“Sole Power.” You may recognize that title, as it accompanied the excerpt of the following piece when it ran in glossy print in KICKS 12. With KICKS 12 resting on newsstands for a few weeks now, and as we promised in the issue, here’s part one of Lee Gabay’s full-length story. While all of the words are real and true, please note that names have been changed to protect identities. If you enjoy this (and we know you will), come back later this week to peep part 2 of the story.
by Lee Gabay
I teach writing in a New York City Juvenile Detention Center. I recently made a deal with a student: if he read ten books in the month he was in my class, awaiting his trial, I would get him a pair of adidas Superstars, identical to the ones I was wearing. Lester read ten books; including, Night, Sydney Poitier’s memoir, The Coldest Winter Ever, Rumblefish, and for some reason the third book in the Harry Potter series (bypassing the first two). Accordingly, he received his white and gold striped Superstars and never returned to my class. The next day Lester escaped from the detention center. In the official AWOL incident report it was noted that he was last seen wearing his new and well-earned sneakers.
Consumers, perhaps unconsciously, and advertisers certainly realize the enormous appeal and impact of gym shoes. Sneakers portray speed, agility, soaring, and jumping (á la Jordan and LeBron) Those paid to endorse sneakers epitomize these much aspired to sleek and lean qualities (á la Jordan and LeBron). Big men don’t sell shoes. When 7-2 Shaquille O’Neal called Nike to suggest a professional partnership, they hung up the phone. The mega companies know that when creating a sneaker prophet for profit, those lending their names, faces, and bodies to the marketing campaign need to manifest a physical representation of the commodity: beautiful, agile, and powerful. The public is being sold the idea of this dream.
Society’s relationship with sneakers goes well beyond the act of consumption. Sneakers invade the visual land and cityscape. The mediated imagery of sneaker marketing permeates our collective psyche. The vast apparatus of brazen advertisements offer images of success and status as embodied in clothes, cars, and fashion accessories that surround us daily. What sets sneakers apart from other products is that they are useful, accessible, practical, relatively affordable and attractive. The penetrative effects of sneaker culture for boys particularly lead to a real physical place of belonging. The form, function, and relationship that a boy has with his sneakers is essential to the ideology of his character and virtue as boys can easily see themselves from an age and gender perspective in the male athletes in their twenties who are the face of the corporations.
Sneakers are marketed as the promise, possibility, and instrument to performing heroic fantasies. In every metropolis one can reliably find an ad on the side of a 14- story-building promoting a well-known sports figure (probably with his shirt off) selling sneakers. The meaning resides not in the sneakers themselves, but in the surrounding social and cultural processes. The daily images of sneakers penetrate a boy’s reflection of his development as a man. Boys construct masculinity from their fathers (if applicable), peers, older boys and men and the media. These role models have potentially deep associations with the construction of a boy’s own narrative. It is not uncommon for boys, who are often unclear about their identity and uncertain about their position in society, to identify with the notions of masculinity which bombard them each time they turn on a TV, open a magazine, walk down a street or gaze at a skyline.
Sneakers are more than canvas and color; they are an idea. They are not just part of an aspiration, but a source of narrative. As such they’ve become an important point of orientation; more than an object of adulation, they are a reference benchmark that blurs boundaries of consumerism, cultural studies and personal narrative. Sneakers are ascribed the dominant masculine ideals. Further, through the know-how of the design teams and marketing researchers, sneakers lead a culture—whose moral imperative is to consume—to a place of worship: a shrine known as Footlocker.
William Wants a Doll (And Lavender High Tops)
Gender is central in creating identity. During adolescence boys can be acutely aware of pressures to conform to traditional masculinity. From an early age boys learn what it means to act like a man: strong, stoic, competitive, aggressive and authoritative. Boys are exposed to this definition of compulsory masculinity well before they have the cognitive skills to be aware of their own development. What makes sneaker consumption so unique is that sneakers fit into these Y chromosome stereotypes, yet sneakers are jewelry for boys; they are fashion accessories, which are, in theory, diametrically opposed to normative gender roles. The complexity and paradox of sneakers within our patriarchal society is that they transcend these expectations.
