The first Nike shoes were made in a waffle iron. The running field near the Oregon home of the runner and trainer Bill Bowerman was making a transition from cinder to an artificial surface, and he wanted a sole without spikes that would give him, and his trainees, needed traction as they ran on it. The three-dimensional lattice of the iron offered an answer, at least as far as the shoes’ soles went. As for the rest of the design, at least at first? It was utilitarian: made by runners, for runners, and concerned mostly with making their wearers lighter, and thus faster, on their feet.
That Nike is now one of the biggest and most recognizable brands in the world is largely the doing of Bowerman’s partner, the man who recently announced his retirement from the company: Phil Knight. Knight transformed Nike, not overnight but close to it, into a global powerhouse, known both for its successes and its controversies. In the process, however, he did something else: He turned athletic footwear into fashion.
It’s because of Knight that, for example, Kanye West has a signature shoe, the Yeezy Boost. And that, last January, Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel and Raf Simons of Dior sent signature sneakers down their runways. And that, last September, Alice Temperley styled her runway looks with sneakers. And that Mo’ne Davis, she of Little League World Series fame, has released a line of fashion sneakers for girls ($75 a pair). Knight knew, early on, what we take for granted today: that even the most practical of footwear—even the shoes we wear for such dull reasons as performance and, worse, comfort—can also function as fashion. He wasn’t in the shoe business, Knight insisted. He was in the entertainment business.
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Sneakers started as luxury items. The first rubber-soled athletic shoes debuted in the U.S. in the 1890s—products, because the treads were the point, of the U.S Rubber Company. Rubber, at that time, was expensive, and leisure time was rare; the combination meant that the innovative shoes were worn, for the most part, only by elites. The sneaker market grew, however, in the early 20th century—particularly after World War I, whose effects had led to a national emphasis on fitness and athleticism. As the nation's first gym rats came onto the scene, shoe companies began mass-producing shoes to fit their needs.
In response to that democratization came one of the earliest nods toward shoes-as-fashion. In 1921, to set its version of the newly popular shoes apart from those of its competitors, one company recruited a basketball player—both to improve their shoe’s design and then put his name on the final product. The company? The Converse Rubber Shoe Company. The athlete? Chuck Taylor.
It wasn’t until Nike came along, however, under the marketing leadership of Knight, that sneakers and fashion became nearly inextricably connected. The Nike Cortez, released in 1972, took advantage of twin cultural trends—conspicuous consumption and a renewed obsession with fitness (running, in particular)—to market the be-waffled sole Bill Bowerman had invented. The Cortez was released at the height of the 1972 Olympics—and Nike had shrewdly ensured that the athletes on the Olympic field were clad in the shoes. And the shoe’s design, too, had moved away from athleticism alone. Available in a variety of colors, and featuring, for the first time, the iconic “swoosh” logo, the shoes were meant, CNN notes, “for those who wished to stand out on the dance floor track as well as the running track.”
Seeing the potential, other designers joined the party. In 1984, Gucci released its iconic Gucci Tennis shoes. In 1985, betting on a rookie athlete named Michael Jordan, Nike itself released its Air Jordans. (As worn on-court, CNN notes, the shoes were initially banned by the NBA commissioner David Stern, on the grounds that they violated his stipulation that court shoes be majority-white. Jordan wore them anyway. Nike happily paid the fines.) And in 1986, Run-DMC released “My Adidas”—not the first musical ode to footwear, but a telling one. The song marked on the one hand the birth of the intimate artistic and commercial relationship between hip-hop and sneakers; it also signaled that the shoes had solidified their status as status symbols.
Today, as a result of all this, athletic shoe releases are met with the same kind of fervent enthusiasm that fashion shows are, and not just in sneakerhead culture. Kanye’s Yeezy Boost 350 collection sold out on Saturday in 15 minutes; in short order, a pair of the shoes appeared on eBay with an asking price of $10,000. Because of the creative marketing Nike and Phil Knight pioneered, athletic shoes are now sought after, and collected, and talked about, and infused with artistry. Which is also to say: They are fashion. “There’s this prestige factor,” a sports industry analyst told The Washington Post. “If I can buy a pair of LeBrons, it means I’ve got $175—and you don’t.”