Written by Elizabeth Paton
Do you know your SMU from your player exclusive or the most traded pair of sneakers in history? The top 10 consumers of sneakers by country? The answers can be found in ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’, an ambitious new exhibition that opened at the Design Museum in London last week. It offers positive proof, if any, that we live in the age of the sneaker.
Driven by a mix of consumer demand, savvy brand marketing, manufacturing innovation and internet-powered hype, sneakers are both a dominant fashion industry worth around $ 115 billion. dollars a year, according to estimates by the NPD market research group, and an increasingly valuable collector. asset class.
Kanye West’s first pair of Yeezys samples – black leather high top shoes he wore to the 2008 Grammys – sold for $ 1.8 million at Sotheby’s in April. They have become the most expensive sneakers of all time, breaking a previous record of $ 560,000 set last year for a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s worn in a game by Michael Jordan. A growing resale market fueled by the popularity of platforms like StockX and Goat suggests that there are now millions of consumers more interested in trading the goods than wearing them.
Sneakerhead culture is even booming in the digital-only realm, with the March release of Gucci’s Virtual 25, a pair of neon green neon virtual clothing widely available for $ 17.99, and a trio of NFT sneaker designs that have grossed $ 3.1 million through the purchase of 621 pairs. in just seven minutes this year.
And, as Louis Vuitton’s director of menswear, Virgil Abloh, ironically noted last year, many young people “may value sneakers more than a Matisse.”
But are they really an art form?
“Like many everyday functional fashion items, there is an ongoing debate as to whether sneakers should be considered art and receive the same kudos now that they have a similar business model. and are also the subject of museum shows, ”said Ligaya Salazar, curator of“ Sneakers Unboxed, ”which runs until October 24. But what is beyond doubt, she said, is that they should “be seen as part of design culture and worthy of academic discussion.”
To that end, the parade, which features more than 270 pairs of sneakers, traces the history and evolution of the shoe from a rubber-soled sports tennis shoe in the early 1900s to an emblem of cool powered by the youth cultures. It analyzes their role as a canvas for political commentary and projections, as well as the increasingly fierce global arms race in design and innovation between competing brands.
The role of young people in turning sports equipment sneakers into tools of cultural expression and transforming the sector into a multi-billion dollar industry is emphasized throughout the exhibition. It begins with New York City’s black basketball and hip-hop communities in the 1970s and 1980s, with the 1984 Nike deal with Jordan and a Run DMC collaboration with Adidas.
From there, it varies widely, highlighting the adoption of basketball sneakers by the California skate scene; the “casual,” working-class football fans who populated club terraces across Britain and used different styles of Adidas to reflect their coded rivalries; as well as the cholombianos in Mexico, known for their custom Converse, and the bubbleheads of Cape Town, who prefer Nike bubble-soled sneakers and use sneakers as signifiers of personal wealth in the local townships.
“We’ve always been shot,” Riyadh Roberts, a South African hip-hop artist better known as YoungstaCPT, said in a video interview on the show that highlights how sneakers, like art, can convey. ideas about social significance, including national identity, class and race. “We have always been sidelined. We have always been forgotten. And yet we come out of the kak looking better than those with money, than those who are elite. (“Kak” means Afrikaans for “feces”.)
Fashion’s role in elevating the high-end cultural status of sneakers by giving design legitimacy is another focus of the show, with styles such as Junya Watanabe’s 1999 Zoom Haven Commes des Garçons, the introduction in 2002 from the Y-3 Adidas line by Yohji Yamamoto, the $ 1,000 Balenciaga Triple S Clodhopper and the hot pink Martine Rose Nike Air Monarch IV, made by placing a size 18 mold on a size 9 sole.
Stepping away from the pop cultural relevance of the trainer, the second half of the exhibit focuses on sustainability and environmental issues currently facing the fashion and sportswear industries.
It showcases innovations like the Stan Smith mushroom leather sneakers from Adidas and Mylo, as well as the company’s Futurecraft Strung 3D knitting robot, designed to reduce waste and shown in action. Also worth seeing: the world’s first biologically active shoes developed by the MIT Design Lab and Biorealize for Puma. Known as the breathing shoe, the material of the sneakers harbors microorganisms that can learn a user’s specific heat emissions and open the ventilation based on these models.
After all, despite the rarity of many of these items and a culture of scarcity, the sneaker industry is still exploding, especially the resale market, where styles can sell out in seconds and has a strong environmental footprint. . According to Derek Morrison, director of StockX in Europe (the platform is also a sponsor of the exhibition), environmental issues could help shape the industry in the future.
“It has never been easier to access sneakers, so many focus less on the chase and more on the purpose and meaning of a purchase,” he said. “They buy more and more into craftsmanship, innovation, creators and the substance behind the designs. Sneakers are not the trend, they are mediums. “
As with fine art, there are few rules for collecting sneakers but many opinions and approaches. Some collectors carry their collection, while others keep them in refrigerators or perfectly packaged in their original boxes. Either way, Salazar said, “Collectors have proven invaluable as custodians and historians of these shoes and the cultures around them.”
And while Morrison noted that StockX “grew out of the recognition that buying and selling sneakers doesn’t have to look like the art industry, with opaque prices that hold sellers accountable at the expense of sellers. buyers, “he acknowledged that seeing sneakers” on this stage, as an exhibit at the center of one of the world’s most revered design institutions, is a huge validation of the sneaker culture and the power it has to offer. ‘she has accumulated.
From May 18 to October 24 at the Design Museum in London.