Trailblazers of the East: How Japanese-Designed Sneakers Ended Up on the World Runway
It is impossible to tell the history of footwear in fashion without the trailblazing Japanese designers in the early 90s. Like most aspects of fashion history, Japan did it first and established the ceiling for footwear projects and collaborations. The pioneers, mainly Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, and Yohji Yamamoto, would pave the pathway for contemporary designers to follow suit. Incorporating sneakers was a phenomenon never seen before on the fashion runway, especially in the West. It was often shunned and neglected, as the gatekeepers successfully prevailed with their tactics of pushing sportswear away from “luxury” fashion. However, once the Japanese designers broke the mold and challenged the status quo, the entire paradigm was shifted. The barriers were removed and there were no more rules.
The West was now playing catch up and the footwear titans like Nike and Adidas were scouting for their next collaboration project. Fast forward to modern day, sneaker culture has taken over the fashion industry. Brands are expected to release the latest and hottest sneakers and collaborations fill up the social media timelines daily, even hourly. New generational Japanese designers are getting opportunities to design for the same footwear companies that rejected their predecessors. It is truly a full circle moment.
The Holy Trinity: Rei, Junya, & Nike
Nike x Junya Watanabe Super Fly 2001, 1999 Junya Watanabe x Nike Zoom Haven, 2000s Junya Watanabe x Nike Black Air Kukini Sneakers, 2002 Junya Watanabe x Nike Waffle Racer
One can spend days, weeks, even months analyzing the Nike projects that Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons have created. The archive consists of over two decades worth of design & silhouettes, as Rei and her team would become the trailblazers of incorporating rubber-soled Nikes with their fashion collections. The first project between Comme des Garçons and Nike was in 1999, as Nike unveiled the Alpha Project Zoom in Japan and worked with Rei’s protege, Junya Watanabe. Junya would add unorthodox color tones to the Nike Zoom Haven, an athletic sneaker with an unusual overseas appeal. Nike’s goal was to utilize the Japanese designer’s creative ability to bridge the gap between the West and East market demand for the sneaker. This endeavor would lead to the breakdown of the barriers between sneakers and fashion.
For the next decade, Nike would tap back in with Rei’s team at Comme des Garçons to engineer sneaker projects with the beloved Japanese creative perspective. It was Nike’s way of bringing the Eastern design motifs back to the West while it was Rei’s way of utilizing a footwear powerhouse to establish a footwear foundation within the Comme des Garçons brand. A win-win situation, nonetheless. The collaborations initially focused on unconventional and lesser-known silhouettes such as the Nike Air Kukini and the Nike Super Fly Sneaker. Then in 2002, Nike and Junya Watanabe revitalized a timeless and classic silhouette that helped establish Nike initially: the Waffle Racer. Inspired by his passion for vintage garments, Junya designed several colorways after his initial all-white T-Shirt inspired colorway. The vibrant colors reignited the Waffle Racer silhouette and would play as an early foreshadow of what was to come decades later.
Photos of the Happy Army Store.
Breaking through the new century, Nike began playing with Japanese-exclusive releases in the early 2000s. The 2004 Junya Watanabe eYe x Nike Vandal was released as a hyper-strike for Comme des Garçons’s “Happy Army Store,” a pop-up shop in Aoyama, Tokyo, selling Watanabe’s military-inspired apparel. With only 100 pairs produced, this was an unintentional example of a region-based hyperstrike release. One simply could not get their hands on a pair if they did not go to the pop-up in Aoyama, and even if you did, your chances for a pair were scarce. Junya’s final work for Nike via Comme des Garçons would come in 2008, when he introduced his oddest design for Nike through the Junya Watanabe MAN COMME des GARÇONS x Nike Dunk (x2). Through Junya’s lens, the Nike Dunk, known for its basketball hardwood silhouette, was reimagined into a leather boot. One version had a front zipper that replaced its laces while the second version had leather straps. It was the definition of adding avant-garde tones to a timeless sportswear silhouette, in true Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe format.