While sustaining prescribed notions of masculinity, sneakers simultaneously challenge these gender traditions by offering boys the freedom of uncensored, non-judgmental creativity and exploration. A boy’s relentless pursuit of self-expression has become almost a sport itself. Stereotypical youthful male aggressors such as graffiti writers, gang members and rappers devote themselves to the stylistic possibilities of sneakers. While seemingly strong or hard, many of these young men utilize sneakers as a palette for urban art and a forum to convey their message to the world. In addition to devising elaborate lacing patterns and styles, these young men customize and color their sneakers; such behaviors further expand the boundaries of dominant forms of masculinity.
In a consumer society that allows easy and universal membership, sneakers are given respect in street culture, iconized in the corporate world and embraced in artistic milieus. The combined critical consciousness of sneakers uniquely allows travel to uncharted geography for a boy’s self-identity. Muhammad Ali, the epitome of masculinity, exemplified his sneakers’ mélange of associative influences while conquering the boxing world with his trademark adidas and his right jab. Ali was a fierce warrior who still managed to be poetic, smart, political and (as he told anyone who would listen) “very…very pretty.” Dare I say Ali is the original metrosexual?
Sneakers are one of the few fashion spaces where boys are generally allowed to be divas; there they have found an outlet for expression without the risk of being sexually questioned or bullied. Colorful sneaker ensembles—such as pastels, Day-Glo, nylon gold stripes, suede tips, neon green and pink laces that match black socks—tap into a shimmering glamour not often associated with the male heterosexual lifestyle. Sneakers add to the limited emotional and fashion vocabulary of boys. They are an alternative space for social discourse excluded by society’s expectations, which gives into consensus and conformity. For many young men, to communicate with their shoes is to communicate within themselves and with others by expressing a deeper essence of self. Sneakers unlike any other product, provide a space specifically for boys’ expression where other arenas of consumer culture do not.
Boys are limited as to what fashions, styles and colors they can wear. Most young American men are essentially given the option to wear blue jeans and primary color shirts. In combining the empirical and the imaginative, sneakers add flavor to a boy’s coordinated outfit. Sneakers moreover are often the focal point of what a boy wears. Similar to a male peacock displaying its iridescent feathers for prospective mates to indicate vigor, sneakers are a boy’s cry to be recognized. By bricollaging bits from various sources, sneakers are a hybridization of cultures, which construct a personal collective of codes and styles. Through this lens sneakers are not androgynous, uni- or even omni-sexual; rather they are distinctly male.
During my informal interviews for this chapter, I texted my cousin in Binghamton and a friend in the Bronx; such anecdotal data continually reveals that males ascribe a rich sensual dimension to sneakers. The research further uncovered notions of borderline maternal protection and uncommon care towards these material rubber-soled objects. Keeping sneakers pristine is in itself an art form as well as a full time job. My cousin employs bleach to whiten, mink oil to soften, and a nylon bristle brush to facilitate these endeavors. With that completed he’ll often iron his laces and rest his sneakers on a towel by his door. My friend in the Bronx systemically codes his sneaker collection, which is situated in a large custom-made closet that exclusively warehouses his multi-brand supply. Although his apartment space is limited, his arsenal of gym shoes, leather protectants and cleaning utensils is continually growing. He consciously avoids wearing certain pairs of sneakers during rush hour on the subway for fear of people stepping on or scuffing his shoes. Incidentally, this is the same friend who forgets to put on sunscreen at the beach.
Similar to my friends and family, my students treat their sneakers like friends and family. Going through the residence halls of my school, I can see that the cells are clean and organized and under each bed lie sneakers (without laces) lined up, structured, dusted, cleaned, pampered and idolized.
Ferraris On Our Feet
A general purpose and function of sneakers is to protect our feet, support our ankles (if high tops), soften the jar on our knees and add speed and agility to our movement. The biomechanical structural design of sneakers assists podiatric medicine’s role in prevention many injuries. The rubber and air shock absorption of sneakers are important in sustaining joints and maintaining overall health. They are designed with a specific athletic purpose; but these technical and aesthetic landmarks go well beyond mere function and have evolved into realms of epistemology.
