The word is written out on the midsole of the left sneaker like it’s a diagram rather than actual footwear. On the other shoe, below the famous Converse All-Star logo, is more typeface: “Off-White™ for CONVERSE ‘CHUCK TAYLOR ALL STAR’ Maiden, Massachusetts, USA c. 1917.” The labelling makes it seem as though the shoes were taken off the assembly line before all of the manufacturing instructions could be followed. But sneaker aficionados hardly seem to mind.
Virgil Abloh’s deconstructed versions of classic sneakers, including the Air Jordan 1 and the Air Force 1, in addition to the Converse Chuck 70, are among the most coveted sneakers available at the moment. You’ll find his Off-White x Presto design priced on the resale market for as much as $1,800.
While it may be tempting to scoff at such an exorbitant price, the idea of sneakers as high-end fashion or a collector’s item should hardly be surprising. For the last decade, every recognized news outlet in the Western World has identified the trend and produced countless think-pieces explaining the nostalgia, the style and the big names behind it. In some ways, Abloh’s deconstructed motif is the next step forward in the design of shoes, even as it cleverly references the past. But therein lies the problem with the modern-day sneaker industry: try as it might to move forward, it only finds success with consumers when it attaches itself to its own history or relies on the gimmick of exclusive releases. Perhaps the genius behind Abloh’s Off-White collaboration with Nike is that it touches on both.
There is a reason, after all, that the term “VULCANIZED” is so prominently emblazoned across his Off-White Converse Chuck Taylors. It refers to the process of vulcanizing rubber, first developed by Charles Goodyear in the 1880s. Vulcanization is an important aspect of the story of where sneakers began, as told in the first chapter of Nicholas Smith’s recently released book, Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers.
The rubber on shoes, before vulcanized rubber was developed, would wear out quickly. While the plimsoll was technically the first rubber-soled shoe, they were considered a luxury item for the wealthy since they could only stand up to being worn a few times. Sensing an opportunity to bring his father’s invention into the world of footwear, Charles Goodyear, Jr. eventually joined forces with some of his competitors to form the US Rubber Company. Together, they released Keds, the world’s first “sneakers.” The term was coined by an advertising firm since the shoes made it easy to sneak up on someone without the loud footsteps of the wood and leather shoes that were more common at the time.
Just as Keds were being made available to the public in 1917, Marquis M. Converse of the Converse Rubber Shoe Company created the sneaker that would come to define the rubberized shoe, the Converse All-Star. After failing to gain traction with a rubber-soled winter shoe, Converse decided to market footwear to an emerging demographic: the sports fan. The hippest sport at the time was a newfangled game called basketball, and so Converse convinced Chuck Taylor, the best high school player in the United States, to wear his shoes. The rest, as they say, is history. The sneakers went on to become the best-selling shoe of all-time, with 550-million pairs produced since 1917.
Abloh’s interpretation of the Converse Chuck 70 certainly pays homage to the origin of the shoe, but even if that reference isn’t fully understood, the exclusivity of owning a pair is. Abloh, who was recently appointed the artistic director of Louis Vuitton, created these sneakers with Nike as part of a collection titled The Ten. It was the most anticipated sneaker release in 2017, and also the most coveted. Retail releases were limited worldwide, with most sneakerheads having to enter raffles in hopes of hitting the lottery for a pair.
This is part of a recent trend for shoe companies to collaborate with a famous designer (like Abloh or Alexander Wang) or musician (like Kanye West or Pharrell Williams) to release a limited number of shoes, not so much as a means of making a direct profit, but rather to create a sense of cool around their brand. As the resale market dictates, these shoes could be sold at much higher prices to willing customers, but the brands are mostly happy to sell exclusive sneakers at comparatively nominal prices and reap the rewards of increased buzz for other lines under their banner as prices from secondhand sellers skyrocket. For example, last year’s best-selling Adidas shoe was not the West-designed Yeezy, but rather the Adidas Superstar. And for all of the hype behind Nike’s collaboration with Abloh, and the continued success of the Air Jordan line, their best-selling sneaker was a pair of Nike Tanjuns, which retail for $65.
On one hand, the trend toward these limited releases is disappointing for those who love sneakers. The value attached to a shoe used to be about the narrative it told, about sharing your identity with others through your sneaker choice. Now, it’s a matter of exclusivity; a reminder or a subtle brag of one’s good fortune. But on the other hand, it’s not like the stories surrounding sneakers with which sneakerheads identified themselves in the past were 100 per cent organic. Sneakers have always been about selling a story to the consumer.
The industry is full of amazing narratives. Years after the Converse All-Star first hit shelves, Adidas was formed by brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler. In 1936, the brothers’ track shoes had gained enough of a reputation that Jesse Owens wore a pair as he won four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Olympics. By 1947, the brothers went their separate ways, with Adolf remaining with Adidas and Rudolf forming the sneaker brand Puma. The rivalry between the brothers became so intense that their home town of Herzogenaurach split into sneaker factions. It even earned the nickname “the town of bent necks” since everyone would look down at people’s shoes to see what side of the sneaker war they were representing.
Nike also began as a collaboration. Originally named Blue Ribbon Sports, the company was co-founded by Phil Knight and his University of Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman. In the late 1950s, obsessed with improving the run times for his team, Bowerman began deconstructing existing sneakers to figure out a better way to build a shoe. Knight, a student-athlete at the time, was the first to try on one of Bowerman’s creations. The prototypes ended up on Knight’s teammate Otis Davis’s feet, as he went on to win a gold medal in the 400 metres at the 1960 Olympics. Bowerman later created a shoe for Olympic marathoner Kenny Moore, and introduced the Cortez model, which was named the most popular long-distance training shoe by Runner’s World in 1973.
