Flaming Lips:Flukiest Music

The Heads Behind The Shoes


An Oral History Of Contemporary Sneaker Culture

by Tatiana Simonian

From sneaker heads to sneaker pimps, kicks are more than shoes for a lot of people - they're a way of life. Be it as cultural signifiers or performance enhancers, the phenomenon of contemporary sneaker culture has gone far beyond functional fashion. But what has led to and what lies behind the passion of the sneaker? At the end of the day, enthusiasts and designers ranging from Beastie Boy's photographer Ricky Powell to Medium designer Eric Meyers would say, it's simple; you are what you wear.

Whether on the skate or basketball side of sneaker mania, digs are a sign of identification and an obsession more concerned with being true to the past than trying to break out into the future. Kevin Wildes, creator and producer of the ESPN show, It's the Shoes explains, "A big part of sneaker culture is [that] it's a way to tap back into your youth and that's why the retro market is so popular. Everyone talks about being a kid and really liking something and wanting something you couldn't have and now that you have the means, you can."

And when they can, what do most sneakerheads pride themselves on? Old school kicks. It doesn't take much to get Ricky Powell to crack on the new school, "You can tell something about someone's personality by the sneakers they wear. It's just a personality thing. It shows where you're at mentally. I don't like the new shit. I don't like the new basketball sneakers, they're too spaceship looking. I can't get with them, they're mad ugly. And the prices are retarded. Again I stress, they're mad ugly. You couldn't pay me to wear a lot of the new shit...well, maybe you could." When asked what he's wearing at the moment, he shoots back proudly, "I'm wearing some high top suede Pumas that Puma gave me. I like those. I also got red, black and green low Puma Clydes."

Contemporary History

On the skate side of contemporary sneaker history, the initial godhead brands were Vans and Chuck Taylors. (Eventually Vans would rule the 70s scene, but in the long run, low top and Converse One Star would be the brand most widely accepted and used by skaters, basketball players/fans and hip-hop heads.) These original shoes and their functionality along with the passion of pros for developing new footwear for skating would lead to a wave of contemporary skate kicks - most notable being the eS Koston 1 followed by styles from brands such as DC, Etnies, Globe, Circa, Emerica, Osiris and the new school Adio, DVS, Lakai and iPath. Eric Meyers, one of the original heads behind Vision Street Wear, the creator of Simple shoes and currently designer at Medium, briefly recounts skate shoe history starting in the 70s, "There was no such thing as skateboard fashion back then. Vans were only skate shoes by default, they just happened to work. They came in a lot of colors back in the 70s so all the teams would order Vans because you get your team color.

"Vision started with the shoe thing just before I got there. Adidas shell toes hadn't come back yet at that point in time, they were just basically an old shoe that was burly so the Vision guys basically ripped off the Adidas shell toe low top and made it into a high top, really heavy shoe with the little half circle over your toe called the 'ollie pad' because you always wore your shoe out ollieing.

"We started making a cement construction shoe with a stitched bottom. They're the more technical basketball looking shoe. They were really funny looking but everyone wore them.

"It's funny to me that people say 'sneakers' because it's so much bigger than that, there are so many micro niches. There's all these different aesthetics - you didn't use to be able to tell the difference between a surfer and a skater walking down the street in the 60s. In the 70s they started to look different. In the 80s, they're two totally different guys. In the late 80s, you could tell the difference between a snowboarder and a skater, or the Run-DMC look vs. the Beastie Boys look."

Trying to succinctly span the history of contemporary basketball kicks history is a pretty ridiculous order considering its expansive nature and its enthusiasts are fairly rabid collectors ranging from Americans to Japanese but Ricky Powell manages to nail down a few significant points pretty swiftly:

"I used to rock PRO-Keds. The pros used to wear them, Willis Reed of the Knicks used to wear them, I have old ads. He was the center of the Knicks [and] used to wear high top, canvas PRO-Keds."

Wildes' concurs that for "70s New York basketball, Keds were the absolute jump off."

