from merchandise to cultural icon


Sneakers (or sneakers if you’re British), once a symbol of athletics, have transcended their primary function to become fashionable and commercial objects of desire. From sportswear to street style to catwalk fashion, sneakers have made their mark as cultural products.

The global sneakers market valued at around US $ 79 billion (£ 56 billion) in 2020 and is expected to reach US $ 120 billion (£ 85 billion) by 2026. With such huge growth, it is no surprise that they are considered big companies.

Such are the advancements in the sneaker industry that new exposure to London Design Museum explores how the shoe has become an undisputed cultural symbol of our time.

Comfort is king

The last decade has seen a huge change in the way sneakers are worn. Slipping on a pair is no longer frowned upon in the workplace or on more formal occasions. Even the British label experts Debrett have given their seal of approval, deeming them socially acceptable for smart casual occasions.

The continued domination of athleisure trend had a significant impact on the growth of sneaker sales – with the continued comfort. This has only grown during the pandemic, as lockdowns have made people prioritize comfort more, which has resulted in increased sales of loungewear, athletics and flats such as sneakers.

As such, sneakers have left the niche to become fashionable items. The shoe is now the best-selling category in the online luxury market and sneakers have largely contributed to this growth.

High fashion brands from Gucci to Balenciaga are setting the tone in the luxury sneaker market. In 2017, the Triple S from Balenciaga has become the biggest seller in the luxury sneakers market and its popularity seems unstoppable.

To understand how the sneaker became a shoe phenomenon, it is important to trace its heritage from function to cultural icon.

Tennis shoes on the track

The first sports shoes were created by The Liverpool Rubber Company, founded by John Boyd Dunlop, in the 1830s. Dunlop was an innovator who discovered how to tie the canvas upper to rubber soles. These were known as sand shoes and worn by the Victorians on their beach trips.

Historian Thomas turner defines the last decades of the 19th century as a time when industrial progress and social change were paired with a growing enthusiasm for sports activities, especially lawn tennis. This resulted in the need for a more specialized type of shoe, which Dunlop’s rubber sole could satisfy. Dunlop launched its now iconic Green Flash model in 1929, which was worn by tennis legend Fred Perry at Wimbledon.

Other important sports shoes of the 20th century include the Converse All Star, designed for basketball. However, it was Adidas and Nike that both shaped the evolution of the sneaker from sport to style.

The Cortez is Nike’s original running shoe, designed by co-founder Bill Bowerman and released in 1972.
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Founded by Adi Dassler in Germany in 1924 Under the name “Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik”, the company was later renamed Adidas in 1949. The brand created the first track shoe with a full leather sole and hand forged toes. worn by Jessie Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Nike was created by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports and became Nike Inc. in 1971. This coincided with the current craze that hit America. Nike’s first commercial design was the Cortez, cushioned for running. The Cortez was worn by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, guaranteeing the cultural status of Nike.

The marketing of cool

Research of the sociologist Yuniya Kawamura on the sneakers defines three waves of the phenomenon. The first wave of the 1970s was defined by an underground sneaker culture and the emergence of hip-hop. Adidas’ Samba design, as a key example, has become a key part of Terrace mode in the subculture of football fans. In 1986, Run-DMC released the song My Adidas, leading to a sponsorship deal with the brand. This forged the deep-rooted place of the sneaker in popular culture.

The second wave of the phenomenon began in 1984 with the Nike Air Jordans launch. This gave rise to the commodification of sneakers and their desirability as status items, fueled by celebrity endorsements. For Kawamura the third wave is marked by the digital age and the resulting growth in sneaker marketing and resale culture.

The global sneaker resale market was valued at US $ 6 billion (£ 4.6 billion) in 2019 and is expected to be worth US $ 30 billion (£ 21 billion) by 2030.

The growing presence of “Sneakerheads” who collect and sell sneakers have ensured that they retain their cult status. Nike and Adidas regularly publish limited edition shoes associated with a celebrity, hip-hop star or athlete.

It’s not uncommon for people to go to great lengths to get their hands on these rare models, lining up all night. Examples include Nike Air Yeezy 2 “Red October”, and Air Jordan x 1 Off-White “Chicago”.

These shoes have a retail value of US $ 190 to US $ 240 (£ 135 to £ 170) and sell for between US $ 1,695 and US $ 6,118 (£ 1,202 and £ 4,339). The lucrative sneaker resale market has created a new cult of sneakers lovers which through entrepreneurship generate significant hype as well as personal income.

From sports to fashion, sneakers dominate the consumer market. Yet despite their mainstream adoption, the sneakers retain their composure as cultural icons.


About Shirley Dickson

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