The Great American Story of Sneakers
By Nicholas Smith
308 pp. Crown. $26.
Leave it to a sneaker historian to note that when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, they stepped up to the podium shoeless, each sprinter carrying a single Puma Suede. (The gesture was meant to symbolize black poverty.) In “Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers,” Nicholas Smith is continually freezing such iconic moments and zooming in on the overlooked footwear.
We learn that Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, the British Olympians memorialized in the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire,” were shod by Joseph William Foster, whose grandsons went on to start Reebok. And that Jesse Owens won his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin games in a pair of track spikes courtesy of the brothers Rudolf and Adi Dassler, the future founders of Puma and Adidas, respectively. The Dassler brothers’ role in Owens’s triumph over the Übermenschen is, however, somewhat diminished by the fact that they also outfitted the German team and had belonged to the Nazi Party since 1933 — and sold soccer cleats called “Blitz” and “Kampf.”
But mostly the story of sneakers is, as Smith’s subtitle suggests, an American one: of humble origins and unapologetic success, of self-expression through consumerism and association with celebrity, of a product being put on a pedestal and a brand name serving as artist’s signature. The boom was fueled by a series of fitness crazes, beginning with “pedestrian fever” in the mid-19th century, when spectators filled New York City’s Madison Square Garden to watch a six-day walking race; followed shortly thereafter by the vogue for croquet, the first sport to necessitate a rubber-soled shoe; “sidewalk surfing,” better known as skateboarding, in the 1960s; jogging in the 1970s; aerobics in the 1980s; and “cross-training” in the 1990s.
“Kicks” is filled with interesting trivia — Plimsolls are named for the horizontal stripe used to judge a ship’s seaworthiness; the exposed bubble on the Nike Air Max was inspired by the Pompidou Center in Paris — but it relies too much on contemporary sources. Smith mentions in passing that Michael Eugene Thomas, the killer in the horrific 1989 case that prompted the Sports Illustrated cover story “Your Sneakers or Your Life,” went on to commit a series of non-sneaker-related murders, yet presents the original media narrative at face value. He recounts the controversies surrounding the slavelike working conditions at overseas contract factories, but has little to say about the industry’s environmental impact.
Smith is not a “sneakerhead” himself, and “Kicks” is not for the initiate. But there is enough material on the cult of the sneaker to satisfy most curious outsiders. The modern era began in 1985: Year 1 in the sneakerhead calendar. The “Buttfaces,” as Nike’s executives called themselves, decided to let their roughly 120 N.B.A. sponsorships expire and bet everything on one promising rookie named Michael Jordan, based largely on a single crowd-pleasing N.C.A.A. title-winning jump shot. In a preseason game, Jordan was fined $1,000 for violating the league’s dress code — a steal, publicity-wise — but the offending article was a pair of Air Ships, not Air Jordans, as Smith suggests.
“If kids out there are into the new sneakers, that’s cool,” Mike D of the Beastie Boys is quoted as saying to MTV’s “House of Style” in 1992. “We just lean toward the classic, functional design.” (In this case, the “deadstock” Adidas Campus.) The group kept a “sneaker pimp” on the payroll to root around the stockrooms of sporting goods stores for such unworn relics of the old school. “You gotta find them, like records,” his bandmate Ad-Rock said. “It’s like a hobby.”
The Beasties represented the classicist strain of sneaker collecting, which had by then entered its rococo phase. The “Made in Italy” Air Jordan II, released in 1986, featured faux-lizard leather detailing and cost a “then-unheard-of” $100. Today, limited-edition models like the Supreme x Nike Air Foamposite 1 retail for hundreds, and trade for thousands on the billion-dollar secondary market. Meanwhile, at Puma, the mantle of creative director has passed just last month from Rihanna to Jay-Z. Soon the finer auction houses will have credentialed experts on hand to authenticate Dunks of dubious provenance and appraise heirloom Yeezys.