Not only did they represent some of the top names in basketball, but they also became the signature shoe for a lot of the New York hip-hop community. They were simple - classy not flashy - they represented a scene. In 2005, these once thought outdated shoes made a comeback.

In the mid 70s, while some skaters were picking up on Converse, basketball greats Dr. J as well as archrivals Magic Johnson and Larry Bird would take the shoe to a whole new level. In the late 70s, Nike would develop their "Air" technology creating the first Nike Air cushioning. This would lead to the legendary Air Force 1 followed by Air Jordans. Outside of Nike, there was some competition from digs like Ewings and the Pump but, as the late 80s approached, it was pretty much all about the Jordans and would be for some time.

As far the hip-hop community, kicks were and are one of the most important and symbolic aspects of hip-hop culture and a tie-in to basketball culture - which is pretty much in the family anyhow. Whether it was PRO-Keds, Chuck Taylors or Filas, what you wore on your feet was paramount. And as with skate culture, many of the heads behind the scene would get involved to become the stars of contemporary brands such as Jay-Z, touted as the first hip-hop star to get an endorsement deal not related to being an athlete. Although Bobbito Garcia, godfather of kicks culture and author of "Where'd You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture 1960-1987" was quick to note, "He's actually not, L.L. got a sponsorship deal in 1985 for Troop and then Run-DMC got one in 1988. For the last ten years, Jay-Z is definitely a marker for recent times but definitely not the first."

In the long run, it is Adidas and Puma that have most profoundly rocked the scene and the forces behind the beginning of the trend were unquestionably Run-DMC and the Adidas shell toe and Walt Frazier and the Puma Clydes. Ricky Powell briefly elaborates on the popularity of the two brands, "The shell toes were cool and kind of old school and Run-DMC rocked that. With the Beasties, they got into the canvas and suede ones which were a nice shoe, which worked out for them and Adidas as well. Later on, Yauch (MCA) definitely used to get into the Pumas, the low tops with the suede as well as Horowitz (Ad Rock). And Mike used to get into the high top Pumas." And for Powell himself, it was b-ball shoes and Chuck Taylors, "Basketball sneakers and Chuck Taylors are my shit. I always liked the star on the inner circle; I always wore white high top Ones as a kid. I still rock 'em."

Contemporary Sneaker Legends and Mega Brands

For skate culture, the unofficial legends were the Lords of Dogtown, members of the Zephyr skate team from Venice Beach, CA, which included names like Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams, Chris Cahill, Shogo Kubo and Peggy Oki amongst others. For basketball and hip-hop culture, the legends were the stars on the court and behind the mic. In both cases, the shoes epitomized by contemporary sneakers legends generally represented individuals who had been underrepresented in some way and the audience who identified with them. If anything, the brands owe their success to the unassuming artists and athletes who put them on the map. And these stars led to brands that weren't just popular, they became iconic.

Medium's Eric Meyers notes, "Skaters were often the kids in continuation school, who weren't real popular and didn't care what other people thought. Pierre Andre who runs Etnies was a really great French freestyler who went on to form his own company that became huge. Brad Dorfman who owned Vision was a powerhouse entrepreneur who was so into it that whoever wasn't as into it as him, he would kinda bag on. A lot of the people who have companies now came through his tutelage. Most of the big skate companies now are run by ex-pros or ex-employees who left Vision to do their own thing, probably 20 or 30 of them - now they're all kingpins."

When originally questioned, Ben Pruess, Director of Adidas Sport Heritage Division, was veering toward a rather general answer in regards to nailing down a defining moment for Adidas and sneaker history - before conceding to the impact of Run-DMC in addition to that of Adidas founder, Adi Dassler.

"I don't think there's one defining moment...with the exception of the whole movement that was created by Run-DMC wearing and adapting the Superstar. They made it a cultural phenomenon outside the basketball court and entrenched us in hip-hop culture. From a sporting standpoint, you have to go back to when the Germans won the World Cup with Adi Dassler's invention of the first screw in [soccer] studs and basically cementing our place in sporting folklore."