Junya Watanabe MAN COMME des GARÇONS x Nike Dunk
From 1999 to modern times, Comme des Garçons has endlessly restructured the relationship between “luxury fashion” and sneakers. The late 90s and early 2000s were blind dates between Nike and Comme des Garçons, as the footwear giant would give the Japanese fashion house glimpses of what could be, but never a full commitment. Nike took the relationship seriously during the 2010s, as the collaborations got more vigorous and the experimentation became more evident. After two decades, the marriage between Comme des Garçons and Nike has impacted the global sneaker and fashion scene significantly. There are collaborations announced every year, as Rei and the Comme des Garçons team now have access to any and every Nike silhouette. The collaboration DNA between the sneaker giant and Japanese fashion titan is still the same, as they strive to “push boundaries, challenge audiences with silhouettes whose proportions seem uncomfortable to an eye trained to contemporary fashion trends, as well as always creating something preferably unprecedented”.
Stripes Over Checks: Yohji’s Love For Sport
Yohji Yamamoto x Adidas Y-3 Campaign
While Rei, Junya, and the team at Comme des Garçons bridged the gap between “luxury fashion” and sneakers with their marriage with Nike, there was another individual who was paving a parallel lane. Yohji Yamamoto, often dubbed the Godfather of Japanese fashion, established his own trailblazing endeavors with Nike’s competitor, Adidas. Yohji was often “inspired by sneaker culture” and believed that his namesake brand was moving “too far from street”, so he wanted to “come back to street”. The Japanese titan had reached out to Nike initially, but was immediately met with rejection. So he took his talents to Adidas, the German footwear company that was looking for a way into the niche “luxury fashion” market. The two opposite sides of the creative spectrum would meet in the middle to create Y-3 in 2003, as Yohji strived to bridge the gap between fashion and sportswear. The Y signified Yohji’s name and the 3 represented the 3 stripes motif for Adidas. The two entities did not just collaborate, they came together to create a whole new entity.
Yohji approached Y-3 with genuine personal passion. He emphasized his experiences in “big cities like Paris, New York, Beijing, or Shanghai”, as he “noticed people wearing very ugly sports outfits”. He believed those individuals were “wasting clothing, using cheap new fabrics and mixing colors terribly”, and he used that to fuel his passion for Y-3 in order to “make sportswear elegant and chic”. Yohji strategically utilized Y-3 as his path back to his fans because he wasn’t able to find people wearing his clothing anymore. He was inspired by New York businessmen that were walking to work in full suit attire, but on foot, they were wearing sneakers. The hybrid combination was intriguing for Yohji, and he brought these sparks of curiosity to Y-3. This wasn’t just a creative project, this was personal for Yohji. With the backing of an aspiring footwear giant like Adidas, Yohji was really able to play around with technology and materials for his Y-3 collections. This was the first time in fashion history that a concept like Y-3 was fully turned into fruition. Footwear companies were often just utilizing fashion houses and brands for collaborations, but they would never give them a Y-3 like Adidas did with Yohji. This meant that Adidas was fully committed to Yohji Yamamoto, and the rest is history.
Y-3 AW2014 Runway Shots, featuring the Qasa High Sneaker
Y-3 collections accomplished several goals, as they represented a new relationship between “luxury fashion” and sportswear. Runway collections contained oversized track pants and hoodies, jumpsuits, robes and blazers with Y-3 logos and Yohji Yamamoto’s usual color palettes. Pieces were not too Adidas and not too Yohji; there was a perfect equilibrium between the two entities. Like Rei Kawakubo, Yohji believed heavily in the 1 + 1 = 3 formula, where collaborations between two creators must create something completely new and different. Y-3 was the definition of that formula. Alongside the clothing collections, Yohji and Adidas created sneaker silhouettes that would significantly bridge the gap between fashion and sneakers.
