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Interview: Sneaker Freaker Founder Woody Reflects on a Decade Creating SOLED OUT Book

Sneaker Freaker Founder Woody Portrait

After dropping The Ultimate Sneaker Book back in 2019, Sneaker Freaker head honcho Woody took a well earned break for five minutes before doubling down on his next publishing project. That day is finally here because SOLED OUT is finally ready for release via Phaidon. The stats are mind-blowing. SOLED OUT features almost 900 vintage ads carefully curated over 720 epic pages, making this easily the biggest and heaviest sneaker book of all time. As the title promises, SOLED OUT is a look back at the golden era of sneaker advertising. From McEnroe and Jordan to Hulk Hogan and Sigourney Weaver, this is the 20th-century sports industry expressed in its own grandiose prose and muscular image. We pinned Woody down to explain how SOLED OUT came about and why it has taken more than a decade to finally hit book stores.

What does the ‘power of print’ mean to you?
As a magazine lover and the editor of an independent title for close to two decades, I take some professional pride in the power of print. There are two ways to apply that maxim to SOLED OUT. The first is that these ads sold shoes by the container load. A 5-Star review in Runner’s World would make or break the debut of a new sneaker, which is why their pages were jam-packed with hyperbolic claims about the science behind the shoes. Nike were aggressive advertisers and they dominated the back cover placement for years.

On an emotional level, these ads are – to me at least – an intoxicating incubator of memories. I was never able to watch Michael Jordan live on TV in the 90s, but I remember the print ads in Rolling Stone. I never owned a pair of Andre Agassi’s Air Tech Challenge, but the ‘rock’n’roll’ print campaign by Wieden+Kennedy is what drilled those shoes into my head. I think the latent impact of those advertising campaigns is often more memorable than the shoes they promoted in a lot of ways, especially the way they used charismatic athletes to tell the story.

Where did the SOLED OUT concept come from?
I started Sneaker Freaker in 2002 as a lark to get free shoes, and I certainly had no inkling I’d still be in this game 20 years later. As my ambitions grew, I built up a decent collection of vintage advertising that was used to research magazine features. At some point, I realised I had a few hundred and the idea for a book crossed my mind.

Sneakerheads will obviously love SOLED OUT, but it’s also perfect for anyone who appreciates the evolution of advertising, graphic design, copywriting, photography, typography and even professional sports. There’s a lot more going on in these ads than just the promotion of sporting footwear.

Speaking of which, there are almost 900 ads in SOLED OUT, how did you acquire them all?
In one early draft I managed to get the tally up to well over 1000, but our publisher Phaidon – quite rightly I might add – told me I had to stop at 720 pages. Most of the ads are scanned from my personal collection of mags acquired over the years from eBay and flea markets. I also bought quite a few from collectors in the US and Germany. It’s always hard to reconcile the nature of the hardcore completist with the practicality of actually finishing a huge project and not going insane. I know there are way more ads still out there, so there’s definitely scope for a second edition in future years.

How did you determine the selection process?
I tried to keep the ads related to athletic performance footwear. Running, tennis and basketball are in for obvious reasons. Nike ACG ads that focus on mountain climbing and hiking shoes don’t technically fit the brief, but the shoes are way too cool. Skateboarding was out, along with football and baseball, which require cleats. A strict millennial curfew also seemed appropriate, as advertising from the 2000s onwards is simply too modern and too knowingly sophisticated for sentimental reflection. Advertising from the ‘golden era’ is loaded with puns and charming naivety, which are just two of the reasons they are so engaging and amusing.

720-page books don’t happen overnight. How long did it take to put together?
One of the surprising discoveries when I sat down to finalise the pages in late 2020 was a very early draft on a Blu-ray Disc from 2009. So you could say I have spent 20 years assembling the ads and well over a decade working on the book, though it was always during quiet work moments. The thing about organising 900 images is that every time a bunch of cool ads turned up, everything has to be reorganised chronologically, so it was more like solving a giant puzzle than making a book in some ways. I have to thank Terry Ricardo who designed the earliest versions of the book, and especially Tim Daws, who did a brilliant job taking SOLED OUT all the way to the finish line.

