As a new sneaker exhibition opens at the London Design Museum, we trace the anarchic past and chaotic present of sneaker culture through some of its most important styles
THE ADIDAS STAN SMITH
In 1978, adidas released its Stan Smith trainer. Originally an endorsement deal with tennis star Stan Smith, it was the first leather, not canvas, sports shoe. But as technical sportswear gained momentum in the 80s, Stan Smiths began to lose their popularity as performance shoes. Instead, they became a style staple off court. The universality of the model is owed, at least in part, to its minimal design – an all white pump with just a dash of colour at the heel tab. It wasn’t until 2011, however, when Phoebe Philo gave a bow on the (old) Céline catwalk that Stan Smiths entered high fashion’s vernacular. Spotting this, adidas removed all styles from its shelves, manufacturing desire and need. When the style came back into stock around 2013, Gisele was snapped posing nude in a pair for Vogue Paris, before Raf Simons, Pharell, and Yohji Yamamoto dropped their own co-branded iterations. “We’ve seen the sneaker rocked by stars like David Beckham and even world leaders like Barack Obama – the silhouette has truly stood the test of time,” says Morrison.
THE NIKE AIR MAX 1
“The Air Max 1 was a revolution in sneaker design,” Morrison says of the 1987 sneaker. “The original designer, Tinker Hatfield, was deeply inspired by the Centre Pompidou and implemented the iconic air bubble we see in every Air Max model to this day.” First employed by Nike as an architect, Hatfield was tasked with designing the brand’s Oregon campus, but he soon moved onto footwear – despite the fact his now legendary creations were deemed too extreme. It all comes down to that little air bubble – some NASA-generated tech which Nike had long been obscuring – which Hatfield made transparent. Thirty years later and the revolution of visible air has birthed one of the most recognisable sneaker series in history, one which has been through 51 rounds of reinvention, and still continues today.
THE NIKE AIR JORDAN 1
In 1984, Nike embarked on the most important sports endorsement deal of all time, teaming up with NBA player Michael Jordan on Nike’s basketball extension brand, named after the basketballer. “The Air Jordan 1 changed the sneaker game when fans saw it as Michael Jordan’s first signature shoe on the court,” Morrison says. Even though Jordan was originally vying for an adidas sponsorship, within the first month of the shoe’s release, Nike raked in $70 million. Then, throughout the 80s and 90s, Nike would drop a new Jordan sneaker for every season the basketballer played. “This sneaker is credited with being the catalyst for collecting and reselling,” he adds. Now the style du jour of TikTok girls wearing cropped tops, mini bags, and mum jeans, “the Jordan 1 is the most popular sneaker on StockX. Notably, last year’s release of the AJ1 Dior blurred the lines between streetwear and high fashion with its luxurious resale value averaging around $10K.”
NIKE AIR FORCE 1
With their perforated toe box, swoosh overlays, and lace medallion, the Nike Air Force 1s are not only an inner-city staple, but may well be the most iconic sneaker of all time. Designed by Bruce Kilgore in 1982, the shoe was originally a reference to Air Force One – the jet which carries the US president – and though the design remains unchanged since then, the Air Force 1 is Nike’s all-time best-selling model. Over 1,700 colourways have been released (all of which have probably been banned from school playgrounds) bringing in an estimated $800 million per year in revenue. Whether in low top, mid, or high, “the Nike Air Force 1 is, simply put, a classic. Although not as hyped as other Nike silhouettes, the Air Force 1 Low White is an everyday shoe that even non-sneakerheads will run to. To date, the AF1 Low White 07 is one of the highest traded shoes on StockX with nearly 50,000 trades.”
It would be unthinkable to trace the meteoric rise of sneaker culture without accrediting Yeezy himself, Kanye West. Following his breakaway from Nike and the release of the Yeezy 750 suede hi-tops, Kanye’s 350 model – complete with no-tie laces, a knitted upper, and an almond toe – inaugurated the low top Yeezy, which to this day sells out as quickly as it’s released. If hip hop already had a hold on the sneaker world, then Kanye was now its commander in chief. The classic 350 riffed on, and reinvented the adidas Ultra Boost. “Altering the Boost sole and mesh overlay, the original 350 Turtledove changed the sneaker game, divorcing itself from the performance-wear foundations of the industry. As a sneaker that still permeates through both street style and activewear, the Yeezy 350 was the best-selling sneaker on StockX since the platform launched in 2016 until 2020.”