‘Sneakers Unboxed’ exhibition kicks off at Design Museum

‘Sneakers Unboxed’ exhibition kicks off at Design Museum

Calling all sneakerheads! Landmark exhibition ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’celebrating the history of trainer design, opens at London’s Design Museum

Curator Ligaya Salazar describes the sneaker as ‘one of the most ubiquitous designed objects there is in the world’. This drove her to work on ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’, opening at the Design Museum in London on 18 May 2021. A survey of the footwear that so many of us now wear every day, the show’s exhibits include an original Adidas Jabbar, the first shoe to bear a basketball player’s name, early Nike Air Jordans and a Converse from 1919. Elsewhere, you’ll find that love-it or loathe-it design, the Vibram FiveFingers running shoe, and upcycled designs by Helen Kirkum.

The first series of rooms centre around 1970s New York, and sneakers worn by young people in the hip-hop scene. ‘[This was] a key moment in the sneaker’s elevation from a sports shoe that you wear for a specific occasion to something that is a part of your identity,’ says Salazar, adding, ‘it’s really important to acknowledge that. Through those youth cultures, sneakers became an industry. Otherwise we would all still be wearing them to go to jogging in.’

Step into ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’

 Studio to Street exhibition shoes by Helen Kirkum

Installation view of Helen Kirkum’s Sneaker Archaeology. Photography: Ed Reeve

In fact, innovation from the sports side of this story was slow. Salazar points out that Converse cornered the market with canvas and rubber shoes for almost 50 years, and when Adidas and Puma arrived in the late 1940s, they would only launch new models every four years for the Olympics. Even Nike, an OG of sneaker culture now, started as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 – an import business bringing Onitsuka Tigers to the US from Japan. Enthusiasts will no doubt appreciate the mid-1970s Onitsukas included here, with their Blue Ribbon Sports dust bag.

A diverse set of scenes – from hip-hop to skaters, and the so-called ‘casuals’ on football terraces in the UK in the 1980s – are featured in ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’. There is also a focus on a more modern subculture – the so-called sneakerhead, and the increasingly vibrant resale market that fuels their obsession. The exhibition is sponsored by resale site StockX, and features both the massively traded Yeezy 350 Zebra, and its 2020 MVP – the Jordan 1 Retro High Dior. But, Salazar says, sneakerhead culture predates our own era: it goes back to the 1970s. ‘Then the term was “fiend”. You were trying to seek out the pairs that no one else had,’ she says. ‘It was all about getting acknowledged by your peers.’

The sneakerhead scene is still in full force in 2021, but it runs alongside a growing concern about the impact of sneaker production on the environment – among brands, consumers and new designers. The exhibition explores what the future of sneakers might look like, with methods such as customisation providing innovation. ‘[Designers] put on different soles from different brands, they cut them up and put different things on them,’ says Salazar. ‘[Customisation is] a very interesting movement that was there the whole time but is – as everything is with sneakers – at a pinnacle now.’ §



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