Sneakers have been literally and metaphorically flamed by the recent political wildfire sweeping across America. Just last month, Donald Trump Jr. showed us his very own communist rendition of a Nike Roshe Run, while back in September, his father put his thumbs to work telling Nike they were ‘getting absolutely killed’ for kneeling with Colin Kaepernick. In December 2018, on the appropriately named Constitution Avenue, the game-worn Nike LeBron 15 ‘Equality’ was exhibited at the Smithsonian. Not long after, Kanye West told Donald Trump: ‘You gave me the heart to go to adidas’. Sneakers have long been political, but are they now canvases to express ideological warfare?
Believe in Something
‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.’ When Colin Kaepernick uttered those words in Nike's Dream Crazy commercial last year, America’s combustible political conscious was ignited. Across the US, people poured lighter fluid on their Nike sneakers, unable to stomach the perceived-contempt for the flag. The Swoosh had thrown their support behind Colin Kaepernick, the embattled, Milwaukee-born quarterback who made headlines when he refused to stand for the national anthem.
‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,’ Kaepernick had declared. ‘To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.’
The Emmy-nominated Dream Crazy commercial was political dynamite, polarising America along party lines, and even drawing the ire of President Trump, who thought Nike were sending a ‘terrible message’, and that Colin Kaepernick was a ‘son of a bitch’ (Nike sales actually surged by 61 per cent after the Dream Crazy campaign aired).
Months later, Nike again caught indignation from The White House after cancelling the Air Max 1 ‘Fourth of July’. Reportedly guided by Kaepernick, Nike pulled the release because of Betsy Ross flag embroidery and its ‘connection to an era of slavery’.
This time, it was Donald Trump Jr.’s time to jump in, the 41-year-old executive of the Trump administration tweeting out an image of a Nike Roshe Run alongside a caption suggesting Nike’s communist underpinnings: ‘If the Betsy Ross Flag, the flag of the American Revolution, is too offensive for Nike to commemorate The 4th of July maybe Nike should go with this... seems to be more in line with their views.’
By undermining Nike, a brand inextricably tied to the concept of American culture and identity, Donald Trump Jr. not only threw shade at Nike and those of us lacing their sneakers, but also brought into focus something repeatedly questioned ever since the election – what on earth does it mean to be an American?
It’s a question that continues to confound sneaker brands. In February, adidas revealed their all-white UltraBOOST ‘Celebrating Black Culture’ Uncaged, an unfortunate brain fade supposedly honouring Black History Month. The response was swift. One resounding question filled social media: ‘Why drop an all-white shoe to celebrate Black History Month?’
Team Trefoil quickly pulled the sneaker following the backlash, issuing this official response:
‘Toward the latter stages of the design process, we added a running shoe to the collection that we later felt did not reflect the spirit or philosophy of how adidas believes we should recognise and honour Black History Month. After careful consideration, we have decided to withdraw the product from the collection.’
New Balance were also struggling to control their political narrative after head of public affairs Matthew LeBretton aligned the brand with Donald Trump: ‘The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us’, he told the Wall Street Journal back in 2016. ‘Frankly, with president-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.’
Although New Balance later clarified that the statement specifically applied to Trump’s position against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Democrats had already taken to social media to burn their sneakers, and, in the more subterranean recesses of the Internet, neo-nazi sites like The Daily Stormer dubbed New Balance the ‘official brand of the Trump Revolution’.
The Political Canvas
‘Honouring our President Barack Obama’, Curry tweeted. ‘He embodies the inspiration, faith and hope Dr. King stood for! We are forever grateful’.
‘Back 2 Back’ was stamped on the Curry 4, a reference not only to Steph Curry’s back-to-back MVP titles, but to Obama’s eight years in the Oval Office. Months later, Steph Curry rejected the traditional White House visit under the Trump administration, instead opting to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture with a group of students. Curry’s iconic one-of-one custom sneakers are typical of the broader trend in sports for athletes to use their sneakers to express political ideas.
'Sneakers have long been political, but are they now canvases to express ideological warfare?'
Approaching Christmas in 2017, LeBron James canvased his own loaded political sentiments with the now-legendary Nike LeBron 15 ‘Equality’.
Again, Donald Trump was in the crosshairs.
‘Obviously, we all know where we are, and we know who is at the helm here’, LeBron told the media after Cleveland took the 106–99 win over the Washington Wizards. ‘Us as Americans, no matter the skin colour, no matter who you are, I think we all have to understand that having equal rights and being able to stand for something and speak for something and keeping the conversation going.’
Jumping Into a New Era
Using sneakers as a vehicle to express political rhetoric is nothing new. Iconic moments are laced throughout human history.
It’s the photograph of Tommy Smith and John Carlos removing their PUMA Suedes and raising their fists during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. It’s Michael Jordan in 1986, explaining to David Letterman that the Air Jordan 1 was banned from the NBA because it ‘didn’t have any white in it’. It’s Allen Iverson’s response to David Stern’s compulsory NBA dress code in 2005: ‘They’re attacking my generation – the hip hop generation’.
One man that managed to capture this generation was Chi Modu, a photographer who documented the golden age of hip hop across America’s West Coast. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, basketball sneakers had become modes of radical cultural expression beyond sportswear.
‘It was like jumping into another era’, Chi Modu told Sneaker Freaker. ‘Everything was happening simultaneously. Jordans were huge. Iversons were huge. Even Shawn Kemps – you couldn’t really disconnect the athlete from the shoe. You have to remember, this was all happening at the same time as hip hop and people like Mike Tyson. It was the perfect storm.’
The Pulse ...
More than ever before, brands are now quite willing to get involved politically.
‘The trend towards activism’ has been ‘massive’ the marketing director of PUMA told ABC News. ‘There is a lot of research and data that I’ve seen recently out there that indicates that our youngest consumer audience is more activist than they have been in recent decades. We are seeing roughly a 300 per cent increase in activism in consumers in the youngest age group.’
Companies now work hard to target a core group of consumers over vague, socio-economic demographics and targets. This explains Nike’s Kaepernick spike and the minimal impact of the boycott movements; the marketing campaigns are hyper-targeted, and the brand is acutely aware of the frequencies emanating from different camps.
'Nike sales actually surged by 61 per cent after the Dream Crazy campaign aired'
With brands more willing to push their chips forward on socio-political issues, it’s no wonder that sneakers have picked up on cultural movements springing from the sole.
‘It’s the pulse of the street’, Chi Modu explains. ‘Brands don’t trigger the streets. The streets trigger them.’,
But just what will the political pulse ignite in sneakers moving forward? Will brands and individuals continue to fight and fuel the political rhetoric spreading across the globe? Or will sneakers take a backseat to one of the most polarising elections in US history?
Rest assured, you won’t need a gallon of lighter fluid, a Betsy Ross flag flapping from your heel, or a hammer and sickle swinging from your Swoosh to make a political statement in 2019 – your sneakers already are.