The footwear that’s here to stay.
The sneakers retailed for a ludicrous $750, but that’s modest compared to a recent fashion spread in my newspaper featuring Christian Dior sneakers retailing for $1700 and Gucci sneakers for $1405. The latter were white with an orthopaedic aesthetic and looked like what are commonly known as “dad sneakers”, only with a large Gucci logo on the side.
It got me thinking about sneakers. If you look at what’s on the feet of people passing you on the street, in many cases it will be the now-ubiquitous shoe named after the quiet sound of a rubber-soled footfall, also known as athletic shoes, sandshoes, tennis shoes, gym shoes, runners or trainers.
It’s now hard (and unpleasant) to imagine life without sneakers. We can partly thank Charles Goodyear for their development. Goodyear, hoping to make money out of rubber, had purchased hundreds of rubber life preservers in 1834 that had melted in the New York summer heat. After years of experimentation, he finally figured out in 1839 that he could vulcanise (harden) rubber by adding lead, sulphur and heat to it.
The earliest incarnations of the sneaker in the late 19th century were aimed at the elite, at croquet players and tennis players, only becoming more widely available and affordable in the early part of the 20th century. They really began to take off as a shoe for the masses in the 1970s and 80s, with jogging and aerobics trends, and the emergence of sports superstars such as John McEnroe and Michael Jordan.
And of course there was Nike. One of Nike’s greatest inventions was the brainchild of University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. As his track team’s field was changing from a cinder to an artificial surface, Bowerman wanted a sole without spikes that would give his team traction as they ran. The story goes that he was eating waffles at breakfast when he had his “eureka” moment: that the grooves of the waffle iron would be a perfect mould for multi-terrain sneaker soles. It was Bowerman’s partner, Phil Knight, who had the marketing savvy to transform the athletic shoe into an off-track fashion item. Industry analysts now estimate that every second of the day, every day of the week, somewhere in the world someone is buying a new pair of sneakers with a swoosh on them.
Sneakers have, at various stages in history, signified national identity, race, class, masculinity and so on. Even criminality, as evidenced in a New York Times article in 1979, in which the writer recounted overhearing two cops radio-ing their colleagues, identifying a thief as wearing “felony shoes”. “Felony shoes,” the author wrote. “It figures. If you spent your time on the street running from the police, you’d be a fool not to wear sneakers.”
This was written 40 years ago by an author who had grown up in the 50s, when sneakers were “unacceptable on adults except for special occasions, like picnics”, and was bewildered by recent developments in the sneaker world. “Sneakers are out of control,” he wrote. “The pleasantly homely canvas shoe has travelled off into the sunset... Around us now are the mutants, sneakers in strange colors and bizarre shapes... Silk and fiberglass spaceshoes with treads curling up over the toe and heel, rubber studs staring at the sky for no earthly purpose.”
He wrote that in 1979, but it could have been 2019. I’d like to read what he’d have made of Stella McCartney’s high-end “vegan” sneakers, those socially conscious sneakers that retail for around $1000; also sneakers made of faux leopard skin, sneakers with ostentatiously chunky soles, sneakers that look like they’ve been made out of a game board, sneakers designed to look like ankle boots or over-the-knee boots.
What do your sneakers say about you? Beats me, but evidently there’s highly nuanced status signalling going on among those in the know. This has spawned a speculative and lucrative sneaker resale market, fortified by brands that deliberately limit the supply of some styles of sneakers, and use the “drop”, a sales tactic in which a limited-edition sneaker is released for a short time. Some can sell out in a matter of seconds before emerging on resale websites, marked up 1000% or more on what they were bought for.
Across America, people camp outside sneaker shops overnight to get their hands on a rare sneaker. In 2015, a Brooklyn teenager was shot in the foot for jumping the queue. The market is now turning to online sites such as StockX, “the Nasdaq for sneakerheads” launched in 2016, an e-commerce platform aimed at a high-end sneaker resale market that is now estimated to be worth more than $2.2 billion.
In some sections of society, sneakers (and their price tags) are clearly getting too big for their boots. Hype aside, though, the acceptance of the sneaker is surely one of the greatest sartorial developments in recent human history, a giant step for humankind. Emma Thompson wore sneakers to Buckingham Palace for her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) investiture ceremony, so what’s good for the Dame, and the Queen...
Sneakers, like every fashion item, might appeal to all sorts of snobberies, and in many cases signify capitalism gone utterly bonkers. But sneakers also satisfy a most basic human need: they carry our weight on two feet in comfort, allowing us to walk quietly and a reasonable distance without getting bunions.
You might have heard of Allbirds, the company founded by former New Zealand soccer player Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, who have developed back-to-basic sneakers, made out of merino wool and sometimes eucalyptus tree fibre, that have appeared on the feet of Gwyneth Paltrow, Cindy Crawford and Jacinda Ardern. The environmentally friendly sneakers, loafers and trainers recently attracted the attention of the New Yorker. “The shoes are, for all my attempts to describe them, excessively nondescript,” noted writer Rachel Syme. “This is perhaps their biggest innovation. Allbirds are so meticulously basic that, when clad in them, your feet almost cease to exist.”
Which, from where I’m standing, sounds like my kind of sneaker. And after reading that sentence and being unable to resist, I’m now standing in sneakers made from eucalyptus fibre, and can confirm they feel like that too.
This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.