By Steve Wright
Think $23,000 is small change for a pair of pumps? Congratulations, you're among the world's sneaker obsessives.
Think $23,000 is small change for a pair of pumps? Congratulations, you're among the world's sneaker obsessives..
July 14, 1916: The US Rubber Company introduce Keds, the world's first mass-produced trainers. Plain white, rubber-soled canvas shoes that inspired the now ubiquitous term 'sneakers' (so named because of how little noise they make when you walk or run), they're aimed at and largely bought by athletes and sports people.
February 22, 2005: Nike introduces the Pigeon Dunk, a New York-themed shoe created by design icon Jeff Staple. It's limited to just 150 pairs and a handful of trendy Manhattan boutiques; hip young things have been waiting in line, sleeping in tents, for up to four days beforehand.
Every pair sells out within 20 minutes - even those from the shops charging more than five times Nike's recommended retail price (anyone who misses out can pick up a pair on eBay that evening, but they won't see much change from $2,000) - and it's bedlam.
Each lucky buyer needs a police escort to get past the baseball bat and machete-wielding gangs waiting on every corner ready to relieve them of their purchase. The chaos makes the front page of the New Yorker the next day, and the world has had its first sneaker riot.
These days, trainers are a very big deal. Around $26 billion, in fact: that mind-boggling figure is what the global trainer market is estimated to be worth. Of that, only 20 per cent is accounted for by people buying them for sport. Everyone owns a pair - even those people whose idea of exercise doesn't go much further than brushing their teeth - and for some it's a way of life.
From Tokyo to Mexico City, ‘sneakerheads' will forego paying the rent or eating to own three identical pairs of the right colourway or rare-as-hen's-teeth style, bought from a cooler-than-cool shop where shoes are kept locked away in glass cases like jewellery.
They live on eBay, Hypebeast.com, Niketalk.com and (move over, MySpace) Sneakerplay.com, the social networking site created especially for trainer addicts. They talk sagely about 'tongue detail', 'high tops' and 'shell toes'. They own more pairs of trainers than there are days in the year.
But how exactly did the humble athletic show become possibly the cultural icon of the last 30 years? Neither its manufacturers nor its acolytes are entirely sure, although both would agree that one thing in particular has played a huge part: celebrity endorsement.
In 1973 New York Nicks star Walt 'Clyde' Frazier, known as much for his off-court mink coats and fedoras as his title-winning skills, approached Puma asking for a wider version of their basketball shoe. The eventual result was the Puma Clyde, a shoe that has become an all-time classic and is still a best-seller more than 30 years on.
The kids on New York's nascent hip-hop scene were among the first to pick up on the Clyde - no self-respecting breakdancer would be seen in anything else.The brand that would imprint itself indelibly on the music though, was Adidas, thanks to Run DMC and their predilection for the Superstar shoe, worn prison-style (without laces, to stop inmates doing themselves - or anyone else - any deliberate damage).
The group's decision to stick to street fashion on stage was a reaction to contemporaries like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who at the first sniff of fame had switched from tracksuits and trainers to migraine-inducing gold lamé jackets, spandex and tasselled leather boots.
The hit single My Adidas left no one in any doubt as to where Run DMC's loyalties lay, and inspired a concert craze for waving your Adidas in the air.
In 1996, Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay invited executives from the company over from Germany to see 20,000 people doing just that at Madison Square Garden - and then asked them for $1 million for all the free publicity. The cheeky beggars got both the money and their own Run DMC collection of shoes and clothes, which people went out and bought in droves. Consequently, Adidas' US profits jumped by $35 million.
The company credits Run DMC with saving the Superstar, these days easily its most iconic shoe, and after Jam Master Jay was tragically shot dead in 2002 it produced a special edition honouring the DJ's life.
Probably the single biggest factor in the humble trainer's rise to complete world domination, though, is the agreement Nike entered into in 1984 with a hotly-tipped but little known basketballer called Michael Jordan.
The company had little or no credibility on the streets at the time, but the arrival of ‘His Airness' changed all that. Despite David Beckham's best efforts, for most sports fans around the world there will only be one number 23; the man who propelled the Beaverton, Oregon company to the top of the global shoe tree. At the height of Air Jordan fever, one in twelve Americans owned a pair.
This February the 23rd and supposedly final edition of the shoe, the space-age XX3, was released, but it's the earlier models that give sneakerheads heart palpitations: a Japanese collector recently paid $23,000 for an original pair of black-and-gold Air Jordan 1s on eBay.
Why is anyone prepared to shell out such an extravagant amount? The answer is the driving force behind sneaker culture: exclusivity. The aim of the game is to have something on your feet that no one else does (your metaphorical feet, at least: true trainer fiends are too scared of thieves or dirt to actually wear their holy grail kicks), and so customisation, by everyone from Kanye West to your girlfriend's wannabe-graffiti-artist little brother, is the name of the game.
Alternatively, you can start entirely from scratch: Nike's ID and Puma's Mongolian BBQ (no, we're not sure why it's called that either) websites let you design your shoe exactly the way you want it, right down to stitching your name on the side - perfect for reliving those days of playground beatings because your mum 'didn't want you to lose your PE kit, love'.
Of course, the rather large elephant in the room at this point is the ethical issue - something that many sneakerheads seem happy to ignore.
Naomi Klein's 2000 anti-capitalist polemic No Logo brought to widespread attention the fact that trainer companies are among the worst offenders when it comes to exploiting sweatshop labour, with horror stories suggesting children as young as five were being paid a pittance to work 70-hour weeks producing shoes worth $200 a pair.Nike's own 2005 report into its factories in China, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam amongst other countries admitted widespread problems including wages below the legal minimum, 60-plus hour weeks with mandatory overtime, physical and verbal abuse, and restricted access to toilets and drinking water.
Nike has since joined the Fair Labour Association, a non-profit organisation that conducts independent audits aimed at improving workers' conditions, and other companies have made efforts to clean up their act.
(Environmental concerns are being addressed to some extent as well: Nike's Trash Talk shoe, for example, a collaborative effort with Pheonix Suns basketballer Steve Nash, is made from manufacturing waste and even comes in a 100 per cent recycled cardboard box.)
But while all sorts of questions remain about the dark side of the very thing it idolises, sneaker culture is bigger and more all-pervading than ever. It seems people will put up with most things for a fresh pairs of creps.
Great Article, but one thing that surprises me is that where is the brand called CONVERSEâ€¦??? I work in the same industry and I guess Converse was made before all these brands and also they are celebrating their 100th year of being made. Today Converse is one of the dominating brands in the world and they are worn by all ages and all categories.