Comment: How sneakers went from athletic shoes to cultural symbols and cult objects

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NOTTINGHAM, England: Sneakers, once a symbol of athletics, have transcended their primary function to become fashionable and commercial objects of desire.

From sportswear and street style to catwalk fashion, sneakers have established themselves as cultural products.

The global sneakers market was valued at around US $ 79 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach US $ 120 billion by 2026. With such huge growth, it is no surprise that they are considered a large company. .

These are the advancements in the sneaker industry that a new exhibition at the Design Museum in London explores how the shoe has become an undisputed cultural symbol of our time.

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COMFORT IS KING

The last decade has seen a huge change in the way sneakers are worn. Slipping on a pair is no longer frowned upon in the workplace or on more formal occasions. Even UK label experts Debrett’s have given their approval, deeming them socially acceptable for chic and casual occasions.

The continued dominance of the athleisure trend has had a significant impact on the growth of sneaker sales, as well as the pursuit of comfort. This only increased during the pandemic as lockdowns pushed people to prioritize comfort more, leading to increased sales of loungewear, sportswear and flats like sneakers.

As such, sneakers have gone from the niche to become coveted fashionable items. Shoes are now the best-selling category in the online luxury market and sneakers have been a big contributor to this growth.

High fashion brands from Gucci to Balenciaga set the tone in the luxury sneaker market. In 2017, Balenciaga’s Triple S became the biggest seller in the luxury sneaker market and its popularity seems unstoppable.

Triple S sneakers from Balenciaga. (Photo: Balenciaga)

To understand how the sneaker became a shoe phenomenon, it is important to trace its heritage from function to cultural icon.

FROM TENNIS SHOES TO TRACK

The first athletic shoes were created by the Liverpool Rubber Company, founded by John Boyd Dunlop, in the 1830s. Dunlop was an innovator who discovered how to bind canvas uppers to rubber soles. These were known as sandhoes and worn by the Victorians on their beach trips.

Historian Thomas Turner defines the final decades of the 19th century as a time when industrial progress and social change were paired with a growing enthusiasm for sports, especially lawn tennis.

This resulted in the need for a more specialized type of shoe, which Dunlop’s rubber sole could meet. Dunlop launched their now iconic Green Flash model in 1929, worn by tennis legend Fred Perry at Wimbledon.

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Other important sports shoes of the 20th century include the Converse All Star, designed for basketball. However, it was Adidas and Nike that both shaped the evolution of the sneaker from sport to style.

Founded by Adi Dassler in Germany in 1924 under the name “Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik”, the company was later renamed Adidas in 1949. The brand created the first running shoe with a full leather sole and hand forged tips. , which was worn by Jessie Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Nike was created by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports and became Nike Inc in 1971. This coincided with the running craze that hit America.

Nike’s first commercial model was the Cortez, cushioned for running. The Cortez was worn by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, ensuring Nike’s cultural status.

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THE MARKETING OF COOL

Sociologist Yuniya Kawamura’s research on sneakers defines three waves of the phenomenon. The first wave of the 1970s was defined by an underground sneaker culture and the emergence of hip-hop.

Adidas’ Samba design, as a key example, has become a key part of Terrace Fashion within the football fan subculture. In 1986, Run-DMC released the song My Adidas, leading to a sponsorship deal with the brand. This forged the deep-rooted place of the sneaker in popular culture.

Shoes worn by NBA players are pictured at auction preview in Geneva

Shoes at an auction on April 28, 2021 (Photo: REUTERS / Denis Balibouse)

The second wave of the phenomenon began in 1984 with the launch of the Nike Air Jordans. This gave rise to the commodification of sneakers and their desirability as status items, fueled by celebrity support.

For Kawamura, the third wave is marked by the digital age and the resulting growth in sneaker marketing and resale culture. The global sneaker resale market was valued at US $ 6 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach US $ 30 billion by 2030.

The growing presence of “sneakerheads” who collect and sell sneakers has allowed them to maintain their cult status. Nike and Adidas regularly release limited edition shoes associated with a celebrity, hip-hop star, or athlete.

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It’s not uncommon for people to go to great lengths to get their hands on these rare models, lining up all night. Examples include Nike Air Yeezy 2 Red October and Air Jordan x 1 Off-White Chicago.

These shoes have a retail value of US $ 190 to US $ 240 and sell for between US $ 1,695 and US $ 6,118. The lucrative sneaker resale market has created a new cult of sneaker enthusiasts who, through their entrepreneurial spirit, generate significant hype as well as personal income.

From sports to fashion, sneakers dominate the consumer market. Yet despite their mainstream adoption, sneakers retain their freshness as cultural icons.

Naomi Braithwaite is Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Branding at Nottingham Trent University. This comment first appeared on The Conversation.


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