From Keds to Air Jordans, Chuck Taylors to Poworamas, sneakers have come a long way in their rise from athletic footwear to the centerpiece of urban fashion. Today, some of the most cutting-edge designers create stylish “kicks” with an appeal that extends beyond the streets and onto the runway. A recent exhibit at Louisville’s Speed Museum, “Out of the Box: the Rise of Sneaker Culture”, documented this phenomenon and the sneaker’s explosive growth into a $55 billion a year industry.
The first man to make sneakers cool was Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the New York Knicks. Clyde wore his suede Pumas on the basketball court and off, sometimes in blue, sometimes in orange, sometimes one of each. On the streets of New York, players in pickup hoop games and break dancers followed his lead, and “the Clyde” became a classic.
During the 1970s, the fitness craze hit America and sneakers became even more popular. People demanded specialized shoes for jogging, tennis, and aerobics, all having their own unique design features and logos. Americans became sneaker-crazy, setting the stage for the two most significant events in sneaker history.
In 1984, Nike signed Michael Jordan to a sneaker deal and the next year Air Jordans hit the market. Nicknamed the “devil shoes” by Jordan for their black and red colors, the NBA didn’t approve. Jordan’s defiance of the NBA’s policies led to steep fines that gave the sneakers an even greater street cachet. It didn’t hurt that Nike paid the fines.
The next important moment came when rappers Run-DMC invited executives from Adidas to their concert at Madison Square Garden. After the execs heard the sellout crowd sing along to the song “My Adidas”, they offered Run-DMC a million dollar contract, the first ever to non-athletes.
Sneakers have become fashion with an edge, and collector’s items to an increasing number of young people, who line up for hours anticipating the latest release of their favorite shoe. Today, over 90% of sneaker sales are to people who will never wear them on a court, track, or field.
Inspired by rapper Kid Cudi, Giuseppe Zanotti launched Cudi sneakers with their signature puffy Velcro straps. Pierre Hardy’s Poworamas borrowed Roy Lichtenstein’s bright colors and geometry to create limited-edition wearable art. The Caten brothers mixed a sneaker’s sole with broguing, pinking, and a winged toe cap to reinterpret the derby dress shoe. Designers continue to innovate.
After I left the exhibit, I looked down at my feet. I’ve owned the same pair of white beaters for the last ten years. As I inspected the grimy surface with its grassy sheen and frayed laces, I felt a sense of shame. This couldn’t go on. It was time for an upgrade.
The Speed Museum is located on the University of Louisville campus at 2035 South Third Street in Louisville, Kentucky.