What Are Those? The Rise of Sneaker Culture

“What are those?!” Or rather, “what is this?! Atlanta’s High Museum is debuting a new exhibition that is sure to catch the attention of sneakerheads across the metro area. The Rise of Sneaker Culture displays some of the most renowned sneakers from well known names in athletic shoe wear such as Adidas, Nike, Converse, and more, all of summer sixteen. But in my opinion just like a fresh pair of kicks ciphered with a pair of dad jeans, the High Museum seemed to have fumbled a golden opportunity to create something show-stopping. The sneakers that are on display at the museum are good, but the problem lies in the lack of variety, and how they are displayed in a trophy case does not align with its aesthetic appeal in the sneaker culture.

sne1The individuals that put together this exhibition come off in a similar fashion as the voters of hip hop categories at the Grammy awards, not directly in touch with the culture. The same people that would look at you “sideways” when you came to school with your shell toe Adidas with no lace style, or claim you ruined your favorite pair of air forces when you spray painted them with your name across the side. Unfortunately, The Rise of Sneaker Culture falls shorter than basketball shorts in the 80s, however if I may humbly educate the connoisseurs of fine footwear over at The High Museum for a moment on the cultural relevance of sneakers in society my belief is that we can get back on the right foot.

We are all inspired, as natural artists, by the world that we live in. Musicians are inspired by past relationships, dancers are inspired by the grace and visceral movement of wildlife, and many visual artists draw the world they see. For sneaker designers the inspiration is often the same; Adidas’ go-to designer Jeremy Scott’s collaboration “Wings” are inspired by the eagle. Revered sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield was pressed by Michael Jordan to incorporate animal print into the Air Jordans, and did exactly that with the unforgettable elephant print on the midsole of the Air Jordan III. Sometimes the inspiration for the sneakers is a bit more personal, as was the case with retired basketball player Dikembe Mutombo’s Adidas inspired by his native African country Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) with its African print draping the side panels of the shoe, and a shield with crossed spears on the tongue of the shoe. Though it may seem like a recent trend, inspiration in creating popular shoes actually began almost 150 years ago with one of, if not the first popular sneaker, the plimsoll. The plimsoll was a shoe from the 1870s by people of the upper class who could afford to vacation, and also later by athletes participating in tennis and croquet.

FullSizeRender (2)The shoe was nicknamed ‘the plimsoll’ because of the colorized horizontal band joining the upper sole on the side of the shoe having a strong resemblance to the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull. In many ways, the plimsoll was a century before its time, and the first high-end luxury brand sneaker. In the years to follow shoes would be going in a different direction, and would find a real purpose in everyday society as American capitalism took over.
Did you know the term ‘sneaker’ was coined back in the 1890s? There was no need for such a word prior, but as the turn of the century loomed the western world began to more emphasis on physical prowess. At the same time, technology was beginning to improve and companies were finding more efficient ways to make old necessities, including shoes. In 1892 the U.S. rubber company changed the game with the first shoe to feature a rubber sole, which was the equivalent to polaroids being used in cameras. The world of sneakers never looked back, and the demand for this new hybrid shoe called a “sneaker” skyrocketed.

We all know the company Spalding today for quality basketball products, but they also debuted the first basketball shoe in 1904 with the Spalding “Expert” which closely resembles the shoes you would wear when bowling, but with a high-top variation. At that time, Spalding introduced the world to new technology in the world of shoes with the pure gum soles for the “Expert,” and based off the original advertisement of the sneaker, it was truly marketed to experts: “We present the No. BBR Spalding Expert Basketball Shoe as the only perfect basketball shoe ever made for expert use. We do not guarantee the soles of these shoes.” Not exactly a Nike promo, but these sneakers were the beginning of a revolution, and with the country putting more of their attention and funds into sports coming off the first World War, Spalding passed the baton to Converse.
The Converse brand has several sneakers, but none more important than the Chuck Taylor All Stars. Today, when we think about the Chuck Taylors we most closely associate them with stoner rapper Wiz Khalifa, and his rap group properly named Taylor Gang. Or, if you are from Generation X you may think of the OG stoner rapper Snoop Dogg, and a myriad of other West Coast Rappers. The Chuck Taylor All-Star has clearly had the longest run as a sneaker associated with coolness, and first to make a transition from the basketball courts to the streets of American city people. Even prior to athletes lacing up the Chucks on the courts, the soldiers of WW2 in the 1940s would wear the rubberized shoes during combat, and as a result of the success of the war the converse brand became associated with American pride and grew widely popular in the 1950s and 60s. As cool as Wiz and Snoop are to kids these days there was no one cooler in the 1970s than basketball Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving with his acrobatic athletic ability, his signature afro, and he was one of the first athletes to get his own signature shoe with the Converse brand called The Pro Leather.

