A Sneaker Post

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One of the more intriguing requirements of my graduate program is the Montgomery Prize Competition. In essence, the contest tests a student’s ability to construct a lucid argument relaying the importance of a chosen object and it’s appropriateness for museum acquisition and display. Part of the task pairs the speaker (student) with a colleague in conservation, and the two work in tandem to assess the object’s materials and the best course of action its storage and preservation. For the purposes of the assignment three museums represent the possible homes for the presented article – the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH), the Strong Museum and our home institution, the Winterthur Museum.

I participated in the Montgomery Prize during my second year, and chose NMAH before I had picked an object. They had the broadest mission of the three, and I thought I might be able to find something a little more exciting. My classmates focused on more or less traditional antiques (toys, handbills, tools, broadsheets, toasters, etc). I walked fifteen minutes from my apartment to my favorite Mom and Pop and picked up a pair of Adidas Mutombo’s for $35.

The rationale? Well, selfishness for one. The size available was the exact size I wore when the shoe originally came out. (How’s that for nostalgia?). And, I thought I could build a compelling story that would surely wow the judges.

Signature shoes, to me, are inherently interesting. Beginning with Chuck Taylor, the idea is so tied to basketball and shoe culture. With the Mutombo shoe, I saw the potential of weaving a rather interesting tale combining athletic, corporate and personal interests.

Logically, I began by giving the assembled audience a brief rundown of the history of signature shoes in basketball (and because I am lazy I will quote from my original paper):

“The Converse rubber company of Malden, Massachusetts developed what is considered the first Basketball shoe in 1917. After several years of limited success, a young amateur ball player from Akron, Ohio named Chuck Taylor was recruited to help sell the Converse product. In 1923 the shoe was revamped and the Converse all-star that is familiar to many of us was born. With Chuck as its spokesman the shoe, to use a great understatement, became quite successful. The idea of using Athletes to sell Athletic shoes solidified, every major and minor shoe corporation built a stable roster of stars (Pete Marovich with Pro-Keds, Dominique Wilkins with Brooks, and even coaching legend John Wooden with Wilson Bata) particularly in the basketball arena through the seventies and eighties.”

As we all know, by the nineties the signature shoe was really big business. Sports Illustrated ran a really nice tidy piece relating that fact, and thanks to Larry Johnson’s relationship to Converse, I had a clear link from Taylor to 1992. Also, with Larry edging Mutombo as rookie of the year, I had a great segue back to my object. Luckily, even the most out of touch intellectual is aware of Michael Jordan, and since Nike’s sales in the US for the years in question (1992 and 1993) averaged just under $2 billion, it was a rather simple task to outline who was boss in the sneaker world.

While Adidas had emerged the market leader in the U.S. during the 1970s, and got its hip-hop stripes via Run-DMC’s 1986 hit “MY ADIDAS,” things were looking rough in 1992. In February of 1993 they hired former Nike executive Robert J. Strasser, who was pictured in the New York Times holding a Mutombo sneaker, to head newly created Adidas America. The company hoped that basketball would spearhead a renaissance. Adidas developed a shoe that was built for the center position, bulky and stable, but also an indication of Mutombo’s personality, past, and the proposed future of basketball, the African continent. The geometric patterning on the sides and interior of the shoe share a distinct resemblance to the cut-pile raffia textiles of Mutombo’s homeland, Zaire. This design cue follows not only Mutombo’s personal history, but figures cleanly into a popular urban aesthetic of the time. Afrocentric imagery and patterning were popular, and of course, who can forget Cross Colors. Plus, the connection of Adidas and hip-hop was already so firmly in place.

All this working together, I played up another point that museums love as well: Collectors. Few would probably argue against the hypothesis that, to an extent, hip-hop and street basketball play a major roll in forging a generation of sneaker collectors. Mentioning the proliferation and steady growth of periodical and web literature catering to collectors, as well as a few books, I hoped to hammer down the point that a ready made audience existed for museum interpretation of the shoe. It seemed supremely appropriate for the popular culture galleries at NMAH, reflecting clearly the aesthetic of the era, Adidas corporate history, and allowing entry into a longer trend of signature footwear.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t win.

I did, however, continue to think a lot about signature shoes. Growing into sneaker culture during an era heavy with athlete driven models, I remember fondly Grant Hill’s time with Fila and the battles waged on the tennis court between several members of the Nike family. You were not a star unless you had a shoe, and most importantly, people wanted to wear those shoes.

