Exploring the 'Rise of Sneaker Culture' Exhibit

Giancarlo Ferrari-King@@GiancarloKingFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2015

Image via Jonathan Dorado

When most people think about museums, they think about exquisite paintings, historic sculptures and school trips accompanied by chaperones and seat belt-deprived yellow buses.

But there's one museum in particular that focuses in on the history of shoes. The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has been documenting and displaying the evolution of footwear since its doors opened in 1995.

It wasn't until 2010 that senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack decided that it was time to bring sneakers into the fold.

The 1917 Converse All-Star
The 1917 Converse All-StarImage via American Federation of Arts

What transpired from that original idea was a traveling exhibition called "The Rise of Sneaker Culture." This in-depth traveling display tapped into the core of what makes sneakers such an important part of today's society.

Why sneakers? For starters, the industry rakes in more than $55 billion a year in international revenue, per Matt Powell of Forbes. After starting off in Drake's home city of Toronto, the display took up residency in Brooklyn, New York, at the world famous Brooklyn Museum. That's where it will stay until October 4 of this year.

'The Rise of Sneaker Culture' located in the Brooklyn Museum.
'The Rise of Sneaker Culture' located in the Brooklyn Museum.Image via Jonathan Dorado

First off, this isn't your average sneaker display. It's a beautiful, vast compilation of footwear pieces that can now be classified as works of art. Legendary kicks like the original Converse All-Star from 1917 and every Air Jordan model from the initial AJ I to the AJ XXIII provide fans with an educated glimpse on how sneakers have grown and become part of everyday life.

Walking the halls of the exhibit allows one to really get a feel for where sneakers started and how far the industry has come throughout the years.

In my conversation with Semmelhack, we covered a variety of topics. One of the most fascinating ones was how two people and one group changed the sneaker world forever: Michael Jordan, Tinker Hatfield and Run-D.M.C.

The Air Jordan I and Adidas Superstar on display.
The Air Jordan I and Adidas Superstar on display.Image via Jonathan Dorado

Those names have become synonymous with pop culture and, more importantly, the growth and commercialization of kicks.

"Two of the most important watershed moments in the history of sneaker culture were the signing of Michael Jordan to Nike and the debut of Air Jordans, and the signing of Run-D.M.C. to Adidas. Both disseminated sneaker culture, which was already fully formed within urban centers, to a broader audience," Semmelhack told Bleacher Report.

It was Jordan's decision to sign with Nike prior to the 1984-85 NBA season that shocked the sneaker world into a Frankenstein-like monster of leather and laces. The story itself is riveting, and Darren Rovell of ESPN.com explained in great detail how that masterful deal came to be.

Run-D.M.C and Adidas shifted the balance of sneaker culture.
Run-D.M.C and Adidas shifted the balance of sneaker culture.MARIO SURIANI/Associated Press

Run-D.M.C, a group of music pioneers, remains one of Adidas' biggest hauls. Their use of the shell-toe Superstar model in pop culture signified a change within the youth. It gave a sense of longevity to the Adidas brand outside the world of performance shoes and placed it where it mattered the most: the streets.

But it was Tinker Hatfield who took everything that had been done prior and destroyed it. Semmelhack points out that it was Hatfield's design background that became a critical part of what he did for the culture.

"Nike designer Tinker Hatfield has been able to take sneaker design to an unprecedented level," she mentioned.

Starting with the Air Jordan III, the Tinker-and-MJ combo was lethal and unmatched in terms of quality and innovation. There's a reason why all of these years later, the Jordan brand can drop any shoe from its vault and sell out almost immediately. 

"Many of sneaker culture's most iconic shoes have been created by him, from the Air Max 90 and the Air Jordan III to the XI and XX," Semmelhack concluded.

Tinker Hatfield and Michael Jordan in Paris.
Tinker Hatfield and Michael Jordan in Paris.Handout/Getty Images

In fairness to the innovators, this display would not be possible without today's athletes either. Guys like Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have all built brands that draw consumers in. Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes reported that James alone sold $340 million worth of kicks for Nike.

That's a staggering number, and when you realize that Durant sold $195 million to go along with Bryant's $105 million, you start to see how real the rise of sneaker culture has become.

LeBron James sporting the LeBron 12 model this past season.
LeBron James sporting the LeBron 12 model this past season.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

It's hard to imagine that the original Chuck Taylor All-Stars would turn into a market worthy of carrying multiple colorways of a single LeBron sneaker. Times have certainly changed.

You can call it the "Mark Zuckerberg effect" if you want. But today's society has become a lot more lenient in terms of fashion. In many cases, people are allowed to dress how they want. "It's everything, from the arrival of the tech geek, who could show up at a business meeting and [is] a force to be reckoned with," Semmelhack mentioned.

That recent liberation of men's fashion has given sneakers a chance to thrive past the gym. "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" shows in detail how this came to be.

What's fascinating about this exhibit is that it also features a ton of rare kicks. Starting with the Thorogood—the first real athletic shoe—it feels like you're jumping directly into a time machine.

The Adidas Micropacer
The Adidas MicropacerImage via Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

As you move along, some other highlights you'll see are the Keds Champion model from 1917, the Converse Gripper representing the late '40s, early '50s and the Adidas Micropacer from 1984. All of these kicks helped lay the groundwork for what we see on the shelves today.

The Converse Grippers
The Converse GrippersImage via Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

There's plenty of history when it comes to each and every sneaker, and that's what makes "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" so incredible. "What is significant about this exhibition is that it not only allows visitors to see exceptionally rare original sneakers from the 19th century to today, but it also strives to illuminate the incredible place sneakers have had in history and their role in culture," Semmelhack expressed.

People don't realize there's a compelling story to be told in terms of sneakers. This exhibit put together by Semmelhack, the Bata Shoe Museum and the American Federation of Arts tells each one of those stories.

Don't miss out on your chance to see the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. It runs through October 4 before hitting the road and opening up shop at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.

For more information, visit the Bata Shoe Museum online.