Shoes take center stage at the Brooklyn Museum this summer. Starting in July, the Bata Shoe Museum’s traveling sneaker exhibit, “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” arrives in New York for three months, featuring everything from the original Chuck Taylors to the 1985 Air Jordan 1. FN talked to Elizabeth Semmelhack, a senior curator at the museum, for the inside sneaker scoop.
Where did you start with your research?
“I always want to know how something came to be integrated into our wardrobes. I didn’t want to look at sneaker culture just through key moments, like when Michael Jordan signed with Nike or Run D.M.C. signed with Adidas. I wanted to go back to the sneaker’s origins. ”
How did you put together the shoes?
“Luckily, we had a number of early examples of sneakers — we have the original Keds from 1916. We also had pre-vulcanized rubber shoes from Brazil. I wanted people entrenched in sneaker culture to have the sneakers they’d expect to see, but also the ones they couldn’t believe they were getting the chance to see. “
Talk a little about technology and sneakers. I know it’s a big part of the show.
“There is an interesting section in the early 1980s where technology really takes off in sneaker design. It’s that time you get the original Adidas Micro Pacer and Original Pump sneaker by Reebok. One of the things I find really amazing, looking at the history of the sneaker, is the drive for innovation. Whether it’s how you make the sap of the tree–the rubber–into some thing useable, to some of the latest technologies of lacing and energy transference. The 1980s really showed how adventurous sneaker design was getting and how that feeds into later sneaker culture so well. “
Why are so many high fashion houses getting in on the sneaker craze?
“I find it interesting that shoe designers like Christian Louboutin, who is so famous for making beautiful women’s’ shoes, is now making these highly coveted men’s sneakers. What’s even more interesting is that men are as eager to embrace what has been seen as a women’s brand and how eager they are to embrace designs and how many fashion chances and risks are now willing to take today, starting with their shoes. “
Why has the men’s market embraced sneakers in the past few years?
“Women have been obligated to express their individuality with dress: We can’t show up at the same party wearing the same thing. Historically, men always show up at the same party wearing the same thing. Now, as times are changing, sneaker culture is evidence that some of these very longstanding traditions are beginning to be chipped away at, and men are expressing themselves through their footwear choices. Converse All Stars say something so different from Louboutins. I think [sneaker culture] also adds to an increasingly diverse image of what we think men’s success looks like. New types of manly success emerged in the late 1980s and ’90s — the computer ‘geek’ who wore sneakers was a new model of masculine [accomplishment] that trumped the three-piece-suited banker look.”
You’ve said you can’t wait for sneakerheads to see the exhibit. Why?
“I have never seen an audience so engaged in a subject matter than this one. They already come to the exhibition as historians in their own right, and they read all the text and look at the objects and it amazes me that a sneaker exhibit ion hasn’t been done before. Its such a crowd that is information hungry and willing and open.”
[Editor’s Note: The story originally appeared in print 06/29/15]