/ 10 May 2023

Unlacing the life and times of sneaker culture

From the court to the streets: Wenyen Gabriel of the Los Angeles Lakers wears Reeboks. (Ian Maule/Getty Images)

There are few subcultures that have made their way into the mainstream while also remaining below the surface of the everyday. The “sneakerverse” is prominent in the style and footwear zeitgeist but also is home to a community of niche collectors, resellers  and aggregators, where they transcend mere functional footwear.

Sneakers, in their contemporary form, have come a long way from their origins in the 19th century as sports equipment. Today, they are often objects of desire which come with their own lexicon and underlying messages. To followers and collectors of the sneaker world — or “sneakerheads” — the overarching mindset is, “I wear, therefore I am.”

When speaking to sneakerheads, or chatting to salespeople in specialised sneaker shops, you realise they have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the shoes on their feet and on the shelves. There are also online resources and reselling platforms with information and which use lingo like “grail” and “fufu”. However, there are not many in-depth resources for the history of the footwear.

Sole purpose

Enter Sneaker Obsession by Alexandre Pauwels, a journalist and writer for Kikikickz, the major French sneaker reseller.

In the book, Pauwels takes readers on a journey to the origins of the shoes we are most likely to be wearing right now. 

Today, “sneakers” typically describe the everyday lifestyle shoes that we wear to walk and to work, while “trainers” or “runners” point to the functional shoes originally designed for playing sport.

DJ Khaled sports Nike x Tiffany & Co. Air Force 1’s . (Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)

Whatever their function, they all fall under the sneaker umbrella and are made from similar materials, regardless of price and technology, such as leather, suede or cotton canvas, and have a rubber sole. 

The word “sneaker” comes from the verb “to sneak”. Author FW Robinson is said to have invented the word in 1862 for American advertising executives, writes Pauwels. 

“Both used it to evoke the shoe’s capacity to allow the wearer to move around silently, thanks to the rubber soles.”

The sneaker’s history, as detailed in Sneaker Obsession, is a journey of fierce competition, which follows societal shifts and the genesis of casual style. 

Between the late 1800s and the 1940s — the post-World War II era — sportswear brands such as Reebok, Adidas, Puma and New Balance began popping up.

In a quest for innovation in pursuit of the most functional footwear for anyone from Olympic champions to casual sportspeople, in the beginning these manufacturers produced them only as sports equipment. 

“[Sneakers] may have been designed to enhance athletic performance — and were long confined to this role by their creators — but sneakers hit the streets early on, worn by youth subcultures as an anti-establishment symbol,” writes Pauwels.

This happened as dress codes relaxed in the late 1940s and the world got progressively more casual.

The motive for wearing sneakers off the sports field was the desire to reject conventions, whether they were worn by skaters, anti-establishment youths or pop culture icons such as Marilyn Monroe.

Reading about the history of sneakers and their transition from functional to fashionable, as well as about the origins of the major brands, in Sneaker Obsession is a great foundation for anyone wanting to get into the game and Pauwels’s words and imagery make it easy.

Golden era

He cites the 1980s as the sneakerverse’s golden era, which changed everything. This was when sneaker culture started gaining momentum.

“This decade was the point of convergence between subcultures and athletic innovations, and sneakers were elevated to cult status,” writes Pauwels. “Carefree, creative, and decadent — words that could also describe the sneaker scene.”

The rise of sport culture, and the importance of fitness in the lives of Americans, as well as hip-hop becoming more mainstream, helped to focus the spotlight on sneakers.

Running became a thing, gym memberships soared and TV became more popular. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), for example, turned athletes into icons and celebrities and MTV began carrying hip-hop videos, where many of the artists wore sneakers.

Reebok’s Freestyle sneakers were perfect for the gym, Adidas released the Torsion and Nike dropped iconic footwear such as the Air Force 1, the Dunk and the Air Max. These sneakers have stood the test of time and can still be seen on feet today.

One of the most iconic sneakers to come out of this period was the 1985 Air Jordan 1 (known simply as “the Jordan”), launched by Nike for basketball player Michael Jordan. 

The exposure that athletes, especially basketball players, had on television in the US brought attention to the winning sneakers on the court, triggering fierce competition among sportswear giants.

“The Jordan was a game changer in many ways, but most of all it symbolised a new approach to design. Up until then, sneakers had been created solely for athletic performance; now Nike combined athletics with aesthetics,” writes Pauwels.

The red, black and white Jordan was a rule breaker — the first non-white basketball shoe, in violation of the sport’s rules.

Nike and Michael Jordan had to pay a hefty fine every time he wore his Jordans. But clever marketing boosted the shoe’s popularity off the court, helping to pay those fines.

“Jordan was driven by marketing experts […] What was needed was someone to think beyond the sport in order to usher in something fresh, just as Reebok did with the aerobic shoe,” says Maximilien N’Tary Calaffard, a collector profiled in Sneaker Obsessions.

But while people were wearing sports sneakers on the streets in the 1980s, lifestyle sneakers, as a separate category, took a long time to develop and sneakers only truly transitioned from sportswear from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.

Signed Michael Jordan Nike 1985 Air Jordan 1s. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Selling soles

Flipping through Sneaker Obsession, as well as history, there are pages dedicated to major brands and designers; the role of modern hype; the resale world; luxury sneakers and the downfall of Yeezy after Adidas parted ways with Kanye West last year.

Pauwels describes hype as the “unique energy that has guided brands” ever since the early 2000s, and how their strategies have changed to pander to consumers’ desire for design over performance”.

