Material Matters: A Brief Technological History Of Yeezy Shoes
There’s no doubt that the Yeezy franchise has created ripples in the collective sneakerhead mindset that have gone on to shape our outlook on hype and exclusivity. But here in our sneaker-tech clubhouse – a humble adjunct of the footwear world – we’re not so concerned with the metaphysical qualities of the shoes we covet. As you may well know, we’re more interested in what they’re made of and what they do. So with our feet firmly planted on a bed of factual enquiry we though it was about time we took a look at the Yeezy phenomena, Material Matters style.
First we need to look back to a pre-historic era, when Kanye West cut his teeth in the sneaker design sector – a time before Mr. West was pushing Yeezys. Kanye’s first couple of collaborative sneakers offered little in the way of technological focus. The 2006 BAPE Dropout Bear Bapesta, though perfectly suited to the style of the time, was basically just a new colourway of an existing shoe. But when the Louis Vuitton Don stepped into the ring, things started to get a little more interesting.
Nowadays streetwear and luxury brands are inexorably linked, but back in 2009 this was not the case. Kanye’s collaborative collection with Louis Vuitton was the first time that many BAPE wearing, backpack-toting teens would wrap their chubby knuckles around fine, buttery smooth calf leather from the likes of Europe’s top tanneries. This was a distinct departure from your average athletic sneaker, which tended to employ thinly split, corrected grain leathers from high-volume producers.
The LV collection had one specific shoe that stood out from the rest called the Jasper. This shoe hailed an introduction to the thick, hook and loop fastened forefoot strap that would follow the collaborator from brand to brand. The tried and tested tech has been around since 1955 when George de Mestral patented a product named Velcro – a portmanteau of ‘velvet’ and ‘crochet’.
Later that same year came the dawning of the Yeezy age. Kanye was jumped into the crew of an industry behemoth, Nike. Together they had bold ambitions, the Swoosh giving the budding footwear legend full use of their technological arsenal. How could he possibly resist fitting the Air Yeezy 1 with an iconic Nike Air unit? The shoe’s sole was an adaptation of the Jordan 3, which originally released in 1988, featuring a small window on either side of the heel. By this time the brand had at their disposal the full-length, no-foam sole that debuted on the Air Max 360 in ’06. But, renaissance man that he was, Kanye recognised the power of iconography over the cheap, lusty appeal of hollow comfort.
The sequel to Nike’s Air Yeezy arrived in 2012 rocking a lithe reptilian aesthetic emphasised by the anaconda-textured leather that wrapped the shoe’s quarters. With such a tactile treat, it would have been a shame to plaster a Swoosh over the top of it, so the shoe made use of a new piece of production technology, Nike’s Vac-Tech. The seamless branding was achieved using an adapted thermo-moulding technique, a vacuum compression which fused materials without the need of stitching.
It wasn’t long before the restless rapper was seduced by promises of ultimate creative control, resulting in his switch to team adidas – and the release of the Yeezy BOOST 750 can reasonably be marked on the record as the day that BOOST became a hot commodity. Prior to 2015, the company’s thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) foam was merely a feature of their performance category; handfuls of expanded TPU pellets moulded into a shoe sole were found to have better shape retention than a big slab of foam, so the frisky foam was a sure thing for the running market. But it wasn’t until the Yeezy BOOST 750 dropped that the material went crazy, with follow-up designs like the NMD_R1 becoming consistent best sellers.
Shortly after the release of the 750 came the Yeezy BOOST 350. Compared to his previous designs, the 350 was a stark exercise in minimalist design. The upper was nothing more than a simple, two-part sock with a patterned texture and an accented stitch down the toe. Kanye had finally entered the world of knitted sneakers by way of adidas’ Primeknit technology. By utilising modern flat knitting machinery and fused, synthetic yarns, adidas were able to create a simple yet distinctive sneaker. With the 350, the Yeezy line was shifting from a fashion statement to an all-out symphony of comfort, and the 350v2 hammered that point home.
Of course, not everything Kanye touches turns to Material Matters gold. Earlier this year Kanye’s Calabasas label created an 80s-style cross trainer known as the Powerphase, which was nothing more than your classic rubber, leather and EVA combo. And, despite being an all out ocular assault, the recently unveiled Wave Runner 700 doesn’t appear to sport any groundbreaking elements – just a whole lot of suede and mesh, and some concealed BOOST. But we’ll be happy to be proven wrong on that front when they ship out later in the year.
Ever since Kanye donned his shutter shades and pink polo, he’s been a beacon for the sartorially aspirational. As the rapper’s clout continues to grow and his money keeps rolling in, we hope to eventually see something of a true technological breakthrough funnelled down the Yeezy pipeline. Come on Kanye, show us what you’ve got.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Reservations on Elevation, Fables of The Forgotten and Sneakers of the Space Race.