By definition, vintage goods speak to the interests and needs of a specific time. They are documents of the past, and yet when it comes to sneakers, so often the understanding of a model (or even obscure company) is limited purely to style. Beyond the surface look, each sneaker tells a story, and often a multitude of tales can be extracted – Fashion history, business history, trade history – all these things are intertwined in the body of a mass marketed good. One of the great examples of the potential of sneakers to serve as valuable historic documents is Dikembe Mutombo’s signature model from Adidas.
The Mutombo signature edition basketball shoe was released by adidas during the 1992/93 NBA season. Mutombo’s personal history is vital to understanding the full scope of the shoe. A native of Zaire, now Congo, he arrived in the United States after a US Foreign Service officer brought him to the attention of Georgetown Basketball Coach, John Thompson. A soccer player in his native land, the 7 foot 2 inch Mutombo played intramural basketball his freshman year (and he is probably the greatest intramural athlete of all-time). Over the next three years Mutombo solidified his status as a basketball star and after graduating with a degree in linguistics, was a top pick in the 1991 NBA draft to the Denver Nuggets.
Designed for his second professional season, this high top shoe is made of modern synthetic polymers, synthetic fibers and rubber (from this one may inquire about a range of topics I have neither the motivation or space to address here). Its most distinguishing features are the shield logo on the tongue and the number 55 (as worn by Mutombo) and a printed geometric pattern over the forefoot. These signifying markers individualize the sneaker, make it specific to Dikembe, and place it within a long trajectory of signature shoes in the basketball market.
The Converse rubber company of Malden, Massachusetts develop- ed what is considered the first basketball shoe in 1917. After several years of limited success, a young amateur ball player from Akron, Ohio named Chuck Taylor was recruited to help sell the Converse product. In 1923, the shoe was revamped and the Converse All-Star that is familiar to all of us, was born. With Chuck as its spokesman, the shoe, to use a great understatement, became quite successful. The idea of using athletes to sell athletic shoes solidified, and every major and minor shoe corporation built a stable roster of stars (Pete Marovich with Pro-Keds, Dominique Wilkins with Brooks and even coaching legend John Wooden with Wilson Bata are examples) particularly in the basketball arena through the seventies and eighties.
By the nineties, the signature shoe was really big business, a fact not lost on Sports Illustrated which published a feature on sneakers in the November 30, 1992 issue. Converse had the Aero Jam (for Larry Johnson), Nike had the seventh/eighth edition of the Jordan, and adidas was having trouble.
The adidas shoe company was started by Adolf Dassler in 1946. He had early success making footwear with his brother Rudi, most famously outfitting Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Eventually, the sibling’s relationship soured, and the world gained Puma and adidas as a result. During the 1970s, the brand with three stripes surfaced as the leader in the US athletic market, and gained immortal status in American urban culture in the 1980s on the strength of rap group Run-DMC’s 1986 hit MY ADIDAS. As the competition rose, adidas faced a rapid decline. By 1992, the companies market share had fallen dramatically, to just 2% of the American sneaker industry.
In February of 1993, adidas hired former Nike executive Robert J. Strasser (who was pictured in The New York Times holding a Mutombo sneaker) to head the newly created adidas America. The company hoped that the basketball market would push a return to high-sales for the brand.
In picking Dikembe Mutombo to represent the company’s basketball division, adidas had courted one of the NBA’s rising stars. An all-star his first year, and runner up as rookie of the year, Mutombo entered his second season as the only real force on his Denver Nuggets. adidas developed a shoe that was built for the center position, bulky and stable, but also an indication of Mutombo’s personality and past, and the proposed future of basketball, the African continent.
As mentioned, Dikembe Mutombo is a native of Zaire (now the Republic of Congo). He was born to a prominent family and given a rather prominent full name, Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba, Jean Jacque, Wamutombo. The geometric patterning on the sides and interior of the shoe share a distinct resemblance to cut-pile raffia textiles from Bukuba, Zaire. Recently, we’ve seen the designs rehashed directly in the UndrCrwn adidas campaign of last year. The use of textiles for inspiration connects in an abstract way to the adidas Originals Fabrics of the World program. Beyond that, the nod to Africa connects aesthetically to what was happening in street fashion.
The early nineties saw the beginning of the mass market-ing of urban (conflated with hip-hop) culture and with it, brands like Cross Colors started promoting loose fitting clothing with a multitude of often Afrocentric color schemes. The same yellows, reds and greens seen on the Mutombo shield logo found their way onto pants, shirts and hats, creating an orgy of color on the streets of America. The colors on the Mutombo shoe and on the Cross Colors brand of clothing were supposed to represent unity, harmony and the integration of different cultures under the creation of a new one. Simply, the shoe seamlessly fitted the aesthetic tenor of the era. There was an eye to the past, present and future in the style.
From this brief sketch, you can see how looking closely at the sneaker can tease out some stories. Corporate history, cultural trends, marketing strategy and even textile production provide strong leads in a rather interesting tale. Ultimately, I think the adidas Mutombo is as good a museum piece as Dorothy’s ruby slipper, which is prominently displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s popular culture gallery. The Mutombo is just such a clear representation of the culture that created it and from a stylistic point of view, Mutombo’s signature shoe reflects the urban aesthetic of the early to mid-nineties better than any other. It marks a pivotal point in adidas history, a time when the corporation shifted focus to America to secure its financial future (15 years later we see them again shifting focus towards the States). Finally, it is also important to preserve objects of contemporary history that appeal to a great number of serious enthusiasts.
A last point of inquiry, and one that should be on the radar of all vintage collectors, is the subject of preservation. I have spoken to several museum trained conservators about how to properly store and maintain shoes. Their suggestions are basically, fiscally impossible for me. A long term concern is obviously the yellowing of any sneaker’s mid-sole. Due to the synthetic and rubber based materials comprising almost all sneakers, they are particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation. Ideally, sneakers should be exhibited in stable conditions with minimal light (no more than 5 foot candles) and within the standard 68 (+/- 5) and 50% humidity. Dark or even freezer storage is recommended for the long term. If you really want to keep your kicks perfect, follow these rules, it’s proven more effective than the average sneaker collector’s ‘Rembrandt + toothbrush + elbow grease’ to solve the problem, regardless of how ridiculous the steps may sound.
My advice is to just rock them and enjoy. After all, the cultural importance of a sneaker remains, no matter how beat up it becomes.