How did sneakers become a cultural icon of a generation
Sneakers (or trainers if you’re British), once the symbol of athleticism, have transcended their primary function to become commercial and fashionable objects of desire. From sportswear and street style to catwalk fashion, sneakers have made their mark as cultural commodities.
The global sneaker market valued at approximately US$79 billion (£56 billion) in 2020 and is predicted to reach US$120 billion (£85 billion) by 2026. With such huge growth, it is unsurprising that they are considered big business.
Such are the strides in the sneaker industry that a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores how the shoe became an undisputed cultural symbol of our times.
Comfort is king
The last decade has seen a huge shift in how sneakers are worn. Donning a pair is no longer frowned upon in the workplace or on more formal occasions. Even British etiquette experts Debrett’s have given their seal of approval, deeming them socially acceptable for smart casual occasions.
The continued dominance of the athleisure trend has had a significant impact on the growing sales of sneakers – along with the pursuit of comfort. This only grew more during the pandemic as lockdowns made people further prioritise comfort, which resulted in a rise in sales of loungewear, athleisure and flat shoes, like sneakers.
As such, sneakers have moved from the niche to become coveted as fashionable objects. Footwear is now the biggest selling category in the online luxury market and sneakers have made a significant contribution to this growth.
Historian Thomas Turner defines the latter decades of the 19th century as a time when industrial progress and social change were twinned with a growing enthusiasm for sporting pursuits, in particular lawn tennis. This resulted in the need for a more specialised type of footwear, which Dunlop’s rubber sole could fulfil. Dunlop launched their now iconic, Green Flash model in 1929, which was worn by tennis legend Fred Perry at Wimbledon.
Other significant sports shoes of the 20th century included the Converse All Star, designed for basketball. However, it is Adidas and Nike that have both shaped the sneaker’s evolution from sport to style.
Research by the sociologist Yuniya Kawamura on sneakers defines three waves of the phenomenon. The first wave in the 1970s was defined by an underground sneaker culture and the emergence of hip-hop. Adidas’ Samba design, as a key example, became a key part ofTerrace Fashion within football fan subculture. In 1986, Run-DMC released the song My Adidas, leading to a sponsorship deal with the brand. This forged the sneaker’s deep-rooted place in popular culture.
The second wave of the phenomenon began in 1984 with the launch of Nike Air Jordans. This gave rise to the commodification of sneakers and their desirability as status items, fuelled through celebrity endorsements. For Kawamura the third wave is marked by the digital age and the resulting growth in sneaker marketing and resell culture.
The global sneaker resale market was valued at US$6 billion (£4.6 billion) in 2019 and is forecast to be worth US$30 billion (£21 billion) by 2030.
The growing presence of “sneakerheads” who collect and trade sneakers have ensured that they maintain cult status. Nike and Adidas routinely release limited editions shoes associated with a celebrity, hip-hop star or athlete.
These shoes have a retail value of US$190 to US$240 (£135 to £170) and are reselling for between US$1,695 and US$6,118 (£1,202 and £4,339). The lucrative sneaker resale market has created a new cult of sneaker enthusiasts who through entrepreneurial spirit are generating significant hype along with personal income.
From sport to fashion, sneakers dominate the consumer market. Yet, despite their adoption by the mainstream, sneakers retain their coolness as cultural icons.