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Sneaker Unboxed: youth culture in the city - an exhibition review

The Design Museum in London launched the exhibition Sneaker Unboxed: Studios to Street on May 18th 2021 to celebrate the global phenomenon of sneakers. In 2020 alone, more than one billion pairs of sneakers were sold, with new models appearing on blogs and websites virtually every day. With a resale market currently valued at six billion dollars, it’s safe to say that sneakers are one of the most ubiquitous design objects in the world.

The exhibition revealed how trainers like Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, the Puma Disc, and Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next, originally made for athletes, transform into a cultural symbol through the decades with other iconic sneakers like Reebok InstaPump Fury, the Vans Half Cab and the Asics Gel Lyte III. It also displayed the design process of some of the most technically inventive shoes of today, such as Adidas FutureCraft.STRUNG’s shoe-making robot designed by Kram/Weisshaar, Satoshi, a brand using blockchain certification, and the world’s first biologically active shoes developed by MIT Design Lab and Biorealize for Puma.

The first part of the exhibition focused on different aspects of the history of sneakers, while paying homage to the cultural relevance sneakers have globally. Displaying iconic sneaker models such as the Jordan 1 Retro High Dior or the timeless Air Force 1s. Highlighting the diversity and the variety of sneakers on a global scale.

Moving onto the second part, which focuses on youth culture and key moments throughout the decades. Youth culture in cities like London, New York and Los Angeles are referenced, demonstrating how these cities influenced sneakers and designs and generated sneaker culture. It shows how this phenomenon was not curated in a boardroom but thanks largely to the influence of young people from diverse inner-city neighbourhoods. A fascinating object in this exhibition is the letter that explained the controversy with Michael Jordan wearing a three-colour shoe, consisting of the colours of the Chicago Bulls, rather than the original white or black shoe. This encapsulates a historical moment for sneakers as the Air Jordan colourway has become a global obsession.

The exhibition moves onto show where Jordan met Skate: focusing on the Nike Blazer’s which were often worn by skateboarders as they offered a combination of stability and sturdiness. The exhibition tells the stories of these subcultures in its trademark vibrant, arresting style.

There are video interviews with Grime artists, street photography of skater-kids and photo-journals of Chuck Taylor-wearing Mexican youths. These interviews also show an insight into the long history of Air Maxes within the youth culture in London that has gone through several generations. It emphasises how significant getting these shoes are for people growing up in metropolitan areas, suggesting it was a rite of passage of some sort.

The exhibition demonstrates how sneaker culture has infiltrated high end brands such Balenciaga, Rick Owens and Versace, and all of the pompous designs that have been created through those collisions.

In another room, the exhibition touches on the production and sustainability of sneakers. It gives behind-the-scenes insight into new upcycling and sustainable design practices, unseen prototypes predicting the future of performance design, and streetwear and fashion collaborations that changed the face of the industry. One of the prototype pairs - a collaboration between MIT Design Lab, Puma and Biorealize - features live bacteria that eats away at the hottest parts of the shoe material when being worn so that heat can pass through.

This exhibition has brought together the journey and the future of sneaker culture in one place, demonstrating the sheer power of the youth cultures in the streets of major cities; how they influenced the sneakers worldwide and throughout the decades. It is truly astounding to see all these pairs together in one place, a technicolour medley of shapes and styles, especially considering how rare some of them are, and how valuable in the world of sneakers.

Image courtesy of Sakshi Patil


edited by Bo Nguyen, fashion editor

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