Cultural theorists often suggest that to be alive is to be conscious of material reality. Psychologists further explain that certain objects appeal to both sides of the brain: the technical (functional) side, and the artistic side. The very idea of sneakers may therefore simulate a plausible synthesis of the body’s fragility and human desire for forces that give meaning to existence. Sneaker phenomenology poses philosophical questions about the adulation of objects. Bringing life to inanimate objects is an obsession with the human frame and principles of life leading to an attempt to unlock the arcane mysteries of the world through creation and consumption. If a fundamental condition of a society is relationships, this chaos of identity formation is interwoven between who we are, what we wear, and what we think. A boy’s relationship to his sneakers is a social structural location of self-allowed by an extensive bricollaging of narrative on a personal level and hybridization on a cultural one. Springing from the vast world of consumerism, boys construct and retell their individual stories maintaining opportunities for alternative perspectives and identities under the influence of both the real and symbolic interaction of sneakers.
Sneakers are fashion by definition; they can furthermore be deemed cultural symbols and pieces of art. Yet I doubt that James Baldwin was talking about Reeboks when he said, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” Nevertheless, Baldwin’s words apply to connoisseurs of sneakers whose art challenges the natural flow of things, ripping them out of immortal time and fear of extinction, and lunges them away from circadian lockstep and into a mythic ritual frenzy that satisfies a functional fetish craving. The collective hunger of sneaker culture is similar to that exhibited by sports cars enthusiasts. However, the hobby of collecting cars is anathema to most boys because they either don’t have a license or can’t afford a car. As such, sneakers are an accessible way to fulfill this need for a thrilling powerful adrenaline ride.
Indeed, there are some striking parallels between owning a sports car and owning a pair of sneakers. In addition to the occasional red flashing lights on their hind parts, sports cars and sneakers hitting the pavement for the first time, either walking out the door or driving away from the dealership, are like a sunset—glorious and soon gone. Their value immediately starts to wane, but the energy and purpose never seem to depreciate. Some sneakers even come with a spare tire in the form of rollers. Incidentally, when Ferrari was developing their super car design for the Geneva International motor show the company wanted a car to resemble its designer. From a cast of hundreds of possible designers, Ferrari executives ultimately selected Jason Castriota. Similar to Castriotas Maserati Birdcage concept car, which would eventually win the elite Louis Vuitton Award, Castriota was young, Italian, muscular, and wore sneakers to work. Sneakers are the representation and cars are the exemplification of speed, good looks, masculinity and youthfulness.
The marriage between the technical, sensual and personal that intersects sneakers and sports cars, is in its nascent stages as adidas recently began collaborating with another automotive giant, Porsche.
Rebels With a Cause
During the first half of the 20th century sneakers were primarily worn for sports. Keds, then a division of the Goodyear Rubber Company, began mass-producing sneakers in 1917. They got the nickname sneakers because the soles were so quiet that a person wearing them could sneak up on, or away from, someone—something my former student Lester was well aware of. Soon after, Marquis Converse made his first basketball shoe endorsed by Indiana hoop legend Chuck Taylor. This became (and still is) one of the best selling basketball shoes of all time.
By the mid 1920’s sneakers went international when German born Adi Dassler created a sneaker that he named after himself: adidas. This became the most popular athletic shoe in the world when Jesse Owens wore adidas as he dashed across the finish line to win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. A decade later Adi Dassler’s brother Rudi started another famous sports shoe company: Puma. Puma is important in this conversation of boys and sneakers because it was the first sports shoe manufacturer to offer Velcro fasteners, which allowed for further inclusiveness and independence of young people who didn’t have the ability or know-how to lace. Also of importance, particularly from a marketing perspective, Puma became one of the first modern companies to pay an active professional athlete to endorse its product when they paid Joe Namath to wear their white cleats as he lead the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III.
In the 1950’s, the scope expanded and grammar evolved when kids began wearing sneakers as fashion. James Dean iconized and popularized this trend in the film Rebel Without a Cause wearing Jack Purcell Tretorns. Following this in the mid- 1970’s, Nike sneakers, named after the Greek Goddess of Victory, arrived with its Swoosh trademark, which was purchased from a graphic design student for $35. Nike soon changed the world of sneakers, pop culture, global industry, and the hopes and dreams of Knicks fans when Michael Jordan signed with them in the 1980’s to create the most famous sneaker for the most famous athlete of his generation: The Air Jordans. Sneaker culture as we currently know it was born. The rules of the game were torn up and recreated. This phenomenon lead to unprecedented technological changes, skyrocketing prices and the new era of marketing. In the early 1990’s one out of twelve Americans had a pair of Jordans. This is a higher percentage than those consuming three hot meals a day.
Read part 2 of the story on SLAMonline later this week.