The rise of sneakers and the culture that surrounds them continues to grow at rapid clip. Sneaker culture now touches nearly all aspects of the culture at large, from art to music to sports. Takashi Murakami lends his art to a pair of Vans Slip-Ons. Kanye West designs his Yeezy sneakers with Adidas. LeBron James posts pics of his impressive collection of kicks on Instagram just like any other sneakerhead.
While the world of sneakers has grown, it still seems very fleeting. With the constant barrage of new releases it can be very difficult to see the forest for the trees. But sneakers have been part of a broad enough swath of history that they can now be reflected on with some context. That is one of the goals of a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum called “The Rise Of Sneaker Culture” that opens on July 10. The exhibition isn’t a wonky, academic pursuit. It’s a display of some of the rarest and most significant sneakers ever, and a way to trace the evolution of sneaker culture from the discovery of rubber up through today.
Elizabeth Semmelhack is a senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto who is responsible for the traveling exhibition on display at the Brooklyn Museum. We spoke with her to find out the stories behind some of the artifacts, what sneakers say about masculinity, and her favorite pair of kicks.
What was the genesis of “Rise of Sneaker Culture”?
The exhibition was originally here at the Bata Museum. What’s opening in Brooklyn is a traveling version that has been expanded and organized by the American Federation of the Arts. One of the things that struck me is when I would tell people that I worked in a shoe museum, they assumed that everything I did was related to women, as though shoes are only worn by women. So that was in the back of my mind. Then I was working with a graduate student, who wanted to come and see some moccasins. At the end of his time down in storage he asked if he could see the sneaker collection. We were not actively collecting sneakers at that time. He looked at me and said, “I think we should try to change that.” And I said, “Hey, what about a sneaker exhibition?”
How broad is the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum?
A lot of people see sneaker culture starting with the signing of Michael Jordan to Nike in 1984 and the signing of Run-DMC to Adidas in ‘86. But this exhibition argues that sneaker culture goes much further back. I start the exhibition with rubber. If it hadn’t been for the sap of a tree, we would never have a sneaker. So it goes from the earliest pre-vulcanized rubber footwear exported to the west from Brazil to very early sneakers, like the original Converse All-Star, the original Keds Champion. It comes up through the 1930s, ‘40s, and '50s. It looks at issues related to innovation and technology. I’m interested in how the Me generation of the '70s takes high-end sneakers and turns them into fashion. Those who could afford expensive sneakers not only wore them for jogging but wore them to discos as well. Then we talk about the rise of televised sports, particularly basketball, and then the confluence of cult of personality, masculinity, and the status basketball sneaker really forming the basis for what we now consider to be sneaker culture.
What was your reaction when you saw how big sneaker culture has become?
A long thread that binds all these things together is that sneaker culture is related to constructions of masculinity. One of the longstanding traditions in men’s attire is that men have been expected to have a herd mentality when it comes to dress. At a formal event, men all show up in a tux. Women are expected to not show up in the same dress. I think that sneaker culture is helping to shift that because one of the challenge behind that mass uniform. Sneaker culture is enfranchising men into the fashion system and allowing them to express individuality. But it now comes increasingly with the obligation that you don’t have on the same shoes as anybody else.
Why do sneakers belong in an institution like the Brooklyn Museum?
It’s worthy of inclusion because—like other objects that humans make they have meaning—maybe even more so than unique works of art, which sometimes only speak to the mind of the individual maker. Sneakers can take the pulse of a generation in a way that those objects cannot. What I find so amazing about working with footwear—and sneakers in particular—is that you have industry, culture, music, sports, all coming together and being embodied in a single shoe. I think, too, that putting them into a museum setting helps people see these objects differently.
For someone who could care less about sneakers, what do you think they will enjoy? And on the flip side, what will the diehard sneakerhead like about the exhibition?
I hoped to build an exhibit that made even those not interested in sneakers leave being amazed at how integral sneakers and sneaker culture have been to our culture and also be amazed at how much information—cultural, social, technological—is embedded in these shoes. For sneakerheads, I wanted to make sure that every sneaker that they expected to be in the exhibition would be there, but that they would also get to see things that they would never be able to see in real life such as the original Converse All-Star, a pairs of Adidas Superstars signed by Run-DMC, the original Waffle Trainer and Air Force 1 from the Nike archives.
Is there one piece that stands out for you?
I have to say I have a soft spot for the Air Jordan XI. That was great to get from the Nike archives. One of the things I’m very excited about is that we’re going to have the Haillet Stan Smith. The Stan Smith actually started out as the Haillet. [Robert Haillet] was a famous tennis star and Adidas approached him first for a signature shoe. Then when he was getting ready to retire, they added Stan Smith’s name to the Haillet, so it had both tennis players names on the same shoe. Then eventually Haillet’s name was dropped and it became just the Stan Smith. I have all three versions of that shoe in the exhibition.
Why do you think sneakers resonate so much with people right now?
The long history of the sneaker does gives it its importance today. As men became increasingly interested in expressing individuality through fashion, sneakers are one of the most discursive accessories that they have access to. Meaning that if you are wearing a T-shirt and jeans and you put on a pair of Chucks, it says a different statement than if you put on a pair of Air Jordans, or a pair of Lanvins. Each one of those sneaker choices conveys a very different nuanced expression of masculinity.
If this exhibit were held 20 years from now, what sneakers that are currently out there might be in it?
I am interested to see where lines like Common Projects go. I’m interested in where normcore is headed. I’m interested in where luxury sneakers are headed. It will be interesting in 20 years to see how many high end designers get into the sneaker game and how artisanal our sneaker production could become. Up until the 19th century pretty much all of an individual’s footwear would be made by the local shoemaker. Everything was bespoke because there was no mass production. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, mass production defined fashion. I think it’s interesting that the sneaker is now allowing for personal customization thereby in some ways returning shoemaking back to its origins.