Behind Every Iconic Sneaker Is An Even Better Story

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Behind Every Iconic Sneaker Is An Even Better Story

Words by Mr Ross Dwyer

1 April 2022

The world of sneakers is driven by two things: performance and storytelling. The former ages about as well as milk. But given time, the latter is more like fine wine. As the years go by, a shoe’s story often gets richer and fuller, adding to its prestige and increasing its value both in a literal and a cultural sense. This storytelling, above all else, is what enables these decades-old sports shoes to live a second life as casual favourites.

Retro performance-turned-lifestyle designs from the likes of Nike, adidas and New Balance have long been at the forefront of street culture, but in recent years they’ve seen an undeniable surge in popularity. They’re a counterpoint, of sorts, to the flashy designer sneakers that dominated street style in the mid-2010s – an era that produced some brilliance, but that soon became saturated by bulky, blocky and gaudy designs that felt as if they were created for a moment instead of a lifetime.

Moreover, at a time when everything can seem as fleeting and instantaneous as a TikTok video, it’s unsurprising that sneakerheads and casual wearers alike are looking to put a little more soul in their soles. The advanced technology that sneaker brands place in their products makes them fly, but it’s the storytelling that gets them off the ground. No matter how good a shoe looks, it’s the narrative that’ll translate to the customer.

Of the styles with substantive stories, the most omnipresent are two 1980s hoop shoes from Nike: the Air Force 1 and the Dunk. The former has been a key part of the Swoosh’s lifestyle lineup for decades, with nary an absence since its introduction. The latter, on the other hand, was reintroduced at the top of 2020 after a brief hiatus, but each tells a tale that’s uniquely its own. The Air Force 1 started as a regional favourite in New York, Baltimore and Tokyo, but grew to be a global icon that’s still one of Nike’s best sellers: in 2021, it was the top revenue-generating sneaker in the world.

“It’s the storytelling that gets them off the ground. No matter how good a shoe looks, it’s the narrative that’ll translate to the customer”

Released in 1985, only three years after the Air Force 1 debuted in 1982, the Nike Dunk was originally created to serve as a team-coloured model for Nike-endorsed college hoops squads. Though the Dunk was strictly a performance shoe at first, Nike’s influential CO.JP line – a lifestyle-geared sub-label exclusive to Japan – brought it back as a casual style at the turn of the century after witnessing the Japanese market’s fervour for vintage pairs. Early adopter sneakerheads across the rest of the globe clamoured for CO.JP Dunks, laying the foundation for Nike SB, and nearly two decades later providing the groundwork for the Dunk’s reintroduction in 2020. Consumers didn’t need to be told why the Dunk was important: they already knew.

New Balance, on the other end, was largely viewed as a running brand and “dad shoe” outfit by mainstream sneaker culture until only a few years ago. Its heritage running lineup has always been strong and its products have appealed to consumers who love quality and a healthy sense of irony – the brand even ran a memorable campaign when launching the 990v5 in 2019.

But New Balance began taking a more adventurous tack in 2020, partnering with creatives like Messrs Salehe Bembury and Joe Freshgoods to interpret its heritage and shape its future in a different fashion. New Balance wouldn’t be the first brand to attempt giving its lifestyle products a fresh spin, but it was the open-minded, unpretentious nature of their offerings that seemed to strike a chord with modern-day consumers who were getting tired of hype-fuelled drops and looking for something more substantive. “I think [extreme collaboration and marketing] all becomes a bit too much at a point,” New Balance’s senior manager of global collaborations and energy product Mr Joe Grondin told Sneaker Freaker at the end of 2020. “We try to pick stories that are super authentic, and we never force a silhouette on a partner.”

The focus on authenticity and keen partner selection has enabled New Balance to increase the attention on its flagship products such as the 990 line, as well as reintroduce once-obscure models, including the 2002R and 550, to great fanfare. Though both are heritage models – the former an updated take on a running shoe from the 2000s, the latter an obscure basketball shoe that was released in 1989 before disappearing for more than 30 years – they have moved to the front of the brand’s lifestyle lineup. Their stories weren’t well-known when they launched, but New Balance was able to tell them for a new era by collaborating with the likes of Messrs Bembury and Teddy Santis. It made for a perfect storm of hype and substance that proved to be catnip for sneaker lovers.

Another classic style shoe that’s made inroads with substance-craving sneaker lovers in years past is adidas’ Forum. Available in both high and low-top versions, the Forum originally debuted in 1984 and was the first-ever mass market basketball sneaker to be priced at $100. Its sticker shock and signature ankle strap made it one of adidas’ most notable hoops shoes of the 1980s. When it was rereleased, those same details cemented it as a lifestyle favourite – a shoe that’s a bit more niche than, say, a Stan Smith or Superstar, but not so far off the beaten path as to be startling.

The Forum wasn’t driven by copious collaboration or a huge marketing campaign, even though it did serve as the centrepiece of a budding partnership between Bad Bunny and the Three Stripes. Moreover, it was its stripped-back, familiar colourways, better-than-usual quality materials and creative individuals who started a social media trend by removing its strap for a cleaner look that gave it wings in a new era.

Bringing all three brands back together, the Dunk and Air Force 1 are to Nike what the 550 and 2002R are to New Balance and the Forum is to adidas: shoes with substance in both story and style, leading the charge in the modern-day lifestyle market and bringing heritage to the forefront once again. Remember, it’s just as much about how you tell the story as it is what the story is about.

Illustration by Mr Kouzou Sakai

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