The world’s most significant collection of sneakers has taken over the Art Gallery of Western Australia, writes Julian Tompkin
It was late last year that the enduring stereotype of the insouciant Aussie bloke hit an existential juncture, as a cache of confounding images were brandished across the nation’s mastheads and newsfeeds: pictures of thousands of Australian men queuing to buy shoes. Yes, shoes.
As a nation, we had grown curiously accustomed to the neo-gladiatorial blood sport of the Boxing Day sales and the indefatigable trail of tech geeks bunking out for nights on end to be the first to swoon over the latest iPhone. But shoes? Granted, these weren’t just any old kicks but scarce Yeezy 350 v2 sneakers, a collaboration between German behemoth Adidas and US rapper Kanye West.
For many, however, it was a confounding introduction to an otherwise inscrutable subculture: the world of “sneaker heads”. And it is the humble sneaker that takes centre stage in a defining retrospective opening today at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, titled The Rise of Sneaker Culture.
Created by Canadian shoe historian Elizabeth Semmelhack, it debuted at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto in 2013; the exhibition was subsequently trundled throughout the US to much shoe-gazing fanfare and now makes its exclusive Australian appearance in Perth, in what is being heralded as no small coup by AGWA director Stefano Carboni.
“I chased this exhibition … I was determined to secure it for Western Australia,” Carboni says, hedged by hefty tomes on Islamic art and Italian masters in his office in Perth.
“Yes, viewing the sneaker as an artwork was a challenge in the beginning for me, but I have no doubt now: this is art.”
The sneaker’s provenance is of course far removed from the lustrous glass display cabinets of a state art gallery. The successor to the recreational plimsoll, the sneaker’s rise is congenitally tethered to developments in rubber technology. Latex sap was long exploited by the ancient civilisations of Mesoamerica, and Europeans eventually came to recognise its manufacturing potential in the 18th century. The substance would acquire its moniker in 1770 when, on excoriating coagulated sap against pencil lead etched on to paper, British theologian and alchemist Joseph Priestley noticed the lead traces would be “rubbed” away.
Rubber’s value was corroborated when American chemist Charles Goodyear mastered the method of vulcanising or curing the viscous sap in 1844, unleashing one of the modern era’s most indispensable materials. By the middle of the 19th century, rubber — although still an ex- pensive alternative to leather — had weaved its way into fashion, as wealthy industrialists in the US and Europe demanded better footwear for their sporting and leisure pursuits. The rubber overshoe was thereafter replaced by a repurposed dress shoe with rubber soles manufactured by the US Rubber Company in 1892, heralding the arrival of dedicated “sneaker” manufacturers such as the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in 1908.
The Rise of Sneaker Culture charts the evolution of the sneaker as pragmatic sporting garb through to its emergence as a totemic fashion statement in the 1980s, and on to its reinvention as a status symbol in the 21st century.
“I think the question is not ‘Is fashion art?’ but ‘Is art fashion?’, ” exhibition creator and the Bata Shoe Museum’s senior curator Semmelhack says about the sneaker’s place in a serious art gallery. Having spent her career investigating the innate role of footwear in societal and cultural development — for instance the high heel, which began life in 10th-century Persia as a male equestrian shoe, before transmogrifying into an icon of femininity — Semmelhack argues that the sneaker has been fundamental to US cultural life, beginning with its central place in the country’s YMCA tradition, before its eventual convergence with the hip-hop and urban cultures that came to dominate the country’s cultural discourse.
“I am interested in decisions people make and what it says about them as individuals and groups,” she continues. “An item can be appreciated for both its beauty and application — there are very compelling reasons and stories for why people make specific choices, including with our sneakers. I had to put my
prejudice [about] the sneaker to the side, and figure out what the real story was.”
The real story is a surprisingly gripping social, cultural and political potboiler. Stowed within this kaleidoscopic collection are rousing yarns of political subterfuge (future Adidas founder Adolf Dassler’s daring defiance of Hitler’s Aryan supremacism at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to trial a prototype running shoe with African-American gold medallist Jesse Owens) and tectonic cultural upheaval (as one of the first affordable rubber-soled sneakers, the PF Flyer became an emblem of baby boomer America, and the shoe that came to symbolise the sexual revolution that began washing through American high schools in the 1950s).
As vital sporting apparel, the sneaker has always nudged the frontiers of technological and design innovation, with each shoe pushed virtually to breaking point and re-engineered as a response. The all-purpose running sneaker would be honed and perfected over time, and adapted for specific sports and activities, paving the way for tribal subgroups within the broader sneaker culture.
By the early 80s the battle lines had been etched, with labels such as Puma and Vans appropriated as sacred totems of tribe and creed: the former representing black American urbanwear and breakdancing culture, and the latter skateboarding and punk rock. And in 1986 pioneering hip-hop troupe Run DMC released the epochal track My Adidas, later signing a sponsorship deal with the label — forging an enduring relationship between rap music and the German sneaker brand, further entrenched by the Beastie Boys and, of course, Kanye West.
But the watershed moment in the rise of the sneaker had arrived a few years earlier, in 1984, with the inking of an alliance between then little-known basketball rookie Michael Jordan and Nike. In 1985 Nike would release a deceptively austere black and red leather high top basketball boot christened the Air Jordan 1. The sneaker would never be the same.
“When Nike put the first pair of red and black shoes on that burgeoning icon from North Carolina, they had a combination of style, colour, attitude and innovation that launched the Air Jordan name into pop culture forever,” Air Jordan collector and Boston Sneaker Museum founder Rick Kosow says. “And the shoes weren’t the only thing that changed. Changes in fashion, on and off the court, swept the landscape with the emergence of sneakers as form as well as function. His influence was enormous.”
The Rise of Sneaker Culture features all 23 Air Jordans — as well as a number of reissues and
The Rise of Sneaker Culture curator Robert Cook at the Art gallery of Western Australia
Pierre Hardy Poworama, 2011, on display at The Rise of Sneaker Culture exhibition