In 2013, the world was introduced to one of the most influential sneaker silhouettes created: adidas Y3 Qasa High. This sneaker was featured on several runway collections and became a staple in every fashion enthusiast and sneaker collector because the silhouette danced along the lines of “luxury” runway fashion and streetwear & sportswear. The Y3 Qasa Highs were worn with runway pieces by all the fashion week attendants trying to establish a coexisting relationship with fashion, comfort, and streetwear. They were also worn by streetwear enthusiasts and sneaker collectors trying to break into the luxury fashion realm but were not ready for runway pieces and leather kilts. With Y-3 came the normalization of sneakers in the fashion world, as everyone flocked to the rubber-soled silhouettes as the next “cool” thing to have in your wardrobe. The stigma against sneakers in the fashion realm was slowly evaporating, and Y-3 was playing a significant role in that process.
Full Circle Moment: No More Rules
The impact of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto is evident throughout today’s fashion and sneaker scene. With Comme des Garçons still churning out new silhouettes and modernizing old Nike models and Yohji still fueling the Y-3 fire of fashion sportswear, there are no more rules. Luxury fashion brands are now playing catch up, as they collectively try to create their own sneaker silhouette that all look eerily similar. Footwear company titans are also trying to find the newest and coolest designers and brands to collaborate with because it’s evident that it will be a win-win situation for the suppliers and consumers. The gatekeeping is nonexistent and the barriers of entry have been removed.
Undercover x Nike React Element 87
However, the most important aspect of this wild sneaker fashion gold rush are the full circle moments that exist. The Japanese pioneers paved the way for everyone, but most importantly, they provided the blueprint for the next generation of Japanese designers. Nike has opened the floodgates for collaborations, but they took it to the next level with Jun Takahashi’s Undercover, Yoon’s Ambush, and Chitose Abe’s Sacai. Nike partnered with Takahashi in 2010 to create Gyakusou, which directly translates to running-in-reverse in Japanese. Tapping into Takahashi’s love for distance running and running opposite the designated direction on local park trails, Nike was able to accomplish what Adidas did with Yohji Yamamoto. Genuine, personal experiences from the designer have ignited groundbreaking collections of sportswear, footwear, and runway pieces. These factors fuel the Gyakusou collections, as each piece dances along the line of running culture and runway fashion.
Sacai x Nike Vaporwaffle
Yoon Ahn, founder of AMBUSH, achieves these same sentiments with her projects with Nike, as she collaborated with Nike in 2018 to release a series of sneaker silhouettes and runway clothing collections tailored for their beloved women audience. Though the pieces are dubbed unisex, the direct focus on women-centric products was long overdue. Yoon designed a series of Dry-Fit stretch bodysuits, crop tops, and tracksuits that could be worn in the gym or on a runway. Alongside those pieces, Yoon was able to design a series of Nike silhouettes, ranging from the Nike Air Max 180 to several vibrant colors of the Nike Dunk. With this collaboration, Yoon was able to introduce a new lifestyle to the world, as fashion slowly becomes more athletic and comfortable.
The empowerment of women designers continues with Nike’s relationship with Chitose Abe and sacai. As a known disciple of Rei Kawakubo, Chitose Abe has been pushing boundaries and challenging complacency with her projects with Nike. Initially debuted in the S/S 2019 sacai runway show, the Nike sacai silhouettes shocked the entire sneaker and fashion world. Audiences saw a mashup of the Nike Waffle Daybreak with the LDV as well as the Nike Dunk with the Nike Blazer. The two never-been-seen-before models were complimented with vibrant yet unique colorways that were the epitome of the 1 + 1 = 3 formula. Chitose Abe was able to revolutionize the relationship between runway fashion and sneakers in the good old Comme des Garçons format, but now it was with her own label, sacai. This relationship between Nike and sacai would elevate to clothing collections and more new silhouettes, as they introduced the VaporWaffles in 2020. It is evident that there is no end in sight for these projects, as more and more sneakers are introduced to the world via runway fashion shows and designer previews. The collaboration machine has been running on max efficiency and the full circle moments are getting greater and greater. There are no more rules to follow.
Rei and Yohji truly walked so Jun, Yoon, and Chitose could run and fly.