Sneakerheads, who have often been mocked and ridiculed for standing in long lines and spending hundreds of dollars—all for a pair of sneakers—may at long last get some vindication for their passion with the latest exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
Enter “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” a curated collection of about 150 sneakers—from Adidas to Jordan to Giuseppe Zanotti—that will be on display from July 10 to Oct. 4. The exhibit isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s about history and exploring the cultural impact that sneakers have had on the world since their origins in the mid-19th century.
The exhibit, which began at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, is broken up into six parts and delves into the inception of rubberized soles and other design features, as well as the impact of hip-hop, high fashion and sports on the globalization of sneaker culture.
The Root caught up with Lisa Small, curator of the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, to chat about what sneaker connoisseurs will take away from this traveling presentation.
The Root: This exhibit isn’t just about style. There’s historical context and more, so please elaborate on the different components.
Lisa Small: It is organized in six sections. It’s got a section on innovation; very cool technical design issues that a lot of the sneaker manufacturers have put into play and developed—mainly things for elite athletes, but things that have trickled down, and now everybody wants them.
Then we have a section that’s really fascinating and historical, called Rubber Revolution. It goes back to the origins of the sneaker in the 19th century, when the whole process of rubber vulcanization first became possible. That’s what allowed shoes to have these rubber soles, and that started everything. You can’t have a sneaker without a rubber sole. There’s this great historical section with shoes from the late 19th century and early 20th century.
There is another section, called Body/Sole, which is about the early 20th century and the rise of various shoe companies, when they first start coming into play … the European shoe companies like Adidas and Puma. [It’s also about] the rise in society of this interest in physical culture and physical fitness, because that went along with sneakers as people in different countries, for different reasons, got more interested in being fit and participating in leisure activities and sports because they had more time, they had more money.
Then there’s a section called Fitness Fashion, which starts around the ’70s. It focuses on the 1970s and ’80s, which is this turning point where sneakers began to make what is now this huge and permanent shift into not just being something that athletes would wear but a fashion statement. [It’s] when rappers and hip-hop artists and B-boys started to wear them and it became a street-style object as well as a functional object. We have this great pair, the 25th-anniversary signed Adidas Superstar, signed by Run-DMC, which was a really critical moment in sneaker culture, when Run-DMC was actually signed by Adidas to represent their product when they realized that the shoe had almost as many followers and popularity in the world of hip-hop as it did in the world of sports. That’s a big moment.
We have a whole section that is just called Air Jordan 1 to 23. It’s about the iconic sneaker that pretty much defined sneaker culture in a way. There’s a representative sample, vintage samples of all of these Air Jordans, from the very first one to the Air Jordan 23, which is symbolic for the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls number. It talks about, again, the evolution of that design and … the Nike designer, Tinker Hatfield, all of his various influences and working with Michael in terms of what he wanted in a sneaker, and how the whole “Be Like Mike” thing is the mantra of sneaker culture [and] made that shoe so popular. Not only … the sneakerheads but specifically the Jordan heads will love that section.
The last section is called Fresh, and it really is just focusing on the point where we are now in sneaker culture, where high-end fashion designers have come on board and it’s come full circle where sneakers began as this item that only wealthy people could afford, when rubber was first developed. Sneakers were actually a high-end type of shoe, and now you’ve got people like Christian Louboutin and Giuseppe Zanotti and Lanvin as well as companies like Adidas collaborating with designers. You have Rick Owens for Adidas and all of that—a lot of sneakers as fashion. It’s really an expansive exhibition, and it touches on a lot of really interesting cultural moments examined through sneakers.
TR: What role would you say hip-hop and sports, specifically, played in the globalization of sneaker culture?
LS: They’re really two key and significant cultures. One of the things that’s identified in this show, in the ’80s, is really when what we consider sneaker culture has emerged. … These two pivotal events really are about music and sports—sports in that it was 1984 or ’85 that Nike signed with Michael Jordan, who was a young rookie at the time and made sneaker history.
Every time he wore the certain colorway [sneakerhead jargon for the colors of a shoe], the first Air Jordans on court, he was fined because they broke NBA rules about what color the shoes had to be. Every time he wore them, because he loved them so much, and he was fined, Nike paid his NBA fines because that was cheaper than any kind of major advertising that they could have done. It became embedded in the celebrity endorsement and the fact that sneakers emerged out of being, for elite athletes, functional shoes that provided support, cushioning, agility, that kind of thing. Then everyone wants to emulate their heroes, clearly, when companies started seeking endorsements with people like Michael Jordan or Walt “Clyde” Frazier, with the Puma Clydes—that sort of thing.
Then the other pivotal event does have to do with music, and again, it really comes down to Run-DMC being the group and at the moment that brought it bursting into popular consciousness. They loved their Adidas Superstars, and they wore them all the time. It was this thing they then obviously wrote a song about. They were already popular and headlining at stadiums, whether it was Madison Square Garden or something in, like, ’85.
They invited some Adidas executives to come see them in concert, and when they performed “My Adidas,” they said to the audience, “OK, everybody take off your shoes and hold them up,” the way people these days will hold up their matches or phones or whatever, lighters. They’re singing “My Adidas,” and the Adidas executives see thousands and thousands of people holding up their shoes. The next day they signed Run-DMC to a million-dollar endorsement contract—the first time a hip-hop group, a musical group, had a sneaker endorsement.
Here you have these two foundational events that really are the poles of sneaker culture, sports and hip-hop primarily, but now it’s all kind of music these days.
TR: Overall, what should sneakerheads come prepared for?
LS: They should come prepared to see things that might still be on their ultimate wish list but that they’ll never get because they’re in museums. Sneakerheads who’ve been doing it for a while might come prepared to be like, “Damn, I should have bought that when I had the chance back in the day,” or whatever.
I think anyone who—even people who aren’t sneakerheads, if you like design and you like looking at material culture like this and how it connects to society, you’ll find something of interest. If you’re a sneakerhead specifically, it’s like the Holy Grail for you because it’s a whole show that’s really conferring and acknowledging the significance of this object within people’s lives and within the larger culture in general. If you are obsessive over sneakers, you’ll feel justified.
Starrene Rhett Rocque is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer who often fantasizes about becoming a shotgun-toting, B movie heroine. Follow her on Twitter.