Sunday, July 10, 2005
NEW YORK -- The perfect sneaker marries function and style, is culturally relevant but not trendy. One such shoe is the Nike Presto, according to Chris Law, co-author of "Sneakers: The Complete Collectors' Guide" (Thames & Hudson), and Adidas did a good job with its Climacool shoe, too.
"A lot of the sports brands are pushing trainers forward with technology but if they're so function-led, they can be ugly. We don't want companies to overlook fashion. You don't want new technology in a really ugly looking space," he says.
The key is clean lines and not too much clutter, according to Law.
Law is a sneaker authority, of sorts. He and some of his buddies in London run a Web site called Crooked Tongues that is devoted to sneakers. Not to mention that Law personally owns so many pairs of sneakers that he's lost track of exactly how many are in his closet. "It's more than 200 and less than 300," he says with a laugh.
He says no pair ever gets too worn or dirty because he wears them on a rotation -- and he's constantly adding new ones. His next paycheck is already spent on a pair of Vans.
For Law, 33, the sneakers that define his generation are Puma Suedes and Adidas Superstars. (Coincidentally, Puma and Adidas were brands founded by brothers, Adolph and Rudolph Dassler.) For an older generation, the classic shoe is probably the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, and for Gen Yers, the "must-have" sneakers of their youth were Nike Air Jordans.
Basketball shoes have been popular in the United States for decades -- hence the Chuck Taylor and the Adidas Jabbar, which when it came out in 1971 was the first to be endorsed by a basketball star (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but Britons typically favored serious running trainers. That all changed with the emergence of hip-hop in the 1990s, Law says.
Now 13-year-old boys pay attention to their footwear the way 30-year-old women pay attention to their handbags.
"It's the age of hip-hop and that's changed the world of sneakers. It became part of your identity. How you wear them, how you lace them say something about you," Law says. "In England, if you see someone in a certain pair of trainers, you might know where they come from. Certain shoes you can look at and say, 'He's from the north of England and he's into football."'
But David Maddocks, vice president of global marketing for Converse, makes the case that sneakers are among the most democratic icons, especially when it comes to wannabe sports stars.
"Sneakers have loyalty because you can't buy the same car that's driven in NASCAR, you can't join the country clubs where most pro golfers play, but you can wear the same shoes that the best athletes wear. That access is somewhat rare," Maddocks says.
Converse tinkers with the "Chuck" -- this year launching the Premiere All Star with a more tailored shape -- but makes it a point to never stray too far from the original because it's the pureness and simplicity that's made it a success for more than 80 years.
"A 50-year-old stockbroker could be walking down the street and eye a 16-year-old punk rocker, and they'll both be wearing the same product. They accept each other as part of the same little group. It defies logic in many respects," Maddocks says.
Law says he and his co-authors tried to pick sneakers for the book that had pop culture references, fell into a particular genre, marked a change in technology or simply had stellar design. A few fad shoes, such as the Pony Linebacker, also made their way onto the pages.
The Linebacker is a shoe that's all but forgotten, he says, but back in 1983, it was all the rage because American football just debuted on British television and everyone was buying the Linebacker in the color combination of their favorite football team.
Pony also released a spin-off shoe called the Cricket, which featured leather trim instead of suede.
But, alas, Law adds, "It was a one-hit wonder."
Tennis, aerobics -- especially in the 1980s -- and extreme sports, such as skateboarding, also have influenced sneaker design. Other sneakers that garnered mention in the book include Nike's Cortex, the sneaker that popularized Nike's trademark swish back in 1972 when it was made in white leather; Reebok's Freestyle from 1985, which came in high- and low-top versions, that was supposed to cater to the fitness world but became a commuter's best friend; Tretorn's Nylite, the first "luxury" sports shoe that was launched in 1965 but became a "must-have" of the '80s; and 1982's New Balance 030, dubbed "the ultimate kids' sneaker."
It's too new to be in the book, but Law has high hopes for the Adidas 1, which comes with a built-in microprocessor that's supposed to adapt the shoe's level of cushioning depending on the wearer's environment. "It's got an on-board computer and it's not bad looking."