Contrary to popular belief, I don’t consider myself a sneakerhead. I don’t collect, have boxes of unworn kicks in a basement or resell my sneakers. I also don’t camp out and stand in line for hours hoping to get my hands on limited, rare and exclusive sneakers. I do possess some knowledge of sneakers and wear those that I like, which may not be the most coveted sneakers out there, but that doesn’t matter to me.
I recently checked out the Brooklyn Museum’s The Rise of Sneaker Culture exhibit, which is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The exhibit is billed as “first exhibition to explore the complex social history and cultural significance” of the sneaker and with almost 150 pairs of sneakers on display—many as beautiful and iconic as the next one—it is underwhelming in social and historical context.
What the exhibit lacks in depth and scope, it makes up for in the number of pairs of sneakers on display which for the “bro sneakerhead,” that might be an excellent thing. I am obsessed with sneakers, but my obsession is more about the history of footwear than about spending $800 on a pair of sneakers so exclusive only a handful of guys can get their hands on them. In spite of feeling like a kid in candy store, The Rise of Sneaker Culture left much to be desired, especially for those of us wanting more background on the social and cultural movements surrounding many of the iconic sneakers on display.
There’s too much emphasis on sneakers as design objects and very little on their cultural and historical significance. One part of the story missing for me was that of the influence of female sneakerheads. I did read a short, three-question interview with designer and illustrator Sophia Chang and head nodded to Missy Elliott’s 2005 music video “Lose Control,” but aside from this, most of the sneakers in the exhibit were designed for men and or popularized by men. One of the very few women’s sneakers on display is the iconic Reebok Freestyle (in pink) from 1982, but other than these, you’ll just have to imagine women’s contribution to sneaker culture.
Other parts of the sneaker culture story missing for me include an in-depth look at the early years of hip hop and its influence on sneakers and streetwear. Also the contributions of renowned design companies such as Marimekko, Commes des Garcons and Missoni with companies like Converse, is left out of the narrative. Yes, the exhibit features the Run-D.M.C. signed Adidas Superstars and Damien Hirst’s “All You Need is Love” red print with blue butterflies Chuck Taylor All-Stars, but this goes to show that placing a sneaker inside an acrylic box and expecting people to know the story and history behind them, adds very little context to an exhibit.
One of the more interesting elements of the exhibit was the wire hung from one end of gallery to another. Flung on it were what many consider to be the cream of the crop of high fashion sneakers—Rick Owens’ Geobasket Sneakers, Balmain high tops and another pair I regrettably can’t remember at this moment. The accompanying wall text mentions that hanging sneakers over a wire is considered to be a form of celebration known as “shoefiti,” but that it is also seen as a symbol of urban crime. This installation could’ve connected this history and reception of many of the sneakers in the exhibit as well as sparked conversations surrounding the murders over Nike Air Jordans in black communities across the country, but maybe I am asking for too much.
Other highlights included seeing local artist Josh Wisdumb’s gorgeous collaboration with New Balance, Pharrell Williams’ joint effort with Adidas: the Stan Smith Polka Dot (I was wearing a pair of polka dots during my visit) and the Geobasket sneakers, because oh, they’re some of the most beautiful sneakers I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Another highlight was meeting in person after all these years fellow shoe, museum and twitter lover @MarkBSchlemmer.