In 1992 I was swayed by Reebok’s ill fated Dan vs. Dan campaign, the first time in my memory personalities were really pushed to sell a non-signature model. I regard this as interesting because I think it connects to trends in current iterations of the signature shoe.

During countless hours of college and NBA basketball this past holiday season, my interest in the signature shoe was reinvigorated by Nike’s new House of Hoops commercial. It states something to the effect of people wanting to wear an athlete’s foot on theirs. Get a taste of the glory, and not just live vicariously, but FEEL as well what the athletes have (at least technology wise). The idea of the commercial is great, but seems a few years out of date.

The cache granted athletes in the market has certainly dwindled (at least in traditional sports, as signature models for skate seem vibrant still), and attention granted to a new celebrity endorser passes with little enthusiasm. However, I have begun to consider shop model shoes in the same vain that I view athlete pro models. They are designed to appeal because of connection to personalities, spaces and places, and linked to the elusive notion of cool. Athletics is about performance more than ever, but off the field cool, and the connection to cool sells as well as ever. Linking back to Dan and Dan, the shop signature shoes are simply stamps on existing general models, just kicked up and (to use the most dreaded word in our common vocabulary) hyped up.

When done most effectively, these shoes can tell a story just as broad and exciting as the Mutombo can. Huf’s Air Trainer 1 designed by Benny Gold, in my view, is an exceptional articulation of place and space. From the theme to the materials, it is easily read in the material culture/art history vein, and smoothly fits into a discussion current marketing trends.

To be honest, a great number of the many boutique designed shoes are useful as a starting point in a material culture analysis of contemporary trends. Naming some over others is a tad unfair, and my picks for those that are good, better or best are no more than examples of my subjective taste. What I really want to impart is my firm belief that these types of collaborations are significant in the overall history of the signature shoe. They have breathed a breath of life into catalog models and resuscitated interest in sneakers. They are what the kids are driven by, and if they are not buying them, they are buying things that are in essence cheap imitations. The beauty of this? Whereas I might have been called out for wearing the mid-price model based on a popular signature shoe, some kids will be lauded for their colorful GR dunk that bares passing resemblance to the UNDFTD clerks pack.

Cheaper. Easier. Cooler. Shop signature shoes are a great boon to the industry. They also privilege the perceived expert in a way unseen in traditional signature shoes. Sure, some nerds know Tinker Hatfield designed the Air Trainer 1, and give a nod of respect to HUF for using that canvas. But, for the most part, the “connoisseur” supersedes the true designer and is lauded for the extreme coolness of their color schemes.

Occasionally this backfires. The High Hair dunk, for example, was a brilliant concept that was lost for, perhaps, being too subtle aesthetically. The shoe fit an idea, captured regional identity, and was playful in articulation. Perhaps lacking a link to a major personality or shop killed off the potential of mega hype. As with sports stars, not all cool guy leaders are appreciated.

In total, these releases indicate the conflation of consumerism and culture that calls into question authentic interest and participation. Steven Vogel’s recent interview with Ian MacKaye relays this point very nicely, especially in regards to NIKE SB. Streetculture exists in a rare balancing act between, what I will call here the vernacular, and the corporate iteration. There is a good amount of leverage generated for the key players, enough to not completely water down the end product, but often enough those who have INFLUENCED the players are thrown unwillingly into the fray. Sadly, this leads to a lot of pretending.

Part of the issue remains with the over reliance on nostalgia to push numbers.

I find myself wondering how a shift back to athlete driven sneaker culture is possible. Not in the sense of Nike SB, for only the P. Rod shoe actually pushes sneakers toward newness, but outside of sports that still hold that cache of difference and cool (and, yeah, cool is overused in the last few pages). Adidas’ plan for Gilbert seemed to fuse the limited and superstar molds that independently work to sell sneakers. Nike has tried with Lebron, and to be honest, who can truly say that those limited editions were either exciting, or genuinely generated interest. (Let’s face it; they are a product of the disgusting cult of sole collector magazine).

Thankfully, there are several footwear companies emerging that go back to basics. Thrill with material choice, and avoid the problematic world of collaborations and signature models altogether. They won’t ever rule the sneaker world, for signature and sponsored products will likely always be with us, but they provide something for those of us wanting to cut through the crap, and will grow into a historic foil for the signature shoe for later generations of interested consumers/scholars.


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