Is there a moment in sneaker advertising that you think changed the industry?
There is absolutely one moment that recalibrated the industry and it’s one that set Nike up to be the dominant force they still are 35 years later. The Tailwind runner was the first to use Air cushioning in 1978, but when Tinker Hatfield made the inflatable units visible in the first Air Max runner, the game changed overnight. The Air Max ads played on the futuristic ‘Shock’ value of the design, which Nike then parlayed into a sprawling franchise that has sold hundreds of millions of pairs.

ASICS tried to fight back by lampooning Air as being inferior to their GEL cushioning, along with smack-talk like ‘Just Doing It Doesn’t Do It’. New Balance also top-billed their 620 runner as being ‘Lighter Than Air’. Reebok’s Pump advertising also called out Nike Air athletes.

The other aspect to Nike Air is how brilliant and adaptable it was as a product prefix. Think about the perfection of ‘Air Jordan’ for example, or even shoe name puns like Air Conditioner and Air Revaderchi. It’s a total Nike marketing move… aggressive, cocky, funny and totally brilliant.

Several ads show competitor shoes?
The practice is known as comparative advertising and while it’s not illegal these days, the sight of two brands in one ad is rather shocking nowadays. The ‘Air Vs. Air Conditioning’ slogan was another ASICS advertising uppercut aimed at the Swoosh, but it’s the Nike Windrunner above the ASICS GT-COOL that is even more jarring. Another classic is the Nike Franchise ad that slams the Converse All Star as ‘The Old Way’. Given Converse management tried to bankrupt Nike in the late 70s by shafting Phil Knight for enormous import duties – and the fact that Knight possibly bought Converse in 2003 as a form of personal retaliation – this ad takes on a totally different meaning 40 years later.

There are over 900 ads, but the female presence is rather low key in SOLED OUT. What are your thoughts?
The footwear industry was hairy-chested and hyper-masculine from the 70s through to the 90s, and the lack of female visibility in these ads is a poor but accurate reflection of where things were at. From a sneaker perspective, the Reebok Freestyle is easily the most prominent female-specific moment, though brands like Saucony did invest in their ‘non-male’ clientele with the Lady Dixon and Lady Jazz. In terms of endorsements, Ingrid Kristiansen and Jackie Joyner­ Kersee are just a handful of athletes deemed worthy of their own campaigns, leaving the adidas Torsion ad featuring marathon runner Grete Waitz as the clear winner.

Basketball was a total bust for women. On the tennis tip, at least Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova had solid deals. L.A. Gear was a super corny brand in their day, but you have to hand it to Robert Greenberg – he was decades ahead of his competitors when he signed celebs like Priscilla Presley, Paula Abdul and Heather Locklear, and pushed their signature models in big budget campaigns.

I’m not sure how many people know that women were not allowed to run long distances in the 1980s.
I must confess I was surprised to learn that women were not allowed to run Olympic marathons as recently as the 1980s. That seems absurd today, but this historical travesty was illuminated in 1982 via Nike’s most polemic ad. Nike berated the IOC and IAAF for their discriminatory stance and encouraged readers to send letters of complaint. The ban was finally lifted in 1984. In the inaugural Olympic marathon for women, Joan Benoit Samuelson won gold from Grete Waitz.

What is the significance of the Futura font in sneaker advertising?
The Futura family of fonts is a remarkable story in itself and one that is heavily integrated into the pages of SOLED OUT. It was designed by Paul Renner in 1927 and the evocative name was no accident. Futura was popularised in the 1960s, when it was used in signage aboard the Apollo 11 space mission. It has also been used countless times in brand logos, and the work of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger. No wonder it was marketed as ‘the typeface of today and tomorrow’. I haven’t been able to determine the first usage of Futura in the book, but nearly every brand has used it at some point. From the earliest sighting of ‘Just Do It’ in 1988 to taglines such as ‘No Ph.D. Required’ and ‘Smoke ’Em’, Futura Bold Condensed is synonymous with the Swoosh and is still widely used by Nike today. It’s so drummed into consumer consciousness that any sneakerhead would recognise it instantly as the Nike font, even if they’ve never heard of Futura.

Wieden+Kennedy are inextricably linked to the history of Nike. How many of the Nike ads did they produce?
I totally agree. Wieden+Kennedy produced most of the famous Nike campaigns such as ‘Bo Knows’ and Andre Agassi’s ‘Rock N Roll Tennis’ series. Their synergy with Nike is so powerful I think it’s fair to say they pretty much invented much of the mythology around Nike, in particular the way athletes were marketed as larger-than-life superhero characters. The simplicity and power of ‘Just Do It’ must make it close to the greatest tagline of all time, though it surprisingly only features a few times in the book.

