Life Beyond Laces: Untangling the Sneaker Industry’s Biggest Knot

New Balance 997 Shoelace Pile

Shoelaces are very much an anachronism in 2021. By no means have they become obsolete overnight – they’ve been pretty useful for centuries – but you can’t help ponder if the very component holding shoes together is also what’s holding them back from realising their full potential. Not that the industry hasnt tried to advance the fastening mechanisms. In the 100-plus years since the introduction of the Converse Chuck Taylor, there have been multiple technological detours in the quest to replace the lace, but history shows how intertwined rubber and rope remain. If you ask me, shoelaces have had our kickers in a knot for too long – its time to loosen up and learn to live beyond laces.

The concept of using knotting strings to secure shoes to feet somehow managed to survive Y2K. Maybe it was the retrospectively ridiculous premise that electronic technology would go haywire, prompting the necessity to go analogue. That wasn’t necessarily a problem for sneakers at the time as, aside from a couple of gadget-heavy forays in the 1980s, most cinched up with the time-tested closures that included elastic gussets, Velcro straps, buckles, zippers and, of course, shoelaces.

Reebok Beatnik Mule Stonks Meme

Now, 20 years on, more recent events have caused a circumstantial shift in footwear habits. If Y2K provided a tenuous reason to keep using shoelaces, then 2020 onwards should conversely mean liberty from laces. The prevalence of sedentary lifestyles via more time spent at home has resulted in less field time for sneakers, and even less time spent doing up knots. So, they’re effectively decorative at this point. Which is why the rise of the mule has now largely transcended fad (and meme) phase – heading straight into The New York Times and designs forgoing the knotting ceremony are legitimate alternatives to the traditional sneaker. The growing chorus choosing convenience can’t be silenced.

Vans Classic Slip-On Checkerboard
Nike SB Janoski Slip
Run DMC adidas Superstar 2020

Trends become legitimised when they stick. With that means early adopters and agents of change. For example, Vans introduced the Style #98 (better known as the Slip-On) in 1977 as a no fuss and no lace version of their waffle-soled canvas classics. Decades later, Nike SB still make a slip-on iteration of their immensely popular Janoski. As the meme goes: ‘Reject modernity. Embrace tradition.’

Less than a decade later, in 1986, Run-DMC dropped ‘My Adidas’. The rap trio – catalysts of the contemporary crossover between celebrity, sneakers, and all the other overlapping circles forming the very complicated Venn diagram representing culture – had already taken to wearing their Superstars (and other Three Stripes shoes) ‘with no shoestring in em’ in protest of the misconception that doing so was a trait of unsavoury youth. Sneaker brands again had a pretty big sociological reason to ditch the laces but, alas, as it turns out, people are creatures of habit.

That same year, Ripleys Reebok Alien Stompers surmised that Velcro straps were the ideal shoe closure in a dystopian, sci-fi future. And just a couple of years later in 1989, Back To The Future Part II had everyone proclaiming Power laces! Alright! upon sight of the Nike Mag. There was not a single shoelace in sight of these two futuristic kicks.

Nike Air Huarache Eyelets Cut Off
Nike Air Presto Faze
Nike Air Presto Chanjo

While rocking sneakers sans shoelaces today probably achieves little by way of social reform, and more of toe-clawing strength, design advancements have made a strong case for the voluntary redundancy of shoelaces. Tinker Hatfield’s application of Nike Huarache technology in 1991 ensured on-foot security like never before, resulting in anecdotal accounts of those aforementioned early adopters removing the laces from their ‘Scream Greens’ and other OG colourways. Some even went as far as snipping off the resulting flapping eyestays. A few years later, 1994s Reebok Instapump Fury was a hi-vis example of a laceless performance shoe.

The phenomenon was revisited when sneakerheads snapped off the brittle lace cages on OG 2000s Air Prestos (co-designed by Tobie Hatfield – yep, Tinker’s brother) to rock them laceless. Not to mention prescient offshoots like the Presto Faze and Presto Chanjo that looked like they came from a distant post-lace world.

In modern times, adidas’ continued obsession with Primeknit sock-fit booties has gone hand-in-hand (foot-in-shoe?) with their contemporary success. Moreover, it can be extrapolated that the existence of popular models like the UltraBOOST Laceless and NMD City Sock are fairly overt indicators that laces no longer need to occupy as much space as they once did ­­– if at all.

sacai Nike Dunk High
PUMA Disc Tongue
Tom Sachs Nike Mars Yard Overshoe

Of course, a shift away from shoelaces today isn’t as simple as doing what Run-DMC did – it requires a complete overhaul of what footwear should look like. Experiments such as sacai’s oft-forgotten inaugural Nike Dunk and Air Max 90 collaborations have challenged the status quo, but the future of footwear closure is still some time away. Alternative tech – including PUMA Disc, Nike HyperAdapt, BOA dials, Fidlock magnetic clasps, et al – is yet to earn mainstream bona fides, leaving it feeling more like a novelty, rather than a suitable replacement to the humble shoelace.

And while legendary designers often have to stick to the brief of including shoelaces, modern creative expeditions like FlyEase (another Tobie innovation) are glimpses into a reality that doesn’t require reciting ‘Over, under, around and through; Meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through’ every time you put on a pair of shoes. Earlier this year, the latest iteration of accessible technology, GO FlyEase – Nike’s first hands-free sneaker – was a literal step in the right direction towards the laceless revolution… as soon as they figure out mass production.

Various Sneaker Shoelaces

Who knew a discussion about shoelaces could get so deep? But maybe not as deep as the author’s mental scars of struggling to tie knots as a child that’s spurred this verbal assault on something so innocuous and beneficial. As the saying goes, how long is a piece of string? Is this a regression into a child-like state? Perhaps it’s the opposite, and more a case of sneakerheads showing their age. That said, with the growing gap between the dichotomy that is young and old, rich and poor, a pair of sneakers without shoelaces could be the very thing that brings us all back together – leaving our hands free to embrace once again. We can dream.

P.S. Warm regards to Professor Shoelace, Ian Fieggen. Nothing personal.

For more irreverent takes, brutally honest analysis, or just downright silly sneaker sentences, visit the Real Talk section.

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