What to Get The Sneakerhead In Your Life (Hint: It’s Not Shoes)

Is the sneaker collab the most important art form of the 21st century? Fashion historian Elizabeth Semmelhack thinks so, and she makes a compelling argument in her new book Sneakers x Culture: Collab (Rizzoli). Through a deep dive into the history of collaborative sneaker design from the 1920s through Air Jordan and beyond, the book investigates how sneakers went from high-tech sporting goods to gallery pieces. We paid Semmelhack a visit at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, where she serves as creative director and senior curator, to find out what the collab tells us about fashion, culture, and humanity.

Were sneaker collabs ever really about performance? Or was it always marketing?

When Adi Dassler of Adidas worked with German track star Josef Waitzer on a running shoe in the 1920s, it really was driven by the idea of making the most elite-level athletic footwear. Jack Purcell was a 1930s badminton star, and the fact that he helped design the shoe was part of Converse’s marketing. 

And unlike the Waitzer shoes, the Jack Purcells are still popular today… 

They are, and it’s interesting how they ceased to be advertised as a badminton shoe in the 1960s. They never took away the shoe’s sports capabilities, but it started to be linked to a certain kind of upper-middle-class male attire. You’d wear this shoe at university, or when you go in your sports car on a picnic in the country. James Dean wore them.

When did sneakers go from being sports equipment to a fashion statement?

In the 1970s, Nike gets in the game, and Adidas and Puma are offering sneakers in insane colours. They’re made for an athletic purpose but they segue very well into fashion. Then in the 1980s, it explodes even further with the signing of Michael Jordan and Run-DMC, so you have that link with hip hop. That’s when high-end sneakers started to become a part of self-expression and started to redefine masculinity.

You can’t really talk about sneakers or collabs without talking about Kanye West and Yeezy. Why was that collab such a game-changer?

The ugly shoe, the “dad” shoe, offered something that was fresh. Kanye is devoted to fashion, he’s in there really wanting to make change, and I think people find that really interesting. And the shoes — especially when they first came out — just felt so new. 

Why do we care so much about collaboration?

I think that people will say — and I think it’s true — that some collaborations are just about simple economics: cool name, cool shoe, it’s going to sell. But there are many collaborations when the collaborators are telling interesting stories. I often say this, but fashion is not tangential to culture — fashion is essential to culture. I think this interest, even in the word “collaboration,” is moving us away from individualism. People say that collabs are overplayed, but I wonder if our interest in the collab signals anything about what we want societally.

Three key sneaker collabs

Yeezy 500 Desert Rat

Kanye West x Adidas

With its odd shapes and multiple textures, this Yeezy helped launch the “ugly sneaker” boom and made Kanye West the world’s most influential shoe designer.

Air Jordan 1 Wings for the Future

Dave White x Air Jordan

British artist Dave White created just 23 pairs of these classic Jordans, each with its own hand-painted details.

Martin Clyde

Puma x Shantell

Every surface of this sneaker was a canvas for New York–based artist Shantell Martin, who used her signature pen-and-ink approach to remix the Puma Clyde.