding the people who develop bots to hack sweepstakes and sneakers. is completely spread out, so it often still depends on who you know. However, if you can see through the “hype” and aren’t looking to make money reselling limited editions, there are plenty of interesting sneakers out there for every taste and personality. But it’s definitely a very ‘coded’ world where people judge you from the bottom up.”