Over the last 18 months, a troubling trend has re-emerged within the sneaker scene. Deep scuffs, glue stains, and yellowed midsoles – once considered undesirable defects – are now being proudly etched onto brand new shoes like badges of honour. While it’s an impressive artform to make a sneaker look like it’s gone through a lifetime of misuse before it’s even touched the ground, has anyone taken a moment to consider that this scenario is M.C. Escher levels of impossible? And also a soulless relinquishing of the coveted sneaker wearing journey?
Let’s try to dissect why beat-up sneakers are desirable. Of course, many shoes look exponentially better when they’ve picked up some wear. And some go onto becoming staple beaters in the rotation. Artificial ageing simply speeds up the process, with the big brands developing manufacturing methods to ensure each pair off the production line looks a bit more lived in. But this cold consistency results in carbon copies, and an inauthentic one-size-fits-all portrayal of patina. Seen Golden Goose recently? What’s next, pre-skated SB Dunks?
There’s perhaps a deeper reason for this renewed interest in sneakers that look purposely broken in. The increased focus on the ,Air Jordan 1, and subsequently the Nike Dunk in the back half of the 2010s thanks to Rocky and Scott et al, has driven a fierce market for the iconic basketball shoes. Perhaps in a bid for authenticity or OG status, kids are racing back in time to not get the latest releases ahead of their peers, but instead a Benjamin Button-esque hunt for the oldest sneakers they can possibly find and/or afford. After all, a collection filled with well-worn vintage implies participation before the days of bots and StockX.
Even the most cursory glance on sneaker social media reveals a conspicuous abundance of scruffy sneakers that look like they’ve been fished right outta a manky gym locker. But as is often the case on the Internet, seeing is not always believing. A dwindling supply of authentic vintage artefacts means those late to the game or whose pockets are too shallow to post a worthy pickup have adapted by settling for the next best thing.
A cottage industry has formed within the wider sneaker customisation community that sees budding creative types go to town on new sneakers with sandpaper, bleach, acetone, and other corrosive materials in a bid to make their 2021 vintage look closer to 1985 relics. It’s an impressive show of skill, if not a misguided one.
The world is hard-wired to be convenient – instant gratification can seem to be the ultimate and only pleasure. But whatever happened to enjoying the rituals associated with That New Shoe Feeling? Do sneakerheads only want to wear sneakers that look steps away from disintegration, instead of personally taking the millions of strides before that happens?
Responding to this growing demand for non-deadstock, customisers have forged their dextrous skills and achieved clinical precision with every nick, scratch and blemish. Again, there’s a fundamental (unintentional) flaw to all of this: what about the toe box creasing, heel drag, and sweat stains?
The sneaker mutilation ‘masterpiece’, by all measures, is the Daniel Arsham–commissioned defiling of the Air Dior – one of 2020’s most desired and expensive sneakers – by distressing extraordinaire philllllthy. Intricate detailing like cracked ankle collars and accelerated sole oxidisation aside, the artisanal method did not justify the madness of ruining a $2000 (RRP, with upwards of $25k on the secondary market) sneaker painstakingly crafted in Dior’s Italian ateliers.
But again, no one is going to fall for the ruse of an impossible situation. How could the uppers flake, soles yellow – even shoebox edges lift – with nary a single crease or inch of heel drag? Even if Arsham tried his very hardest to pummel the Diordans through daily use, the result probably wouldn’t be as dramatic. This was pure indulgence and wanton destruction. The jig is up. With four-digit dollar shoes the plaything of the art-slash-sneaker-slash-fashion world’s upper crust, there’s still very much a divide between Average Joe and Mr Jones. And that’s backed up the mixed comment section.
The fundamental issue here is that artificial ageing erases the enjoyable experience of wearing a sneaker from box fresh to beat-to-death. Hard-earned wisdom says it’s about the journey, not the destination. However, new sneakerheads no longer have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – the sandpaper does the hard yards, and the end result is a pair that’s devoid of memories.