Footwear is a topic steeped with many years of history in innovation. And when I say history in innovation, I mean that with the history of footwear, as years go on, technology advances to solve some type of problem or help specific consumers. See, it has always been a trend in footwear, to create or cater technologies and advancements to athletes. Looking at the past and present of footwear we can see a general trend in specialized sneakers, that utilize technologies designed specifically for athletes, being used by consumers, who are not athletes, for not sports or exercise, but for casual wear. These same shoes packed with the innovation of their era are being utilized today for lifestyle use. The specialized athletic sneakers we see worn today casually are usually sneakers from years ago, or “retro,” meaning that these silhouettes, who at their time were the peak in innovation for athletics, have been produced and brought back into production today for consumers. The use of older model sneakers, made for athletic purposes, being used for casual wear, or being reproduced for consumers to use today for the same purpose, clearly signifies the trend of nostalgia in society today.
To further explain and break down this the history and nostalgia of sneakers we will look at a few different shoes as examples. First we can look at the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, which was created in 1917. The creation of this shoe is all thanks to an innovation of the time known as vulcanized rubber. Invented by Charles Goodyear in 1844, this incredible new chemical process allowed people to take natural rubber and make it more durable. Many know the Chuck Taylor All Star to be a casual sneaker, one worn by all types of people, kids, adults, rock stars, and the like, but something not everyone knows is that this sneaker was made specifically for basketball. The shoe was named after a basketball player in 1920, which so clearly drives home the intended purpose of the shoe…basketball. Despite the specification for an intended sport or athletic consumer, everyone in the 1920s, especially kids, wore them. Kids in the 1920’s didn’t wear Converse because they were cool or a fashion statement or even because they had a heritage history, but instead for their availability, price, and durability. Despite the fact these shoes were worn for pure functionality, their appearance in movies and television has branded them into the lexicon of Americana, and because of this, these shoes are still produced today and worn by the masses as a fashion statement or a badge of nostalgia, not athletics and certainly not basketball.
Moving from the 1920s to 1987 Nike decides to show off its flagship footwear technology Nike Air, in a revolutionary and unprecedented way. Tinker Hatfield, a footwear designer at Nike, designed the Nike Air Max 1. This shoe showcased Nike Air cushioning in a visible window unit at the heel of the shoe, and rebranded it Max Air. As you could have guessed this shoe wasn’t designed with walking and casual wear in mind, instead it was designed specifically for running. The technology of visible air exploded into what is now a line of over 100 different shoes that utilize Max Air technology. Just like the All Star, we can see these shoes designed for a specific athletic task worn casually today. The Air Max 1 differs from the converse in that it didn’t reach widespread popularity due to its affordability or durability, but rather for its design aesthetic, back story, and innovation. Tinker Hatfield, was inspired by Renzo Piano’s Georges Pompidou Centre in France, a building that as a design element showed all of the electrical and plumbing inner workings of the building on the outside, which created its own aesthetic quality. Inspired by the building Tinker decided to do the same and show off the inner workings of Nike Air. The design of the Nike Air Max 1 resonated with people who were not runners and they shoes became a classic that marked the beginning of Nike Air Max. These shoes, just like the converse can be see worn casually today and I would venture to say that none of the same consumers that wear this shoe casually today have ever run a single step in their air max’s.
More recently than the 20s or 80s, we can talk about a shoe that released just two years ago in 2015, the Adidas Ultra Boost. Utilizing a revolutionary foam cushioning system developed by NASA, known as Boost, this shoe changed the market in athletic and running sneakers. Boost technology has been exclusive to Adidas since 2013, but didn’t gain a widespread popularity until the Ultra Boost released in 2015. Adidas aimed to create the best running shoe ever, and did so by combining two of their flagship technologies, Boost and Primeknit. These two technologies eventually formed what is known as the Ultra Boost today, but this shoe was not created without plenty of research and development. During the design phases of the shoe the anatomy of the foot, and the activity of running were a heavy influence on the outcome of the shoe. From the plastic heel counter that locks in your heel, the TPU cages that hold the shoe down to your mid-foot, the Primeknit that moves with you while providing breathability, down to the boost technology that offers superior cushioning and energy return, it is plain to see this is a shoe built for running… But since it’s release in 2015 they have been flying off the shelves for the exact opposite. Despite the material choice and technology in this shoe fit for runners, consumers use it for lifestyle wear. Similar to the Air Max 1 this shoe didn’t gain popularity due to price point and durability like the All Star, especially with a $180 price tag, and a delicate sock-like upper. This shoe gained popularity due to its superior comfort, aggressive styling, and premium quality. If the trend of retro shoes follows on into the future, I am sure we may see a retro iteration of this shoe as years go on. One could say that Adidas has already attempted this by retro releasing one of their silhouettes from the 90s but with their new Boost technology. The EQT Support 93, which was originally released in 1993, was all athletics all the time, but Adidas released the silhouette with an updated Boost midsole for lifestyle wear in mind.
