Flawless Kicks: A Look at the Brooklyn Museum’s Rise of Sneaker Culture

(Photo: Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum)

Perhaps no fashion accessory has held as firm a grasp on popular culture as sneakers. This, anyway, is the sentiment that The Rise of Sneaker Culture, Brooklyn Museum’s new homage to the history, technology, and evolving aesthetics of sneaker design, so forthrightly conveys. And as far as the exhibit’s barrage of funky kicks and minimalist PF Flyers are concerned, it’s kind of hard to argue with that idea.

Fashion, of course, is subject to an ever-increasing whirlwind of trends, but some things always stay the same—you can rip jeans up and sell them for an exorbitant price, but they’re still just jeans. And while sneakers will still be sneakers no matter what you do to them, they also allow far more design possibilities and room for expression than other mediums. They’re essentially a canvas for playfulness and illustration, and accommodate everything from vibrant colors to minimalist designs.

The Rise of Sneaker Culture conveys shoe-mania as a concept separate from other kinds of garment-worship; many sneaker fanatics don’t care what’s trending in Vogue or what some prominent designer unveiled in Milan last week, because sneaker fandom is a culture all its own.

Nowhere is this culture more prevalent than in hip-hop, an art form whose artists are both inspired by and serve as the inspiration for both low and high-end fashion. In the 1980s, Run-DMC endorsed Adidas with a kind of blind love for years, extolling their stylistic high-points on tracks like “My Adidas.” That song eventually earned the group an official sponsorship from the brand in 1986. Likewise, rappers like LL Cool J and MC Hammer were spokespeople for now extinct sneaker companies like Troop and British Knights, and were cut lucrative deals for endorsements. Rap become synonymous with sneakers on a corporate level, in part because flawless kicks were an obsession for many MCs before they reached even a modicum of fame.

The display also demonstrates connections between the rise of sporting icons like Michael Jordan and the industry’s explosion thereafter, concluding that the basketball player’s charisma and athletic prowess catalyzed sneaker-hysteria into a full-on global phenomenon. This was aided in no small part by Jordan’s signing with Nike and later, the emergence of Jordan Brand—both of which were seminal moments in the building of sneakers as big business.

Photo: Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

The exhibit also notes that before hip-hop artists and athletes came to represent certain sneaker companies and wear their shoes with flair, footwear wasn’t as inventive. Pretty much all sneakers made prior to the early 1980s are fairly minimal, interesting if only for their historical value and bare-bones aesthetic.

The history of sneaker culture helps you navigate the exhibit’s winding display of Nikes, Converse, Puma, Reeboks and some lesser known fringe-brands, like Bata, based out of the Czech Republic. It’s what makes sense out of all the rubber, canvas and leather, all displayed in such a way that the most devout “sneakerhead” can appreciate. Maybe for people who don’t fetishize the sneaker, the exhibit might start to lose a little steam… if you’re examining hundreds of these shoes in one trip, it might be easy to get lost in the deluge.

But this isn’t a bad thing! What you’ll experience is a fashion history lesson, fully articulated by a bunch of primary source documents (the shoes) lit up in glass display cases. Plus, it’s way more informative (and immersive) than what you’ll see being hawked at Champs when the next vaunted basketball kicks drop.

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster 

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