A Brief History: The Evolution of Skate Shoe Technology
At a technical level, few sports have evolved in recent decades as much as skateboarding. We’ve certainly come a long way since Alan Gelfand invented the Ollie in the late-70s. All of a sudden, the seemingly impossible tricks we were doing on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater have now become common modern manoeuvres – hell, there’s even 10-year-olds landing 900s.
On the flipside, the technical ascension of skate shoes has been, well, a little less rapid. In fact, you can probably say there have been times of regression intertwined with periods of progression.
While skateboarding as a culture has always rolled to its own rhythm, the footwear that’s been so pivotal in shaping it has, in many cases, been borrowed from other pastimes. However, that’s not to say skate shoe manufacturers haven’t tried – and bailed – in their pursuits to innovate over the years.
From Barefoot to Bare Minimum: 1950–1980
Transitioning from the seas to the street, surfers in 1950s USA attached roller-skate wheels to wooden planks as a means to ‘sidewalk surf’. The pastime caught a wave of its own, providing the catalyst for the creation of skateboarding as we know it today. Naturally, most street surfers opted for the barefoot approach – perhaps emblematic of their freewheeling spirit. However, as the skate swell grew, so did the need for actual footwear.
By 1965, we had the first-ever televised National Skateboarding Championships in Anaheim, California, with many of the competitors taking to the flatland freestyle and slalom downhill racing contests rocking Keds and Converse Chuck Taylors. The canvas uppers and rubber outsoles made perfect sense – boards didn’t have griptape at the time, so the traction of rubber certainly came in handy.
Recognising this, Randolph Rubber Company decided to put their own spin on the Keds-style boat shoe, creating the Randy 720. Made with a ‘TUFF TOE ‘N HEEL’ and ‘TUFFER’ Randyprene rubber, the shoe didn’t do enough to keep the company afloat, but it did pave the way for another Californian company to try their hand at the ol’ canvas/rubber combination.
Big Air: The 80s
Spurred by the invention of the Ollie in the late-70s, and further encouraged by the exploits of street god Rodney Mullen, skateboarding experienced – arguably – its most innovative period during the 1980s. For the footwear, however, the ground-breaking progressions were few and far between.
As the skateboarders evolved to become more Ollie-centric, durability became a more crucial factor in footwear choice for pros and casual cruisers alike. Meanwhile, the tricks also became more high impact, resulting in the increased popularity of higher-cut builds.
Attempting to combat both of these issues, Vision Street Wear introduced the Suede Hi silhouette to the market, combining both a raised ankle collar and special ‘Ollie Patch’. Etnies and Vans also came through with their own hardwearing, high-cut pro models towards the end of the decade: the Natas Kaupas Pro and Steve Caballero Pro, respectively.
However, in footwear terms, it was the rise in prominence of the Air Jordan 1 in skateboarding circles that the decade will be remembered for. Hard to fathom for modern hype fiends, the AJ1 used to be one of the most readily-available sneakers on the market. On top of that, the toebox and sidewalls made ollieing and flick tricks a breeze, while the leather was rugged enough to withstand hours of thrashing. Its availability, affordability, and skateability made it a staple for riding the maple (worn by many of the sport’s pioneers) and inspired plenty of other manufacturers, most notably Airwalk, to design similar builds.
Baggier Clothes, Slimmer Shoes: The 90s
A decade of downsizing, the 90s saw skateboard decks become narrower and wheels reduce in durometer and size. For the shoes, things took a similar turn.
The popularity of high-top skate shoes reached terminal velocity during the late 80s, but things were flipped dramatically in a matter of years, with low-top builds dominating the market by the mid 90s. As tricks became more flip-oriented, skaters were looking for a more refined look and feel when they stepped on the board. In hindsight, the transition was inevitable. Have you ever tried kick-flipping in a pair of bulky high-tops?
Airwalk, Vision and Vans were already big names in the game, but the appetite for low-cut creps paved the way for brands like Etnies, Duffs, Dukes, and DC Shoes to strut their stuff – and they didn’t have to bring much to the table, either. For the most part, smooth leather and suede were used for the uppers, accompanied by a grippy (often gum) cup sole, as witnessed on models like the Jordan-inspired Etnies Sal Barbier SLB and the Airwalk Jason Lee Pro. Naturally, mainstream sneakers like the adidas Campus, Gazelle, and Superstar, as well as the PUMA Clyde and Suede infiltrated the skate scene due to their similarly minimal make-ups.
We had to wait until 1997 to get the first air-infused cushioning system in a skate shoe and, unsurprisingly, it was basketball lover Eric Koston’s first pro model with éS Footwear – the Koston1 – that introduced the visible absorption system. The shoe positioned éS as one of pioneering manufacturers of the era, with other companies like Axiom and DVS also adopting the tech-focused approach.
In the same year, Chad Muska also released his first signature shoe with éS Footwear, becoming the first skate shoe to retail above $100. Featuring PU inserts and lace loops, the model’s most memorable feature – bizarrely – ended up being the controversial stash pocket.
All for Show: The Early 2000s
Vibing off popular running and basketball models, skate shoe brands loaded the soles with more air bubbles, more padding on the tongue, larger rubber lace loops, and heavier-duty Ollie guards. Models such as the infamous Osiris D3, DC Shoes Stevie Williams Pro, and the ,Globe CT-IV championed this design ethos, and have all incidentally made comebacks in recent years.
The tech certainly made a huge impact aesthetically, but it didn’t take long for skaters to realise all the ‘upgrades’ weren’t all that beneficial for actual skating... The shoes were heavy, too bulky for technical tricks, and had diabolically bad boardfeel due to the thicker midsoles.
All About the Feels: 2005 and Beyond
With the literal weight of the post-2000 skate shoes bearing on designers’ minds, it wasn’t long before skaters started shifting to slimmed-down models for the sake to their own progression. Slowly but surely, the tech started disappearing from the exteriors and began manifesting in the interiors – most notably the soles.
Having been starved of dexterity and boardfeel for so many years, skaters now wanted shoes with thinner midsoles, spurring a mini vulcanised sole renaissance. The in-your-face tech on the uppers soon made way for cushioned insole innovations and lighter midsole materials.
The emergence of Nike SB during this period is stuff of legend within sneaker circles. However, perhaps ironically, Nike SB’s impact on the evolution of skate shoe technology is often overlooked. Team Swoosh introduced some of their most successful innovations to SB designs, most notably Zoom, Lunarlon soles, Hyperfuse, and even Flyknit, working to convince skaters the world over that tech could actually enhance skate performance – go figure.
More recently, Hyperfeel technology has been developed specifically for skateboarding, refining the Lunarlon midsole for a thinner profile toward the toes. This works to increase boardfeel in key areas, while high impact areas like the heel are packed with a Zoom Air Pad for shock absorption. It could be the closest thing to skating barefoot since the 50s...
Following suit, major sneaker brands like adidas and New Balance have also entered the skate market, introducing even more mainstream tech to the mix – BOOST, Primeknit, AdiPrene, RevLite and C-Cap, just to name a few. Unsurprisingly, core skate shoe manufacturers are now working to design similar sole innovations to compete with the superpowers of the sneaker world.
Rebellion has always been at the sport’s core, but for many of skateboarding’s heritage heroes, things are most certainly shifting. Skate or die? Nah. Adapt or die.
Header image via The Search for Animal Chin/Grant Brittain