They’ve gone from functional sports kit to high-end fashion statements. Shoe obsessive Josh Sims recounts the colourful history of every man’s favourite type of footwear.
When Charles Taylor lent his name to a pair of canvas basketball boots in 1932, the sportsman-turned-shoe-salesman couldn’t have imagined the legacy he was building. Although created in 1917, Taylor helped to popularise the once-revolutionary rubber-soled trainers. They became the footwear of choice for many counter-culture icons of the ensuing decades, from James Dean in the Fifties to The Strokes in the Noughties.
Now, more than 70 years on, the shoes remain at the forefront of a multibillion-dollar industry that reaches far beyond the sporting fraternity. They are even the stuff of catwalk fashion, with the likes of Prada, Louis Vuitton and Lanvin chasing the sneaker dollar.
This is not a cultural shift that occurred overnight, though. When Bill Bowerman paid $10 to a local graphic artist to design a ‘swoosh’ logo and co-founded Nike in 1978 (the original company was formed in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports), his intention was to capitalise on the craze for jogging. And it wasn’t until the mid-Eighties, when Peter Moore styled the first Air Jordans, and design supremo Tinker Hatfield began devising ways of building air bubbles into his shoes, that you could see people’s perceptions of trainers altering.
Hip-hop had a big part to play. In 1985, Run DMC sang: “My adidas only bring good news and they are not used as felon shoes.” The New Yorkers were among the first to embrace trainers as a fashion statement; indeed, they were also the first hip-hop stars to collaborate with a sportswear brand. And by 1989, even fictional sneakers, such as Marty McFly’s futuristic Nike Hyperdunks in Back To The Future Part II could start mass-salivation among guys. The history of sneaker-pimping has even seen innovations such as Nike’s toe-separating Air Rift, Reebok’s pneumatic Pump and Puma’s Disc, with its lace-free tightening mechanism. Today, trainers pound every pavement. As Hatfield put it: “The cachet of sports shoes is that they’re fashion but actually do something too. But I could never have predicted how sneakers could influence popular culture or be a means of self-expression.”