Black History Month Op-Ed: The Evolution of Sneaker Culture

In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides. As part of this series, we have asked key thought leaders in footwear, fashion and diversity to contribute editorial content.

What we know as modern sneaker culture has origins in the divisive 1960s. Amid the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and a multitude of protests, a subculture spawned. During the late 1970s, sneaker culture continued to develop through a burgeoning hip-hop movement. Consequently, sneaker culture evolved as a form of expression for a sect that was otherwise voiceless — the African-American. With fewer sneaker options, particular brands signified and conveyed various messages. For example, if one wore the Converse “Chuck Taylor” All-Star on-court, he or she had to have a game that justified the selection. Wearing this shoe not only meant that one was a skilled competitor — it also signaled bombastic confidence. Doppelganger silhouettes supplied by companies B.F. Goodrich and Spalding garnered the reputation of lesser products reserved for lesser players. Sans ostentation, sneaker culture succeeded as an underground entity.

As the conservative politics and corporate greed of the 1980s manifested, sneaker culture’s genetic structure changed. What was once clandestine became a global practice. African-Americans became tastemakers of a culture — of which they reaped few financial benefits. Many of them died in attempts to acquire or defend products — fabricated for utility — turned status symbol. Soon, youth culture in countries like China and France replicated the youth culture in Queens, N.Y., and Baltimore. This period birthed the culture we experience today. During the 1980s through the 1990s, heritage and niche brands including, but not limited to, Puma, Ellesse and Fila enjoyed modest to healthy market share. Due to the explosion of retros and reissues, everything old is indeed new again.

Similarly, some may say, modern sneaker industry employs a “retro” business practice. Where is the diversity and inclusion? Like men, woman identify and subscribe to sneaker culture. In many instances, their aspirations die at a shoe wall. Popular models either eliminate smaller sizes or, worse, feature excessive amounts of pink in colorways. In addition, many minorities — specifically African-Americans — repeatedly make or break trends. They are rarely directly consulted regarding marketing to the demographic. Currently, popular sneaker models fill the racks of discount retailers. This is partially due to unpopular colorways, unsuccessfully marketed to minorities. This cycle repeats due to a lack of diversity in executive positions.

On the contrary, sneaker culture has advanced in regarding diversity of the spokesperson. In the distant past, athletes were pitchmen, whether they turned a profit or not. Today, anyone with a healthy social media following garners the nomenclature influencer. This faction provides economic and strategic marketing for corporations. Not only social media personalities but entertainers dictate what is on-trend. The average seventh grader may not know NBA player Tyler Johnson, but they certainly know Tyler, the Creator. They may even believe he “created” the Converse One Star he helps market. Thus sneaker culture has progressed. Unfortunately, the progression is inadequate. Therefore, what we know as modern sneaker culture looks as retro as its origin.

Jemayne Lavar King is an English professor at Johnson C. Smith University and author of “Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture.”

Want more? Check out FN’s 2018 Black History Month Spotlight

Black History Month Spotlight: Pensole Footwear Design Academy Founder D’Wayne Edwards

Black History Month Spotlight: Shoe Industry Veteran Noel Hord

Black History Month Spotlight: Naturalizer VP of Design Angelique Joseph

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content