March 24th, 2016
As a kid growing up in cold New England (Boston) during the Great Depression, I became a Basketball Junkie from the time I was 10 years old. It was not only my escape from reality; it provided a great deal of joy in the Depression era.
Most of the time, I was playing in my socks. I would slip and slide, as well as constantly falling. I dreamed of having a pair of my own sneakers.
I held out little hope! After all, in wet and snowy weather, I often walked to school in the snow with shoes that had holes in the soles. My mother many times would go the local laundry, get some cardboard sheets, which the laundry would use to stiffen shirts after they had been washed and ironed.
The cardboard served a purpose. Mom would cut the cardboards in the shape of our shoes, place them inside our shoes and in such a way would help keep our feet dry.
Yet, one day when I was in the 5th grade at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow School, my father surprised me, he brought me a pair of my own Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers. Oh sure they were second-hand, but it made no difference. I had my own sneakers.
I remember them well, they were canvas and they were black with high tops. I am sure my dad got them from the Salvation Army. They were too big for my feet and I still slipped and slid. Wearing two pair of socks helped somewhat! It made no difference to me, after all I had my own sneakers.
When I told this story to my daughter Lisa and son-in-law Danny, they suggested I look into the rise of the sneaker culture. It has grown from just Black High Tops mostly used only for Basketball and work, never to be considered a couture statement… to a fashionable accessory.
Leather shoes were the only accepted form of dress when going out for dinner, working in an office, or any social gathering. Women always wore shoes in the latest style of the day… to wear sneakers to any social function was Taboo…. How times have changed!
Sneakers have gone from the Basketball Courts to the Fashion Runways of the world. Join me for a little bit of history about Sneakers.
Let’s go back in history.
Sneakers are truly not a new phenomenon. In the late 18th Century people wore rubber soled shoes called “plimsoils”. The “plimsoils” were pretty crude – for instance, there was no right or left foot and they were flat with no support. The Sneaker, as we were to come to know it for years, was first manufactured in 1892.
The U.S. Rubber Company came up with more comfortable rubber sneakers with canvas tops. They called them “Keds”. By World War I, they were being mass-produced. Because they were so quiet, they were given the nickname “sneakers” since a person could easily sneak up on someone.
Just like over the years Frigidaire had become synonymous with electric refrigerators, Kleenex became the catch phrase for soft paper tissues and Hershey’s, for the longest time, was the only name used when describing chocolate candy bars, Sneakers became the nomenclature for rubber soled shoes.
In 1917, Marquis Converse produced the first shoe made specifically for Basketball. It was called Converse All-Stars. Six years later, an Indiana hoops (that’s what the game of Basketball used to be called) star named Chuck Taylor endorsed the shoes and they became known as the Chuck Taylor All-Stars.
Those are the only shoes most of us knew and what we grew up using. To this day, they are still considered the best-selling Basketball shoe of all time.
In 1924, sneakers became International. In that year, a German named Adi Dassler created a sneaker that he named after himself: Adidas. This brand became the most popular athletic shoe in the world.
American Olympian Track star Jessie Owens wore Adidas when he won four Gold Medals in the 1936 Olympics.
In 1977, while I was still President of FOX Sports, I was approached by Adi’s brother Rudi. It seems Rudi and Adi were fighting and Rudi was going to leave Adidas to launch his own brand. So, Rudi and myself were joined by my boyhood friend Earle Wolfe who at the time was in the apparel business and the late Stan Greeson, then President of the Harlem Globetrotters, at my FOX office to meet with Rudi and discuss his United States plans for the new brand.
At the meeting, he showed us his marketing concept and invited us to join him. We discussed the possibilities after Rudi left. Unanimously, we decided to pass on the proposed opportunity. Rudi launched the brand with others and called it “Puma”.
During the first half of the 20th Century, Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars were all we knew to wear to play Basketball. Adidas, on the other hand, became synonymous with the sport of Soccer. Sneakers were used only for playing sports.
However, in the 1950’s, it all began to change. Sneakers started to expand from the locker room and made inroads into the world of fashion. Actually, it was kids who started wearing them as fashion statements. The fad expanded as teenagers joined the parade after they had seen James Dean wearing Sneakers in the popular movie Rebel Without a Cause.
But it was in 1984 that Basketball made its first fashion statement. That was the year that Michael Jordan of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls signed with Nike to wear and help design a shoe called Air Jordan. Michael, the most exciting Basketball player of his era with a legion of followers was the perfect salesman.
Air Jordans became the first $100+ Sneaker. Even after he retired, his shoes continued to be best sellers. Today, many more athletes like LeBron James and Steph Curry have their own shoe lines.
One thing the Sneaker companies have always done is capitalize on different ways to increase sales volumes. To me, as an ardent 5th Grader, I shall always remember Converse putting on a Hoops Clinic at my Grammar School.
Chuck Taylor for whom the All-Star shoe was named was there as MC. However, the star of the shoe was a man named Bunny Levitt. Bunny had made 499 consecutive foul shots before he missed. He gave us a demonstration. WOW!
For an impressionable 10 year old who lived to play Basketball, this was a moment to never be forgotten.
Soon, based on the Air Jordan success, Adidas, Reebok, New Balance, Skechers and some of the great Fashion houses, (not famous for Sneakers, but other pieces of apparel) were following suit.
They changed the way Sneakers looked. They added wild colors and in some cases did away with laces. Many color coordinated their products with complete outfits. Soon, they were not only made for every sport… skate boarding, walking and “cross training” among them, as well as for everyday wear.
In addition, new sneaker technologies were perfected to increase comfort and better performance. Where the “plimsoils” were flat and were not the most comfortable footwear, Nike’s Air Jordans used little pockets of gas to create better cushioning. Reebok introduced the Pump, ( air pumped into shoes to make them fit more snugly).
The beat goes on- – one company , for example, built a spring in the soles to reduce foot stress. However, all these innovations come with a price, Today, sneakers, many times called athletic shoes often cost more than $100.
Today, many of my friends no longer wear what we call conventional shoes… they live in Sneakers which often times show up on Red Carpet events as part of a Tuxedo ensemble… still there continues to be dynamic changes.