So why do we see so many innovations in technology go to waste? And why do people wear shoes from the 20s or 80s still today? Maybe these technologies aren’t going to waste, but they serve as a backbone or a history to work off of to innovate more. As mentioned, a large portion of the reason why people wear these old sneakers today has to do with nostalgia and history. The majority of people who wear Converse All Stars consider them to be a classic, which denotes them to be a product that has stood the test of time. The converse All Star is not a comfortable shoe by modern standards, hence why its been updated, copied, and even duplicated. The design language of that shoe that was created in 1920 crept its way into American culture and became a staple in what we all know today as sneakers. The All Star is a shoe most people know about and could agree is a classic, a piece of history or nostalgia, and a shoe that has been seen everywhere across the globe, but that might not be the same for the Air Max 1. In close knit specialized communities like the sneaker community, the Air Max 1 is a bit of nostalgia, a legend, the one that started it all. As mentioned it started as a running shoe, but over the years has stemmed into a culture or a way of life. Nike even advertises this with one of their slogans “Air is not a shoe, it’s a way of life.” The design, and quality of the sneaker has steeped itself into everyday culture for sneaker-heads, rappers, and artists. Amongst sneaker-heads it’s more than comfort or running, it’s a status symbol, it’s a piece of history. The Nike Air Max 1 marked the beginning of the Air Max legacy that still continues on today. This shoe has been out of date, as far as comfort and running technology goes, for decades, but for the simple fact that it is a marker of history, and nostalgia it is still produced to this very day. Although from time to time Nike updates this silhouette with new and advanced technology and materials, because of its classic styling and history will only be worn as just that, a classic piece of history to show off and enjoy, not run in.
As small a part of life sneakers may be for some, they really do follow a concise timeline that accurately represents the innovations of their time. Everything humans create is partially based on a previous idea, thought, or concept, and using older design schemes or even re-making them creates some kind of warm feeling of nostalgia. All generations borrow and piggyback off of the generation that preceded it, so our generation is no different. When I see myself or people who are younger than when these shoes originally released wearing them, I know its because of nostalgia. I think that as a “millennial” culture we are obsessed or fascinated by nostalgic things like 35mm cameras, old records, or even retro sneakers because… they hearken back to a simpler time. Maybe as “millennial’s” or “Gen Y” or whatever, we are labeled, we are obsessed or interested in these things because we feel left out.. I know I do. I would have loved to be alive to witness the unveiling of Nike Air Max, or buy a pair of Converse All Stars at a shop for 4 dollars… and as this trend continues maybe my son will wish for the day he could have been alive for the unveiling of Adidas Boost or some other thing he might feel he missed out on. The fact remains however, that nostalgia is baked into who we are. As we learn and grow we continually see art, advertisements, designs, etc. of the generations that came before us, and naturally to create our own versions of these things we borrow from the bank of nostalgia already engrained into our minds… But sometimes when we are tired of being inspired or influenced to create something new based off of something old, it is much simpler to re-release, re-create, or update something that already stood the test of time, something that has been proven to be tried and true. The reason we still manufacture and use products, such as a sneaker that has been outdated for years and even decades, is because we love the history and nostalgia of the old. We disregard the intended purpose of the shoe because we know we have better and more specialized sneakers for our athletics. We use them for casual and lifestyle wear because we no longer need to wear them for athletics due to our advanced technology. Above all else we use them for lifestyle use because they mean something. They are tied back to a rich history of research and innovation. They created their own lane in terms of technology, style, and usability.
The use of older model sneakers, made for athletic purposes, being used for casual wear, or being reproduced for consumers to use today for the same purpose, clearly signifies the trend of nostalgia in society today. This trend of nostalgia is linked to the use of older sneakers because there is no reason to wear something outdated with the innovations we have today, but even so, athletically advanced shoes from years ago are still produced and used today. Some may have worn these sneakers to be at the top of their game athletically, but now people wear them to be at the top of their game aesthetically.