Who are some of the athletes featured in this title?
There’s the obvious Nike names like Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe, who all had memorable campaigns that feasted on their genetic and psychological talents. Reebok was a major player in the 1990s with Michael Chang, Dominique Wilkins, Shawn Kemp and Shaq on the team. Over at New Balance, big names were pretty rare due to the brand’s ‘endorsed by no one’ policy of not paying athletes crazy money, which makes basketballer James Worthy a novelty in his NB ads.

PUMA had tennis players like Boris Becker, Guillermo Vilas and Martina Navratilova as well as runners like Linford Christie and Colin Jackson. Clyde Frazier was a big NBA name in his day. In the 1980s and 90s, Converse was balling big time, and they signed a star-studded squad including Dr J, Magic Johnson, Larry Johnson, Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer. Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert were a handsome couple that headlined Converse tennis.

There are plenty of oddball appearances in SOLED OUT as well, such as Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Nike ad, Michael Jackson wearing L.A. Gear, and even Bonnie Parker – aka Bonnie and Clyde – who featured in a Brooks ad from 1980.

Ronald Reagan and Nikita Khrushchev are also featured in several sneaker ads, which seems rather odd.
The use of politicians in a few ads is profoundly bizarre and seems particularly quaint these days. An illustrated Ronald Reagan features in a Nike ad that plays on the idea of him ‘running’ for election, while New Balance used both Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to promote a running shoe based on their goal of achieving ‘stability’. Brooks also joined the Cold War by using an image of Khrushchev pounding a lectern at the United Nations in 1960. The Russian script translates as ‘These Shoes Will Kill Me!’, which has nothing to do with running fast but probably played well to American audiences in that era.

Society has obviously changed a lot over the years. Are there any ads that would be considered quite controversial these days?
There are definitely a few that would do more than raise eyebrows. Joe Namath’s PUMA ad played up to his notorious playboy image by showing him with a young lady under a ‘Joe Namath Scores in Pumas’ punchline. Italian brand Travel Fox rejoiced in double entendres and suggestive poses with their ‘Fox Appeal’ series. Twitter would light up if these came out today!

Nike also has form in this area. The Air Huarache Light ad that claims ‘the average person has a sexual thought every fifteen seconds’ would never survive public scrutiny.

It is interesting that society has become more progressive in many ways, but we’ve also become more puritanical as well. I’m not sure adidas would show the bare buttocks of a nudie runner today, like they did in the ‘Runners. Yeah We’re Different’ ad from 1999. Advertising offers an interesting reflection into how society is evolving, for better and definitely for worse!

Is there one thing you think might surprise people about SOLED OUT?
The ads are really funny, and I mean, crack-you-up funny. The headlines are riddled with puns and there are sight gags galore. Sneaker brands did make TV commercials but they were expensive and slow to produce. The magazine ads rolled out each month, which allowed the advertising agencies to develop a sequence that really articulated a point of difference and gave the brands a psychological identity.

Nike was brash, in-your-face and unabashedly ambitious, while the German powerhouse adidas was far more thoughtful and introverted. Nike is McEnroe, adidas is Ivan Lendl. The contrast is clear. Fifty years later, they haven’t really changed all that much – they really are the yin and yang of sportswear. The way copywriters used language, the choice of athletes that represented them, and the attitude they portrayed, are what defines their heritage, which is why these ads are so engaging and revealing.

Any final thoughts?
The Sneaker Freaker audience will obviously love SOLED OUT, but I think this book has universal appeal. The sneaker industry has been around for 100 years, but the Wild West days in the 70s and 80s were full of bravado, naked ambition and genius innovations. It must have been a crazy time to work in an industry that thrived on so much freewheeling creativity. The fact we’re still talking about this stuff 50 years later shows how informative and influential the golden years were, and still are, in the creation of a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Last of all, I’d like to dedicate SOLED OUT to the copywriters, photographers, art directors and advertising mavericks who helped make the sneaker industry what it is today. As I said earlier, there’s a lot more going on in these ads than just the promotion of sporting footwear!

SOLED OUT is published by Phaidon and will be hitting shelves worldwide from October 20, 2021.

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