For Ricky Powell, the legend and legendary shoe is as an easy answer: Walt "Clyde" Frazier of the New York Knicks and the Puma Clydes he inspired, "They're classic. They're just it. They reflect the times from the early to mid 70s when Walt Frazier was the epitome of cool and class."

And last but not least, the name that is all too easy to mention in this category: Michael Jordan. Kevin Wildes discusses the significance of the iconic and groundbreaking Air Jordans and their overwhelming popularity, "It was a combination of the right athlete at the right time with the right technology. So, you have Michael Jordan, who was just once in a life time, you have Nike which was just rising up and putting all their marbles in the Jordan box and then this shoe that looked very different. Spike Lee speaks very articulately and profoundly about how this was the first time that a major company stood behind a black athlete and to Spike and Jordan, it was bigger than sneakers."

In explaining the popularity of Jordans, Wildes simply says, "It was just the best. Jordan's the best and they were the best sneakers."

Contemporary Myths

When scanning over contemporary sneaker culture, there are also dark moments of lore embedded in its history such as the various interpretations of the significance of sneakers strung over telephone lines. Some say that this represents a location where drugs can be bought, others say it's a tradition kids practice on the last day of school while others contend it signifies a location where a murder took place. There is no definitive explanation behind this phenomenon and that is because it is largely considered by sneaker enthusiasts to be urban myth. New York art collective Skewville took this myth and reframed it by painting sneakers on wood and tossing them in locales ranging from New York to Amsterdam. With one toss, suddenly sneakers transcend supposedly negative stereotypes to become contemporary art.

Another dark side to contemporary sneaker history was the alleged "phenomenon" of murdering for sneaks. Now, the fact that these murders did occur is not contested however, the legitimacy of this practice being as widespread and treacherous as the media played is. ESPN's Kevin Wildes said this on the subject,"The violence over sneakers is more of a media creation. People get killed over things every single day, people kill the Chinese food delivery guy because they want Chinese food. It's just that when it became sneakers, it became news. People get killed for seven dollars too. The new thing now is iPod theft. It's not a big thing, it's still the same people robbing people."

Perhaps what was really being highlighted by the media coverage was more the hip-hop or basketball culture wearing the sneakers (a largely minority-comprised culture that was perceived as "dangerous" and a "threat" by hegemonic powers that be) - as opposed to the actual murders themselves.

It's Not The Shoes

At the end of the day, the common theme that runs through the narratives of sneaker enthusiasts and designers is that kicks are a way of saying something about your history and what it represents. It's more than having a tricked out shoe in snazzy colors, it's an allegiance to certain subcultures and to the ability to get what you always wanted. As well as an alignment to the excellence and adaptability of the artists, athletes and shoes that represented "the best."

Adidas' Pruess acknowledges this when emphasizing that Adidas' main goal is always adaptability, they make the shoe, you put your spin on it. "Our design aesthetic is focused on personal expression," explains Pruess. "A Stan Smith can be rocked out white/white on a tennis court where its original inspiration was or it can be really beat up and thrashed down for the Keith Harings of the world. We don't try and come with a preconceived notion of what the consumer has to look like."

In the end, contemporary sneaker culture means the most to the people who know the scene best - those who live it. As Bobbito Garcia states, "The real reason I wrote the book is because I was reading all these mass media articles and they were like, 'This new sneaker culture!' New? Come on? This is not new. So, that was one of the inspirations behind the book to document the culture and where it came from so people knew that it wasn't actually a new phenomenon at all - it's very old. It's just new to the mass media. Most times people write anthropological stuff from an outsider perspective. They jump in for a couple years but me, I lived it. I still live it."

Wildes adds, "It's about people. Sneakers are just a springboard way to see pieces of personality. So, Chris Paul has a bunch of sneakers, sure, but Chris Paul has '61' on every pair because [his] grandfather was murdered [at age 61]. So that's a story about his grandfather, the way he was brought up, his leadership qualities and that's all from a sneaker with a little '61' stitched on it. The general expression is, 'If you walk a mile in my shoes, you know who I am' - so hopefully you know who these people are from their shoes. Your shoes say something about who you are, where you’re going and where you've been."

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2005 tatiana simonian/anthem magazine.
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