Discussing sustainability, street culture and stepping out in comfort as well as style. BA (Hons) year 1 student Devon Armogeda reviews the new Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street exhibition at the Design Museum.
Sneakers Unboxed is exhibited in the Design Museum until October 24th, 2021. The part historical timeline, part cultural vector analysis, part sneaker fan goldmine, and part future sneaker market capitalisation offers the visitors a thorough examination of past, present, and future sneaker culture.
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About the exhibition
Stepping down into the basement of the Design Museum in the West London borough of Kensington, the viewer is met with three activities before commencing the exhibition. Positioned across one southern facing wall is a navy blue timeline spanning from 1820 to the present day. Key historical moments are pinned along the timeline in crisp, white font: Walt Webster’s 1892 American patent on fixing rubber soles, Adolf Dassler 1949 founded Adidas with his distinct three striped shoes or New Hampshire’s 1980 development of Nike’s Sport Research Lab (NSRL).
On the northern wall lays an airport security-like contraption, where guests can wear Sneaker 0 virtually using Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – powered image detecting algorithms. Lastly, guests can partake in an inclusive Pensole competition for a chance to have their sneaker designs produced into a prototype.
Once entering the exhibition officially and descending another set of narrow staircases, the numerically driven reality of economics and revenue outcomes take center stage. Sneaker-themed white and navy blue infographics are glowing, as lights are projected behind the wealth of information. Stark statistics are sprinkled around the room, highlighting the scale of the international sneaker market.
America monopolises 29% of the global sneaker market followed by China at 18%, with the total value of the sneaker market by 2025 predicted to increase to $100 billion from the current $70 billion evaluation of 2021. Yet, these statistics also highlight the sustainable challenges associated with the industry – 23 billion pairs of sneakers are produced every year yet only 20% of these shoes are recycled meaning the sneaker industry alone discards 18.4 billion pairs of shoes into our ecosystem annually.
Style and Culture
Sneaker culture was not always as ubiquitous as the present day, during the 1970s youth-culture movement provided the catalyst to the modern-day sneaker fandom through street style founded in inner-city neighbourhoods. Fashion brands in the 1970s were slow to design or market sneakers outside the domain of sports-related activities. The 1990s saw the distinctive shift in sneaker popularity, which led to some of the earliest limited editions and collaborations between sports brands and fashion designers. Adidas was the first brand in 1964 to experiment with swapping the outdated, yet widely used canvas in favour of slick, smooth leather. In 1982 Nike’s Air Force 1’s were first produced for basketball players, yet fast forward to the modern-day, fashion weeks globally have the sneakers in street style shots from Milan to New York Fashion Week.
Design houses compete with one another for better traction, fit, stability, cushioning, and energy returns for their clientele. This has seen great examples of innovation and pioneering technology. Eric Avar, a Nike shoe designer since 1991, designed Foamposite after a three-year design process with Korean car manufacturer Daewoo. The two created the first-ever single upper made of synthetic polyurethane plastic, giving their customers the feeling of their feet being submerged into the product.
Reebok won the ‘laceless’ race of the 1990s with their InstaPump Fury sneaker after four years of design trials and prototypes. Marni Gerber, a senior designer with Nike, designed Nike Air Swoopes II for the first female basketball star, Sheryl Swoopes, before the 1996 Olympics. The sneakers offered a low ankle cut for easy agile movement, a Velcro strap, and a customised traction pattern featuring an S for Swoopes.
Sustainability and Circular Design
Sustainability has become a buzz word synonymous with design practice and principles within the fashion industry today. Universally the fashion industry has been held to account on accusations of greenwashing in marketing products, which contributes to the pollution of the planet, burning of overstock and the use of synthetic materials.
Sneakers, specifically, are made from innumerable materials, including synthetic rubbers, plastics, and glues for bonding together the various components. Large quantities of these toxic materials end up in landfills where the synthetic fibres take decades to degrade. As grim as the reality appears, fashion brands and designers are aware of the issues at hand and are utilising innovation in materials and production to combat the environmental concern.
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Case studies for sustainable design
Nike’s Considered Boot, produced in 2005, was their leading sustainable product, using fewer production steps and stitching requiring 37% less energy to manufacture. Adidas’s collaboration in 2015 with non-profit organisation Parley for the Oceans, utilising tossed fishing nets in deep-sea waters off the shores of the Maldives to produce an entire, continuous product range with the assistance of green chemist John Warner and material innovator Bionic Yarn.
The industry has taken on the rat race and challenge of producing environmentally friendly products, it will be a thrill and a delight to see how these innovations alter pop culture, street style, and athletic performance.
By Devon Armogeda, BA (Hons) Fashion Communication