• Art V.

From Hard Bottoms to Vulcanized Rubber: The Long Odyssey of Footwear in Fashion

Footwear has always been a staple in fashion history and fashion collections. Fast forward to the 21st century, footwear, especially sneakers, often define fashion collections and the legacy of a fashion house. To fully understand the impact of footwear in modern times, one must understand the foundation and the silhouettes that existed before the sneaker boom. This correlates directly with the transition of fashion status quos and the overwhelming flow of new generation fashion consumption. The current state of footwear in fashion is still the Wild Wild West, but one aspect is for certain: when one thinks of archive fashion in the near future, they will have to include sneakers along with all the vintage clothing.

The Historical Foundation of Footwear in Archive and Luxury Fashion

Mid-1900s Advertisements featuring the Dior Stiletto Heel and Gucci Loafer.

In the 20th century, fashion houses had a direct focus on a select amount of footwear silhouettes: boots, heels, wedges, brogues, loafers, and a few more. These silhouettes played a significant role in the prevalence of hard-bottom soled footwear, as they were seemingly depicted as more “luxurious” than vulcanized rubber-soled sneakers introduced by companies like Converse and Keds. The existence of the luxurious silhouettes and the rubber silhouettes were essentially parallel to each other during the mid 1900s, but the gap remained significantly wide as fashion houses continued to ignore any chance of adaptation of rubber trainers in their fashion collections. There were often avant-garde and innovative approaches to the luxurious silhouettes, such as Ferragamo inventing cork wedges in 1938, Dior perfecting the stiletto heel in the 1950s, Gucci restyling the loafers in 1953, and Martin Margiela introducing the Tabi Toe Boots to the world in 1988. However, none of these innovations were tied to the growing athletic sneaker industry, as athletes began to really spark the global popularization of rubber-soled sneakers made for performance and lifestyle. Most fashion houses and their clothing designs became more and more innovative and individualized, but their respective footwear styles became stagnant. Only a few fashion designers explored the idea of incorporating sportswear in their footwear designs, such as Prada, Martin Margiela, and Rick Owens. However, they were considered outliers.

Maison Margiela Tabi Toe Boots and Shoes. Source: 20 The Exhibition and Street Special Edition.

As time went on, youth culture began to really take over mainstream consciousness and societal shifts were beginning to happen. Only a few designers dared to take the leap of faith into the unknown, two of them being Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. One simply cannot tell the history and legacy of fashion without these two trailblazers. They began to deviate from cliche luxury footwear silhouettes and began testing the waters of incorporating tennis shoes and rubber-soled sneakers into their collections.

Rei Kawakubo, through Comme des Garçons, began collaborations with sneaker titan Nike in 1999 through various subdivisions of her brand. Collaborations between Junya Watanabe CDG and Dover Street Market began to fill the sneaker atmosphere as Rei continued to bridge the gap between the sneaker streetwear space with luxury fashion. With Nike, Rei and her team were able to add their brand legacy and motifs to several Nike silhouettes such as the Nike Waffle Racer, Nike Vandal, Nike Dunk, and the Nike Air Force 1. The most important aspect of this collaboration was that these reconstructed silhouettes were featured on the runway looks and collection fittings. The incorporation of these sneakers were often shunned by the gatekeepers of the luxury and archive fashion community, but the fashion houses were secretly paying close attention.

Comme des Garçons x Nike Collaborative Sneakers. From top to bottom: 2020 Air Force 1, 2017 Waffle Racer, 2004 Vandal Highs.

Alongside Rei was Yohji Yamamoto, as he ventured on his own journey with sneakers and footwear giant Adidas. The two entities converged together in 2003 to create Y-3, a new and innovative branch of Adidas with the opportunity for a new perspective on sportswear and fashion. With Y-3, Yohji would create an entire catalogue of sneakers that would be utilized for sports and performance. Like Comme des Garçons, Y-3 would present these silhouettes on the runway, styled with all the seasonal collections by Yohji. The paradigm was evidently beginning to shift.

Yohji Yamamoto: Y-3 SS2016 Campaign Editorial and Video.

The collaborations with Nike and Adidas would showcase that there is space within the luxury and archive fashion realm for rubber-soled silhouettes and athletic sneakers. Fashion houses were watching closely, though a significant number of them did not take the initiative to establish potential collaborations and relationships with sneaker companies. As time went on, the overwhelming flow of younger consumers and new generation fashion audiences would greatly impact the decisions of these fashion houses. It almost felt like they had to make that move to incorporate sneakers and sportswear into their collections. The ones that didn’t would essentially be left behind, tailoring to the same audience over and over again.

During the late 2000s and early 2010s, the sneaker industry would prove to be too powerful and impactful, culturally and financially. A revolution was coming. Brands like Louis Vuitton began to branch out strategically, tapping in designers like Kanye West to create sneaker collections that would defy all definitions of the typical “luxury fashion shoe”. Not only was Kanye able to design innovative and groundbreaking silhouettes, he was able to utilize the resources and materials of a fashion giant like Louis Vuitton. The introduction of premium materials, luxury detailing, and superior atelier craftsmanship would change the way fashion houses would approach their potential sneaker projects.