Converse began a trend that still carries on today of sneaker companies aligning themselves with big-name athletes, specifically basketball players, and both parties reaping the benefits of the partnership. Basketball players were important then, and remain important today in the sneaker selling business, but by the next decade a new group of American heroes came to the forefront by way of music, and proved to be just as important to the sneaker culture.
The three stripes, the swoosh, the capital “N,” and the Jumpman. We all know the brands associated with these logos today, but there was a time when they all had to work to capture the hearts of consumers. The rap pioneers Run-DMC were shouting about their beloved Adidas back in 1986, and when we look back on the 80s decade the Adidas track suit and shell toe shoes are some of the first culture pieces that come to mind, and we have them to thank for that. Ten years later the R&B group Boyz II Men became the center of modern day entertainment history by showing up to the 1996 Grammy Awards in full suit & tie but also rocking the newly released Air Jordan XI’s. Just over five years later Nelly had the whole country asking for “two perrs” of Air Force 1s.


The year 2002 was probably the year the floodgates opened for name dropping kicks in hip-hop music, but rappers and sneaker brands had only just begun to scratch the surface in potential business ventures. In fact, a year after Nelly topped the hip-hop charts with “Air Force 1s,” Reebok gave the hottest rapper in the game at that point his own signature shoe, 50 Cent’s G-Unit sneaker. You would be hard pressed to find anybody wearing them now, but at the time you were the coolest kid in school if you had G-Unit Sneakers with the G-Unit headband to match. Rev Run of Run-DMC came back to relevance in the 2000s with his hit family TV show “Run’s House” starring himself and his family; his two eldest daughters, Angela and Vanessa Simmons cashed out on the popularity of the show and launched Pastry Footwear under their family’s line footwear named Run Athletics. It is safe to say that hip-hop was at the forefront in the popularization of sneakers in the psyche of mainstream America.
Today, much like hip-hop music itself, the sneakers have left the blocks and ghettos of inner city American streets and have found relevance in luxury brands. Most notably, the French designer Christian Louboutin and his signature red bottom luxury shoes. Initially the shoe was most commonly associated with women’s high heels, but the designer began manufacturing men’s sneakers at the beginning of the decade and was one of the pioneers of the luxury sneaker. The Louboutin sneaker has been recognized by rappers such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and most commonly by Rick Ross in DJ Khaled’s 2010 hit song “I’m on One.” Rappers are often seen as leaders in fashion for the youth, with Kanye West standing firmly at the top. His lucrative sneaker deal with Nike back in 2009 was the first of its kind, with the impeccable athletic brand never doing a full-time sneaker deal with a non-athlete; the “Yeezy” was born. When the Nike Air Yeezy debuted it didn’t take people long to catch on to the greatness of the sneakers aesthetic. It was the sneaker that merged the two worlds of athletics and high fashion. Now a designer at Adidas, Kanye has shifted the paradigm of how far-reaching entertainers business ventures can go, and also what type of sneakers appeal to the masses.
I was born in 1995; exactly 10 years after the first Air Jordan was released under the Nike Brand. The black/red Air Jordan 1’s released that year will go down in infamy as the sneakers Michael Jordan wore against the NBA’s approval his rookie year; fined $5000 per game he wore the sneakers with the fine paid by Nike every single time. The history of these sneakers are the ultimate symbol of youth rebellion and badassness, and are the prize possession of my shoe collection. In saying that, I can honestly say there is no personal connection to the shoe; I did not know the backstory of these Air Jordans often called the ”Banned 1s” when I originally bought them, but I did genuinely want the shoes, because I thought they were cool.

FullSizeRenderWe are a generation of culture historians; it’s all about back in the day in music, television, and fashion. Let’s retro everything! We’re constantly trying to get back to a time where everything was ”phat” and ”dope” with no recollection of what it means to be dope and where the word derived from. Part of the recent rise of sneaker culture is an identity crisis. Who do the millennials want to be, and what do we actually like? Let Twitter decide or Insta, whatever is trending. Frankly, that’s exactly how sneaker culture began with the Converse All Star, Adidas Superstar, and even the often-forgotten Reebok Classics. Someone did it, and others thought it was cool. My hope is that the conspicuous rise of sneaker culture will continue to rise in the opposite direction of retail prices, and when we ask “What are those?!” it is not to “clown” or discredit someone’s shoe game but because we think the kicks are actually noteworthy, like back in the day.

-Terrence D. Burruss