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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”.

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