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  • 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.

Kanye West x Louis Vuitton High Top Jaspers, 2009. Source: GQ.

Along with the luxury premium materials, other materials like rubber, tumbled leather, suede, and nubuck began making their way onto fashion show runways and collection looks. Fashion houses were now utilizing footwear giants like Nike, Adidas, Asics, Reebok, and Puma to spark the catalyst of implementing sportswear branches within their brand ethos. Adidas tapped in with Raf Simons and Rick Owens in 2013, allowing the European and American designers to provide their own avant-garde take on classic silhouettes like the Ozweego and the Superstar. Reebok achieved this same feat in 2017, as they brought in Demna Gvasalia and his team at Vetements to reintroduce the Puma Instapump Fury with a modern day fashion twist.

The same sneakers that were worn by musicians and sports athletes for performance purposes were now worn by runway models and fashion designers for stylistic purposes. This would pave the way for the next 4 years, as Nike continues to collaborate with Virgil’s Off-White, Chitose Abe’s Sacai, Kim Jone’s Dior while Asics links up with Vivienne Westwood and Adidas with Craig Green. Reebok even got Maison Margiela to revitalize their legendary Tabi-toe silhouette in 2021, incorporating the split-toe design on Reebok’s Classic Leathers. This would ultimately reformulate the idea of a collaboration between a luxury fashion brand and a footwear company. A new chapter in fashion footwear history was in the works of being written.

Raf Simons x Adidas Ozweego Sneakers, 2019. Source: Hypebeast.

Re-Evaluation & The Power of Contemporary Footwear Designers

While the collaboration generator continues cranking out project after project, fashion houses began re-evaluating the structure of their in-house sneaker designs. Before the collaborations, a few houses, such as Prada, Maison Margiela and Rick Owens, were able to create their own footwear silhouettes that danced along on the fine line of “luxury footwear” and sneakers. Margiela revamped the German Army Trainer and created the Maison Martin Margiela GAT Replicas while Rick Owens combined hints of the Converse Chuck Taylor and Nike Dunk High to create the Rick Owens Ramone and Geobasket. Prada would continue their laid-back luxury ethos with their America’s Cup Bike Fabric trainers. Other fashion houses began to take notes about the exponential growth of the sneaker market and the increased amounts of sneaker collaborations between competitor brands and the footwear giants. Instead of jumping straight into a collaboration project, they approached this endeavor through another method: hiring contemporary footwear designers to design and create exclusive sneakers in-house.

From Top Left: Virgil Abloh, Demna Gvasalia, Kim Jones, Salehe Bembury.

The best example of this strategy was the hiring of Salehe Bembury in 2017 by Versace to overlook their Sneakers and Men’s Footwear department. During his tenure at Versace, Salehe helped create several impactful silhouettes such as the Chain Reaction. Donatella Versace herself praised Salehe for bringing the energy that Versace needed to innovate their footwear branch of the brand. As fashion houses began appointing new generation and game-changing designers to executive and director roles, such as Louis Vuitton with Virgil Abloh, Balenciaga with Demna Gvasalia, and Dior with Kim Jones, the gap between luxury footwear and rubber-soled athletic sneakers began to evaporate. Virgil brought forward an architectural background with his approach to revitalizing Louis Vuitton Men’s footwear while Kim Jones introduced an Air Jordan collaboration with Dior that broke the Internet for a few weeks, even months. These events have never happened before in fashion history and it’s powerful to see the impact of their groundbreaking projects, whether you are a fan or not. However, Demna Gvasalia and his team at Balenciaga would conjure up a project that would shift luxury fashion and footwear forever.

The Impact of Controversial Hype

Balenciaga Men's AW2017 Runway Looks, featuring Balenciaga's Triple S Sneakers.

Fast-forward to modern day fashion, sneakers are now at the fore-front of fashion runways and collections. People flock to their Vogue Runway apps and live-streams of their favorite fashion houses to get a sneak peek of what’s up next in terms of footwear collaborations and designs. However, this recent craze has only blown up in the late 2010s and early 2020s. It’s still a new consumer trend but it’s not leaving anytime soon. The biggest catalyst for this astronomical shift in fashion footwear has to be Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga Fall Winter 2017 Menswear collection and the introduction of the now infamous Balenciaga Triple S. Chunky “Dad shoes” were not a new phenomenon created by Demna and his team; they’ve been around for decades. The Nike Air Monarch is the prime example, a chunky silhouette that is beloved by fathers all around the world since the early 2000s. But the Balenciaga Triple S brought something else to the table: controversial hype.

Balenciaga Men's AW2017 Runway, featuring Balenciaga's Triple S Sneakers.

Not only did the Triple S spark debates all around the sneaker and fashion communities, Demna and his team at Balenciaga embraced it all with open arms. No publicity was bad publicity and soon enough, every single social media platform was showcasing these triple-soled trainers that looked like cement bricks on feet. Everyone wanted a pair of Triple S, and if you didn’t, you spent days and days telling the world how much you hated them. The most important aspect of the Triple S is that Balenciaga approached their new footwear projects the same ways Versace and Louis Vuitton did: in-house. No footwear giant can say they own the Balenciaga Triple S design, it’s a Balenciaga shoe and nothing else. This phenomenon would cause tidal waves and significant ripple effects across fashion houses, as every brand tried their best to establish their own Triple S-type sneaker.

Now, most of the major fashion houses have a chunky Dad shoe of their own or an attempt at a derivative of the Triple S. It is truly amazing to see the progression of footwear in fashion and all the variables that play a part in restructuring the modern footwear space we are all currently in. Brands, who used to shun athletic sneakers and rubber-soled shoes, are now on a footrace to recruit the best footwear designers to create and implement sneaker branches within their organization.

The Future Comes Full Circle

The future of the relationship between sneakers and luxury fashion is still unknown and considered the Wild Wild West. Brands like Lanvin are now embracing chunky skate shoes, as they roll out their Leather Curb sneakers that resemble the Osiris D3 skate shoes. Maison Margiela are creating sneakers that resemble Air Jordans that have crumbled midsoles while Dior has fully embraced the chunky Dad shoe aesthetic with their B22 sneaker models. The domination of a sneaker-driven fashion market is fueled by financial incentives. Like the Balenciaga Triple S, controversial hype sells no matter what and brands are capitalizing on this trend. However, this also resembles the next chapter of sneakers in fashion. Fashion houses no longer have to use sneaker titans like Nike and Adidas to bridge the gap between their ready-to-wear audience and their footwear sportswear divisions. They no longer have to revamp classic sneaker silhouettes to grab the attention of a new potential target audience because the fine line between streetwear and luxury fashion is slowly evaporating and evolving into a new creative reality. Now, fashion houses and avant-garde brands can approach sneakers and footwear with their own design ethos and establish their own in-house production process without having to play catch up with their competitors. This will allow for the introduction of genuine collaboration projects with other niche footwear and sneaker brands, such as Veja and Birkenstocks. The paradigm has truly shifted and the status quo has been challenged and reshaped.

What’s Next

To fully tell the story of the past, present, and future of footwear in fashion, ARCHIVE.pdf will begin releasing more segments to this series titled From Hard Bottoms to Vulcanized Rubber: The Long Odyssey of Footwear in Fashion. There will be more deep dives into the distinct variables that played a significant role in the popularization of sneakers and athletic trainers in fashion. We will also cover specific collaborations between fashion houses and footwear companies because there are many projects that impacted the trajectory of fashion’s acceptance of sneakers. The most important aspect of this series is establishing the balance between history, modern times, and the future. Please stay tuned and curious.

Writer: Art V.


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