A new exhibition in London charts the rise of global sneaker culture, from performance shoe to cult collector item. But do they belong in the museum?
Do you know your SMU from your player exclusive, or the most traded pair of sneakers in history? The top 10 sneaker consumers by country? The answers lie in “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street,” an ambitious new exhibition that opened at the Design Museum in London this week. It offers proof positive, if any were needed, that we are living in the age of the sneaker.
Driven by a mix of consumer demand, savvy brand marketing, manufacturing innovation and internet-propelled hype, sneakers are both a dominant fashion sector worth around $115 billion a year, according to estimates by the market research group NPD, and an increasingly valuable collectors’ asset class.
Kanye West’s first sample pair of Yeezys — black leather high-tops he wore to the 2008 Grammys — sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s in April. They became the most expensive sneakers ever, smashing a previous record of $560,000 set last year for a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1’s worn in a game by Michael Jordan. A growing resale market fueled by the popularity of platforms like StockX and Goat suggests that there are now millions of consumers more interested in trading the products than wearing them.
As with fine art, there are few rules to collecting sneakers but many opinions and approaches. Some collectors wear their collection, while others keep them in refrigerators or pristinely wrapped inside their original boxes. Either way, Ms. Salazar said, “Collectors have proved invaluable as both gatekeepers and historians of these shoes and the cultures that surround them.”
And even though Mr. Morrison noted that StockX “was born from a recognition that buying and selling sneakers didn’t need to be like the art industry, with opaque pricing that empowers sellers at the expense of the buyers,” he acknowledged that to see sneakers “on this stage, as an exhibit focus at one of the world’s most revered design institutions, is a huge validation of sneaker culture and the power it has amassed."