Definitely not the most popular time in sneaker history. Also known as Keds, these were the first shoes made with a rubber outsole and canvas tops. It was a ‘better’ version of the Plimsolls; imagine a shoe like this one but without the relatively acceptable canvas top and no inner curve on the sole to indicate which went into your left and right foot.
After the U.S Rubber Shoe Company had redesigned the Keds to fit perfectly in a foot, they became popular and the idea of a ‘rubber shoe’ caught on. By then Marquis Mills Converse, the manager at what was to become the Converse Rubber Shoe Company’s manufacturing firm, designed a hi-top canvas sneaker specifically designed for pro-ballers called the ‘Converse’. This was the turning point in sneaker history, for the first time the mass production of the shoe was not enough because the market just wanted more and more of it.
This was the penultimate highlight of when we saw a bridge between what was the beginning of the urban sneaker culture and sports; one of the few most critical facets that made sneaker culture what it is today. Chuck Taylor, Indiana Hoops all-star, endorsed the Converse shoe, and the result: absolute pandemonium. Until this day, the first Converse, ‘Chuck Taylor’, is the highest-selling basketball shoe in history.
1924 – the 50s
ADI and RUDI DASSLER took the sneaker culture from what it was then – a one-man show with a small footprint in the sports industry – to the runway. Their leather and suede top designs caught on and became popular, but was not certified in sports until Jessie Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics.
At this point Converse, Puma and Adidas were the ‘big three’, running the sneaker game from closing down major endorsement deals with major athletes to expanding across the world and breaking into the urban marketplace. But the game was about to change when Paul Fireman, an American businessman, saw a gap in the market and Reebok as the product that would go on to fill it. At the time, the big dogs in the sneaker game were not really creating around the outsole. The kicks that were out at the time were comfortable and offered agility but they did not extend towards advancing technology in the outsole. Reebok capitalized on this and built a solid reputation as the “Kings of Cushioning”. After this investment in outsole technology, the brand took off, retailing at $60; a price tag Adidas and Converse were too cautious to emulate. However, it worked like magic, instead of selling the brand as an associate of sports, Reebok came in with a fresh approach – luxury and technology.
Everyone can agree that 1984 was the rebirth of Nike, even though the company was officially rebranded just 6 years ago. At the time, Adidas and Converse were major key players in the sneaker game with signature drops and collabs that were selling off the shelves in stupendous quantities. But no one saw the move coming when Nike signed Michael Jordan on an endorsement deal. This was an underdog brand with a small footprint in sports teaming up with one of the best players in NBA history. It’s still a heated topic of discussion amongst sneakerheads if and whether Phillip Knight foresaw this move as the catalyst to their immense success.
It’s without a doubt that the 1924 Chuck Taylor’s are still the highest selling sneakers in history. However, when the Air Jordan’s dropped for the first time in April 1985, not only did they make $100 Million in that year, but they shook the sneaker culture and started to integrate with Hip-Hop culture.
The sneaker world was recovering from the Air Jordan drop that took over the late 80s but something else was brewing at Adidas, and even they never saw it coming. This is the key moment where the sneaker and hip hop music culture married and took everything to the next level. Sure, the merger of the sneaker industry with sports played a part in urban sneaker fashion, but it was not until sneakers and music spoke the same language that the culture broke boundaries and became what it is today. RUN DMC were hot out in the streets and they just happened to love Adidas. Nothing was more apparent when they released “My Adidas” – a single that caught flames on the charts. It performed so well that Adidas signed an endorsement deal with the Hip Hop group, and since then the floodgates have been open. Throughout the 90s and straight into the 2000s, we saw so many collabo campaigns between sneaker brands and musicians and that alone was a new era in the sneaker culture.
During the 90s, sneaker culture went from being a staple in the sports industry to expanding into the music culture, where major rappers started getting sneaker endorsements. Brands like Nike, Adidas and others, saw a huge gap in the Hip-Hop genre. Hip-Hop and Rap music, was also linked to basketball icons like Michael Jordan, because let’s be real, every rapper wanted to be a baller, and even ballers at the time were putting out mixtapes and albums. It was a cultural marriage that was solidified by the introduction of a new sub-culture – the kick game. The new angle was not to market the sneaker for its performance-enhancing features; it was all about the power of perception that was fathered by the status of class in Hip-Hop. That’s when we saw major collabs with whoever was hot at the time. Icons signing endorsement deals with Nike included: Nelly, Wu-tang Clan and Pharrell Williams. Reebok also scored a deal with 50 Cent, while Jay-Z had his own custom S. Carter editions for his company.
TODAY: THE ERA OF YEEZUS
When Nike signed a deal with Yeezus, it was to design a couple of ranges: the Air Yeezys and the Red Octobers. To his admission, he went into the deal thinking that he would not only own rights and full privileges to design whatever he wanted but that he would get a stake in royalties as well. This created the wrong attention for the Nike brand. Kanye is one of most influential people in the global entertainment business, and Ye used this power to educate the urban culture about the ‘slavery’ these sneaker corporations manipulate for profit: by using the influence of musicians to increase sales and not develop the creative relationship. Kanye announced, he was walking out of the Nike deal, leaving behind the release of the Red Octobers (which were already doing big numbers on pre-orders alone) Adidas took full advantage of this and signed the rapper to a deal that gave him exclusive creative direction on his own range and royalties. After much hype, finally, the Yeezy Boost 350s dropped as limited editions. For the first time in history, this range outdid Air Jordan sales in 2014. The traditional NBA preferred sneaker for ballers had a new rival. The Boost technology gave the players more agility and lift, and it’s heel technology, was perfect for players prone to have problems with the achilles.
We live in the era of the Yeezys now. Nike is still relevant, though, putting out challenging ranges like the Ultra Flyknit limited editions that must’ve balanced the books since the Air Jordans sales dipped after Ye took the throne. We’ve seen an introduction of the Femme sneaker game with Rihanna’s Puma Creepers collab. What’s next? Who knows, there is no telling what industry the sneaker culture will take us to next.