What all of these origin stories have in common is a star behind them. Attaching an athlete’s name to a specific brand helped push those shoes into the mainstream. It created an intrinsic value with the sneaker that attached to the identity of anyone wearing a particular shoe. It’s something that the brands have been well aware of throughout the sneaker’s history. At the 1970 World Cup, Pele infamously paused to tie his Puma shoes at midfield before the kickoff of Brazil’s quarterfinal match against Peru, becoming one of the earliest commercial moments orchestrated by the brand and the athlete they were sponsoring. The cameras panned in on the moment, and introduced Puma to a worldwide audience.
An early adapter to this type of stunt marketing, Puma was also responsible for making Walt “Clyde” Frazier – the Russell Westbrook of NBA fashion before there was a Russell Westbrook – the first NBA player with his own signature sneaker since Chuck Taylor. But, of course, the greatest example of a brand tying its image to an athlete was when Michael Jordan debuted his Air Jordan 1 model in a 1984 preseason basketball game. The shoes, which were red and black, did not meet the uniform standard, which didn’t allow any Chicago Bulls players to wear sneakers lacking a white color scheme. The sneakers were officially banned by the league, but Nike merely used this as part of their marketing campaign. It turns out it wasn’t difficult to drum up interest in a sneaker so radical that a professional sports league wouldn’t allow one of its greatest players to wear it.
From there, every single model of Air Jordans came with its own unique story, whether it’s the Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” that Jordan popularized with his Looney Tunes movie, or the red-black pair of Air Jordan 12s that Jordan wore when he scored 38 points against the Utah Jazz while playing with the flu (the pair became known as the “Flu Game” 12s). But that was then, and this is now. Since Jordan’s retirement from basketball, Nike has continued its Air Jordan line, re-releasing classics and coming up with new models. More recently, however, the most popular Jordan sneakers have been re-releases.
There have been successful players to market sneakers since, including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. However, as gifted as these athletes are, the stories attached to their sneakers never stuck to the public’s imagination as they did in the past. None of the modern day stars have been able to carve out the same niche as Jordan did with his signature line. The closest equivalent to Jordan, on the court and in the sneaker world, is LeBron James.
Throughout this season, James wore his LeBron 15 model, and Nike’s marketing strategy for the sneaker is very much emblematic of the kind of storytelling being done with sneakers today. After the release of the shoe, Nike started #LeBronWatch, where James would debut a new silhouette of his signature sneaker over the course of the year. Once again, though, the most popular aspects of the campaign all paid homage to Nike’s past, including their partnership with Ken Griffey, Jr., the Air Max 95 and Nike’s classic orange shoebox. Just as the company has done with its Air Jordan brand, the nostalgia of past sneakers was being exploited to the point of exhaustion.
Shoes today either lean on the past like a crutch or rely too heavily on creating a frenzied demand through lowered supply. This all began when New York artist Jeff Staple collaborated with Nike in 2005 on the Nike SB Dunk Low. Designed with Staple’s signature pigeon logo, the shoe was scheduled for a limited release at the artist’s store Reed Space, located in New York’s Lower East Side. Because only 150 pairs were produced, a lineup formed outside the store days in advance, prompting the New York City police’s arrival to control the crowd. It all combined to draw national headlines, including a cover of the New York Daily newspaper. Today, the lowest asking price for a pair of the Staple “NYC Pigeon” dunks is $11,000.
These are the sneaker stories of our times. They’re driven by the hype around the sneaker, which becomes the story itself. It may be no better than chasing the illusion of identity through a brand-created success story, but caring more about the scarcity of the sneaker or the nostalgia attached to it feels one more step removed from their original application: from utility to fashion to collector’s item.
The resale market for exclusive releases and hard to find shoes is certainly thriving. Josh Luber, the co-founder and CEO of StockX, the biggest online resale marketplace for sneakers, estimates that the secondary market in the U.S. is $1.2 million and globally at $6 million annually. But how long can that last for an industry whose latest innovations all involve looking back to the past? You can only go back to the same cupboard so many times, and it’s already feeling as though the history of sneakers, and all of the stories that make it so engaging, is being stripped bare.
In the aforementioned Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers, Smith laments the end of the brick and mortar era, and likens the online limited release model to the gentrification of a neighbourhood. To his mind, the current state of sneakers has created a form of inflation that’s similar to when someone comes in and offers to pay a higher price for a house than anyone else in the neighbourhood could possibly afford. Eventually, the higher price becomes the norm.
As much as sneakerheads may yearn for the days of yore – in terms of price points, access and the form of identity that came with a new pair of sneakers – the current state of the industry is really only making that which was always the case more explicit. When Converse, Puma, Adidas and Nike were telling the iconic stories that formed the fabric of their brand, it wasn’t based in organic altruism. It was about selling its brand and its shoes. Sneakers today still attach themselves to big names, but all they really need to do is revive a classic model, set it up as a limited edition and watch the demand for their brand rise.
In this sense, perhaps the “VULCANIZED” displayed across the Converse Chuck 70s has yet another meaning. After all, the modern approach to selling sneakers is a little more hardened and the whiff of sulphur in the air is a bit stronger than before.