How Sneaker Culture Conquered the World

It seems a long way from a training shoe created in 1917 to the gaudy and much-coveted street-wear of today, but a new book demonstrates the long and lucrative history of the sneaker--and the sportsmen who became the brands' ambassadors.

Rizzoli New York

They wait in long lines in the bitter cold. They squeal with delight over the stitch on the shoes or the faux snakeskin upper. Colors more likely to be seen during Carnival in Rio than on any self-conscious American are hits. Catty quips about style choices are met with irrational exuberance over over-hyped new designs.

No, these aren’t the insufferable Carrie wannabes taking up New York’s sidewalks—they are teenage boys and grown men all over the world going on about basketball sneakers.

In terms of American contributions to global style and comfort, the basketball sneaker has to rank up there with the T-shirt and riveted jeans. And as can be seen in any mall or casual glance around the subway, the sneakers left the court long ago.

Today, sneakers are a hugely lucrative juggernaut. In 2012, for instance, Nike’s line of LeBron James sneakers generated $300 million—in the U.S alone. Apparently everybody still wants to be like Mike—so much so that kids get shot over pairs of his namesake sneakers. And the footwear’s infiltration of the fashion world is pretty much complete.

In his new book Slam Kicks: Basketball Sneakers that Changed the Game, published by Rizzoli this week, Slam Magazine editor Ben Osborne sketches the vivid and passion-filled history of the sneaker. Osborne takes us back to 1917 and the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in Massachusetts, and the company’s iconic hi-top All Stars.

With the All Stars, Osborne also introduces the two significant themes that underpin not only his book, but the wearing of basketball sneakers to the present day.

The first is the move to assign the naming of shoes to a specific, recognizable person. In this earliest case it was Chuck Taylor in 1921, four years after the shoes were released, who played for the brand’s semi-pro All Star team. Taylor offered his two cents for some changes to the shoe, and in turn Converse named the shoes for him, and placed his now iconic signature on the side.

This trend may seem unsurprising to us today, accustomed as we are to celebrity branding for everything from perfumes, to impotence medication, to food. But more than almost any other consumer durable, the success of a basketball shoe is commensurate to the star wattage of who is wearing the kicks. Part of this is unique to basketball. Soccer may be the biggest sport in the world, but even if you idolize Ronaldo, you can’t exactly wear his cleats to class or the club. On the other hand, in basketball you can not only wear what your idol is wearing—you can look good in them.

“The reason why I get the shoes is because I loved the player. The reason most SLAM readers get the shoes is because they love the players,” explains Osborne.

There is also a direct relationship between the star wattage of the player and the success of the shoe. Upstart brands like AND 1 or Pony hitched their fates to athletes from their launches. In the case of AND 1 and its Thai Chi model, it was Vince Carter, who would wow teenage boys everywhere in the 2000 NBA All-Star Dunk Contest.

In 1975, that upstart brand was Pony and its new product, the TOPSTAR, which became popular after the company snagged the league’s hot newcomers David Thompson and Darryl Dawkins in their first season. Now, points out Osborne, “Under Armour is getting the first buzz it’s ever gotten because Stephen Curry is wearing them now.” Curry, who first came to national attention as a college star at Davidson College, is now a star in the NBA who set the single-season record for three-pointers in the 2012-2013 season.

So, with a few exceptions, most notably the 1949 Pro-Keds Royal which hasn’t been seen on a court in a while, the biggest shoes in the book were tied to the game’s biggest stars. That goes for 1971’s Adidas Abdul-Jabbar’s, which featured the player’s face as he went on to set records in almost every facet of the game. The same goes for the Puma Clyde, which featured Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s signature and brought suede into the game.

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I still remember how cool I thought I was when I got my first pair of Allen Iverson-branded Reebok The Question’s (even though I was a couple years late). Iverson, a former standout at Georgetown University, was at the peak of his game. Just a few years earlier he had crossed up Michael Jordan of all people. And this was before his infamous “We’re talking ‘bout practice?” rant that marked his downward career spiral. I would later go on to buy the equally cool at the time, and incredibly loud, T-Mac 1’s from Adidas thanks to Tracy McGrady—the top player on the Orlando Magic.

In one sense the players and the line associated with them are like fashion houses. Just as there was only one Coco Chanel, there was and is only one Michael Jordan. Her combination of skill and public persona left an indelible mark on the fashion world. It was no different for Jordan. He was not just the best player of his time—he was a showman of epic proportions.

When the first Air Jordan’s came out, not only had he averaged 28.2 points per game, but NBA Commissioner David Stern’s attempted in 1985 to ban the star from wearing the “loud” black-and-red sneakers, which only added to the frenzy.

Since then, the brand has grown and his eponymous sneaker line has generated billions in revenue for Nike. Now, not only do new versions of his sneakers sell out, but so do releases of retro versions (never as well-made as the originals).

The second and less important theme of the book is the technological advances and changes in the design and production of the shoe themselves. The 1917 Chuck Taylor’s are insanely cool and the design timeless. Rick Barry, who today is probably more famous for offering to teach Shaq how to shoot free throws underhand, was involved in making updates to the 1979 adidas Top Ten’s, including its perforated toe area for breathability and more ankle support (issues now taken for granted).

In the 1980s it was the introduction of Nike Air technology in the first Air Force 1’s. In addition to garish colors (looking at you, Nike Air Foamposites) the feet in the ‘90s were dressed up with advances like adidas’s Feet You Wear design. In the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps the biggest novelty was the launch of Nike Shox, which with its exposed heel bared its advances for the world to see. Today's sneakers feature 3-D printing and materials like Nike’s Lunarlite foam.

Osborne also highlights the sneaker's importance in popular culture, especially in music, notably on Run-DMC’s album Raising Hell in which one of the tracks was titled “My Adidas” and was “an unabashed ode to the joys of the Superstar.” The Superstar was the 1969 Adidas sneaker which featured the rubber toe cap and the iconic three serrated stripes along the side.

Throughout its history Converse has maintained strong ties to street culture. In the 1970s, it made the astute decision to align itself with rising star Dr. J, and saw its value rise not only on the court, but in the nascent hip-hop world. Now the brand collaborates with designers like John Varvatos and hotspots like the Ace Hotel.

If how much we're willing to pay for them is a measure, the future of the sneaker seems healthy. For the sneakers yet to come,popularized by the players who stutter-step, jump, and run in them, the path forward laid out by those who came before seems pretty clear. Win, with style.