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Real Talk: Z-Listers, Freebies and the Hunt for Likes

Date: October 31 2017

By: Gary Warnett

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I don’t really get the point of the footwear game right now. That’s ‘point’ in the literal sense. During my time in this industry, I’ve seen the same arguments time and time again. Fans scream at brands about how retros are botched, and they’re not wrong. Shoes lose their shape – toolings are used to death and have to be recreated. We end up with classic shoes that used to have a dramatic profile taking on a scoop-toed, banana-shape that makes them look significantly less serious than they should be.

It’s certainly become a noticeable problem. Would you rather watch your favourite movie in Blu-ray quality or as a straight-to-VOD remake starring a cluster of Z-listers? The 2005 Air Stab transformed Nike’s late-80s stability masterpiece into a curved platform shoe, while some Asian-made New Balances give certain all-time classics an inexplicable swell towards the toes. I firmly believe that a shoe should look like it always did.

But the cult of the shape does get a little wearying. Firstly, why should we be grateful when a shoe we’ve collectively spent millions on, purchased again and again and supported over the years, is suddenly restored to its old glory? We spent thousands individually on shoes with declining standards, accepting that they at least bore a trace of the original appeal, only to be pushed into replacing them with more expensive remastered versions. Sneaker forums like Crooked Tongues were basically focus groups for big brands, but because accurate retros require exacting work, those complaints were ignored. Only when the marketplace hotted-up into a close race among millennials with an alpha ability to influence, did accurate retros become marketing strategies. Those teetering piles of boxed product in storage aren’t the same as washing powder or striped toothpaste – you can’t just declare a new and improved formula without irking some loyalists!

I have a theory that the decision was made because there was nothing left to reissue. Every colourway, every model of note and anything with a significant narrative behind it has already been reissued. Even unicorns, such as the subtle adidas Hamburg, and the bombastic but fascinating Air Pressure, have been re-released. No stone has been left unturned. There might be a scattering of personal favourites that still remain un-retroed, but sometimes it’s better left that way. And once everything was retroed, the only way to tell a story was to put it back out and declare that you’re doing it better – third time around!

As a byproduct of this process, are we simply remastering history? We talk wistfully about shoes that had remarkable build quality with Elephant print taken from ‘real elephants’ and leather that melted in your hands like ‘butter on toast’. But from 1987 onwards, synthetic materials were the selling point. Fake nubucks and suedes were considered cutting-edge! Was it just bitter veterans banging on about the past being the pinnacle that created a sense that everything was flawless, and every attempt to reproduce it is an abject failure? Packaging was admittedly far better, but let’s not pretend that when it comes to the shoe, corners were being cut on day one too.

"Once everything was retroed, the only way to tell a story was to put it back out and declare that you’re doing it better – third time around!'

Again, it’s the shape that is irking me. We’ve seen the rise of the pointy silhouette, an Instagram-friendly design that’s a ‘performance’ shoe – if you consider taking a heavily VSCO-filtered shot of a dainty twinkle-toed foot a form of performance. We get it! The tracksuit pant and skinny, stacked denim looks ungainly with too much bulk. But designs like last year’s adidas EQT Support ADV, with its wedge-like 50 degree gradient seemed to contradict the original EQT footwear aesthetic.

Creating shoes that seem to be exclusively for exponents of themed socks, hashtags and footwear shoots with friends seems distinctly of-the-moment – but at the same time, it seems to lack a certain authenticity. Nobody is looking at an athlete for inspiration any more (unless abusing prescription drugs and marathons of lit antics become Olympic sports), but traces of sporting intent do make shoes more legitimate. Instead, in a post-NMD world, we’re seeing more and more lifestyle-centric releases, presumably because a Powerpoint presentation with a slide that reads ‘EVERYDAY PERFORMANCE’ justifies their existence by hitching them to a Frankenstein-patchwork of past triumphs. In other words, the sum of its parts creates a minus, betraying the brilliance of a brand. It’s enough to make me yearn for the aggressive heft of Air Force 1s. 

When Nike released their stretch-mesh runner, the Bermuda, in 1979, who knew that all brands would still be trying to reconstruct that silhouette ad nauseam 38 years later? The cult of the shape sprawls into strange places. Praising non-Air takedown fodder that nobody ever cared for on release – based on a sharp silhouette alone – is daft. Is that an indictment of the consumer’s knowledge or the brand’s failings? Can a trash Dunlop runner that was never remotely credible in the late-80s suddenly get plaudits for having that coveted forefoot angle? We’re not seeing the bigger picture because of the toes.

"When Nike released their stretch-mesh runner, the Bermuda, in 1979, who knew that all brands would still be trying to reconstruct that silhouette ad nauseam 38 years later?"

We can’t go around pretending that the shoes we love are being worn to run, hoop or play tennis in any more, but let’s at least feign it. Product has been made specifically with posing in mind for decades, but creating shoes specifically for flexing on Instagram is doomed. What will 2030’s footwear look like? Will this stuff be reissued? The culture is merely paid advertorials, freebie pairs for ‘influential individuals’ and a hunt for likes. Will we be nostalgic for this era when its appeal wanes?

Given the current brand warfare, demise of logo loyalty and new technologies entering the arena, the state of shoes hasn’t been this heartening in a long, long time. That same retro-fatigue and talk of techwear has created a market for the defiantly new. Most of the best product seems informed by sports, technology or a deeply individual worldview. It’s important that brands listen to the fanbase that loves the product and reciprocates, but to cater too explicitly just creates a distilled version of the past.

You can argue that they’re just shoes and no one should care that much, but seeing as you’re holding an issue of a magazine dedicated entirely to the damned things, it’s clear that some things run a lot deeper.

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