The first pairs of trainers, introduced in the late 1800s, were so simple they didn’t have a left or right foot. In contrast, sneakers today are incredibly complex, with brands using state-of-the-art technologies such as Nike’s adaptive self-lacing system or Adidas’s Boost soles, which are comprised of hundreds of spongy TPU modules, for unparalleled shock resistance. Back in the day though, sneakers were monolithic. The first mass produced ‘sneakers’ were introduced by American brand Keds in 1916, although the term is to be used loosely. Far from what we’d today associate with the style, the Champions, as they were known, more closely resembled a pair of Oxford boots. They were an eight-eyelet design complete with army ‘speed hooks’, and even featured proper heels as you’d expect to find on a Goodyear-welted leather pair. They were made from canvas, though, and featured the all-important key ingredient: rubber soles.
The Rise of Converse
It wasn’t until the Converse Rubber Shoe Company got involved though, that the modern sneaker was born. The Converse All Star was introduced in 1917 and quickly became the most popular casual shoe on the planet. Whilst incredibly simple - it was effectively two pieces of cotton canvas fused onto a rubber sole - the All Star was designed with a purpose, and this is what made it attractive. It was the ‘All-American Basketball Shoe’, worn by winners on the court and loved by those off it. For decades after its release, top NBA players would rely on their All Stars - Bill Russell was a loyal wearer, and Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain scored a league-record 100 points in his, in 1962, no less. The All Star was a simple, good value shoe, yet for the general public, it was aspirational: wear them and be a better athlete. It was the forerunner to the sneaker-obsessed generations of later decades who’d buy the latest pair of Air Jordans, take them to the court and imitate Michael Jordan’s every move, believing that their new wheels made them fadeaway further, dribble faster or jump higher.
All Stars are some of the best selling shoes of all time, and they’re certainly the most enduring; their basic design hasn’t changed in one hundred years. For decades they were market leaders, but in the ’70s and ’80s, a lack of innovation meant that Nike and Adidas caught up, swiftly overtaking them in just about every field. In a refusal to conform though, Converse took on a somewhat cult following, were worn by The Ramones and Kurt Cobain, and became an off-duty style staple in the process. There was only one other shoe that could rival the laid-back style credentials of the All Star in the latter half of the twentieth century, and ironically, both have been appropriated extensively by luxury brands today.
Vans opened its first shop in Anaheim, California in 1966. A factory store, the brand manufactured the shoes themselves, but on that first day of opening only the display models had been produced, meaning the 12 people who bought shoes that morning were told to come later that day to collect them. In the midst of running to the factory, processing the orders and returning to the store, Paul Van Doren (one of the founding members of Vans) realised he didn’t have any cash to offer change to the paying customers. When the eager clients returned, he handed them the shoes on the basis they’d return the following day with the money. All 12 of them did.
Similar to All Stars, Vans’ calling card was its simplicity, and a respectable integrity which didn’t stray too far from its initial concept; to produce simple, affordable shoes fit for purpose. Today, Vans are a go-to casual option for the masses, yet they were a skate shoe first and foremost. Nathaniel Iott, Director of Footwear Product Design at Vans, tells The Rake, “To Vans, skateboarding is more than a sport and has always been committed to it. I think the values of commitment and resilience came directly from the Van Doren family and are at the core of the company’s culture today.”