31.05.22 | 6 mins

Trainers as a cultural icon

What is it about sneakers that we all love?
By Clara Sánchez-Puga


We recently realised that trainers are part of the identity and culture of the studio. Between all of us, we treasure an excellent handful of original sneakers, reissues, limited editions and unrepeatable models. But is it a coincidence? Because it’s not that strange either.

For some time now, sneakers have been everywhere and function, more than as footwear, as an element that speaks about who wears them: their sporting interests, culture, and musical taste. And they have colonised luxury brands such as Prada or Gucci and haute couture designers such as Virgil Abloh. By 2025, the global sports footwear market will be worth around 100 billion euros.

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Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton


But how have they managed to reign across the globe and become one of the most coveted objects of desire? This change of status to that of a cultural symbol is something that the London Design Museum is already exploring today. But trainers are far from new: as early as the 1830s, The Liverpool Rubber Company (founded by John Boyd Dunlop) first paired canvas slippers with rubber soles. And their association with top athletes is nothing new either.

In the late 19th century, society had significantly changed thanks to industrial progress, which led to an explosion of interest in sporting activities. In England, this interest was mainly focused on tennis which translated into a need for more specialised footwear to play better on grass. In 1929, Dunlop launched the iconic Green Flash, the shoe worn by Fred Perry at Wimbledon, which became an icon.

That exact need was making its way to the US, wherein in the early 1920s, Converse teamed up with basketball star Chuck Taylor to launch the legendary All Star. A partnership that continues to this day: Converse “Chucks” are still the brand’s flagship a hundred years later.

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Converse All Star Chuck Taylor advertising poster, 1962.


At the same time, in Germany, the brothers Adolf (Adi) and Rudolf Dassler founded the “Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik” in 1924, the company responsible for the first spiked running shoes. Jesse Owens was wearing these at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 when he won four gold medals. At the same Games, Converse Chuck Taylors became the official footwear of the US basketball team.

Twenty years later, it was already common to see 50s movie stars like Marlon Brando wearing sneakers with jeans, a symbol of rebellion at the time. But the next revolution was yet to come.

In 1964, Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight created Blue Ribbon Sports, which aimed to improve the performance of athletes in competition. To increase grip, Bowerman is said to have poured rubber into a waffle iron, and the classic Waffle model was born. Blue Ribbon Sports became Nike in 1971.

Brands were selling trainers constantly in the 1970s. The shoe was all the rage among young people, as it was the perfect blend of comfort and admiration for athletes and celebrities. Along came the 80s and, with them, Michael Jordan. Together with him, Nike created the Air Jordan 1 with the best technology available at the time, and Jordan himself contributed to making them what he needed to improve his game.

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Michael Jordan in his Nike Air Jordan 1's during a game against the Celtics.


Because design is inextricably linked to functionality, that’s why the partnership between athletes and trainer designers has been going on for a hundred years. But what makes a trainer “wearable”? Time? Trend? We associate the latest features and modernity with functionality, but when more modern designs overtake technology and functionality, shoes become classics, and their design transcends to aesthetics.

It is difficult to see the latest KD’s off the track, although we assume it will happen sooner or later. However, we have found an exception. A shoe that’s used simultaneously in the sport for which it was created and on the street: the Vans. Well, as skate shoes, it’s understandable that they are also used as street shoes. But their use has spread far beyond Californian skateboarders, and virtually everyone has at least one pair of Vans: from little children to 60-year-old ladies with a youthful look or gym addicts who never do cardio.

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Tony Hawk became a brand ambassador 40 years after his first Vans.


But beyond this rara avis, no professional basketball player would wear the AJ1s to play today, even though Michael Jordan wore them again on 8 March 1998 at Madison Square Garden to play against the New York Knicks in his last game in the Chicago Bulls jersey. His feet were bleeding from blisters at halftime, but he still refused to take them off. Jordan added to the legend of his shoes by leading his team to victory by scoring 42 points.

The same goes for the All Star: no one would wear them today to play even though they were designed to do so in their day. But they have been recycled, becoming a rock icon thanks to bands like The Ramones. This has not been the only association of sneakers with the music scene. The underground culture and the flourishing hip-hop and rap scene in the 70s and 80s, also closely linked to basketball, meant that artists like Run-DMC always wore trainers like the Adidas Superstar.

Run-DMC's Adidas Superstars in an iconic shot from the Walk This Way video.


This led to sneakers becoming a fundamental element of popular culture and, as we said at the beginning, a new form of self-affirmation: who you are, what your tastes are, or your ideology.

The digital age and considerable investments in marketing have done the rest. Today, brands manage perfectly the needs of the public linked to fashion: retro reissues, vintage releases and limited editions associated with a film, a hip-hop star or an athlete.

Prices have inflated. We queue physically and virtually to get our hands on one of the most coveted models, and, of course, this has generated a lucrative resale market. But few things make you more fabulous than wearing a pair of legendary shoes.

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