“The passion for sneakers developed and took shape via the internet as the first blogs and forums appeared. A community was created, sharing knowledge and news about new releases. And the releases just kept coming,” writes Pauwels.

Lifestyle sneakers have taken over from sportswear, ushering in a chaotic mix of innovations and old-school nostalgia. Collaborations enter the chat here as another tool to build hype.

The collaboration model has become the perfect tool to drive sales, based on exclusivity, and to generate hype, says Pauwels. This is set in motion by media buzz, which boosts demand.

South Africans have been in on this too. Designer Thebe Magugu joined forces with Adidas last year for a bird of paradise-inspired sneaker, while the country’s premier sneaker store Shelflife did a design with New Balance which was an ode to Johannesburg.

Sneaker culture: Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy 1 sneakers on display at auction house Sotheby’s in 2021. Photo: Miguel Candela/Getty Images

But these hyped sneaker releases and designer collaborations are only the tip of the iceberg. The sneaker world thrives on the resale market, which, Pauwels writes, is predicted to reach $30 billion by 2030.

“This secondary market, where new pairs of sold-out models sell for sometimes eye-watering prices, has gone from an obscure parallel economy to a multimillion-dollar industry,” he says.

What sets the prices on the resale market? For some big resellers, including Kikikickz and StockX, the simple supply-and-demand model dictates the price but hype plays a part too. The more rare or coveted the sneaker, the higher the price.

Some of the most coveted sneakers on the resale market include the Nike collaborations with the likes of Virgil Abloh, Sacai and Travis Scott and any pair of Jordans worn by Michael Jordan when his team won.

Sneaker Obsession has a section on the world’s most expensive sneakers. At the moment, that title goes to a prototype pair of 2008 Nike Air Yeezy 1s that sold for $1.8 million in April 2021 at Sotheby’s. 

Other shoes that top the list are three pairs of Jordans that range between $1.4 million and $500 000 and a pair of Converse worn by Jordan before he signed with Nike.

This might not be the golden era of the footwear but today’s world of hype sneakers, innovation and interesting collaborations deserves a mention. The continuous evolution and referential storytelling is what makes the sneaker world so exciting.

Sneaker Obsessions by Alexandre Pauwels, published by Flammarion, is available for R450.

Timeline: A jog through the history of the sneakerverse

1839: The invention of rubber vulcanisation gave rise to a tough new material which could be used for the “sneaky” soles of sporting shoes.

1895: The world’s oldest sportswear brand JW Foster & Sons was established to produce athletic shoes, and goes on to officially re-establish as Reebok in 1958.

1900s: The emerging sports-shoe industry took off as cultures shifted, the Olympics inspired sports clubs and federations and members of the public were encouraged to take up sports.

1906: New Balance was founded by William Riley to provide shoes with arch support and trainers for runners.

1908: Converse was established in Massachusetts in the US to sell rubber boots. It only started selling sneakers in 1915. The company was sold to Nike in 2001 after filing for   bankruptcy.

1940s: Beyond the sports field, sneakers became symbols of youth culture and anti-establishment after World War II. Members of the French Zabou Movement danced to bebop jazz in canvas sneakers; they were fashionable at elite US universities, while hippies and rock stars paired them with jeans.

1948 and 1949: German brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler formed  their own sneaker brands. Rudolf started Puma in 1948 and Adolf established Adidas in 1949.

1953: Japanese basketball shoemaker Kihachiro Onitsuka released a pair of running shoes favoured during the 1968 Mexico Olympics and the shoe’s stripes were dubbed “the Mexico lines”. These shoes were renamed “Asics” in 1977.

1966: Vans is founded by brothers Paul and James Van Doren in California. The brand was the pioneer in skateboarding shoes and customisation, helping it hold up against the sportswear giants.

1971: Nike is established in Oregon,  in the US, designing running shoes like the Cortez, which was the first to sport the iconic “swoosh” at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Run with it: A pair of Run DMC by Adidas. The company was started by German Adolf Dassler in 1949. Photo: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

1984: Nike’s all-white reputation nearly pushed it to bankruptcy. The brand took a gamble on rising basketball player Michael Jordan and established Jordan as a subsidiary of Nike, now one of the most coveted sneakers in the game.

1980: The decade gave rise to a sneaker culture underpinned by the hip-hop subcultures that pioneered sneakers as a coded statement piece. Run-DMC’s song My Adidas helped give a contemporary view to streetwear, while 1984’s Breakin’ showed breakdancers wearing Nikes.

1990s: Dubbed “the lifestyle decade”, Nike sales shot up 600% in the 1990s after widespread adoption of running shoes and urban hobbies such as skateboarding. This democratisation of sports and the rise of rap music spawned distinctive sneaker styles such as the Nike Air Max.

2002: Before sportswear and designer collaborations were the norm, Nike rejected a partnership proposed by designer Yohji Yamamoto. Nike’s response was, “We’re sorry, but we’re working with sportswear, not fashion.”

2003: The first wave of hip-hop sneaker collaborations hit when Reebok enlisted Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams and 50 Cent. This crossover between sneakers and hip-hop was a sign of what was to come in the next decade.

2013: Kanye West collaborates with Adidas to launch Yeezy. He waited two years to release his 750 sneaker that dropped in extremely small quantities. The Yeezy brand alone was valued at $3 billion before the partnership ended last year.

2014: One billion pairs of Converse All Stars have been sold since 1934, making it the most successful sneaker of all time.

2023 and beyond: Sneaker culture and the resale world continue to flourish, while evolving forms as trends and tastes fluctuate. The resale market (thanks to hype, technology, and social media) is predicted to reach $30 billion by 2030.