A Sotheby’s private auction held just over a month ago set a new record – that of the most expensive sneakers ever sold. The collectible in question was a pair of Nike Air Yeezy 1 Prototypes worn by rapper Kanye West in 2008 at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, and fetched a staggering US$1.8 million. Outrageous? It may seem so to outsiders, but in fact, it is just the latest milestone for the burgeoning phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘sneaker culture’.
Sneaker culture thrives on the same mass collecting mentality that can be found for other collectibles like watches and wine, although in this case, it’s applied to the purchase and ownership of cool sports shoes. Be it stellar marketing, social media popularity or the influence of hip hop culture, there is now an entire sub-section of the fashion industry where coveted kicks reign supreme.
In truth, sneakers are nothing new. They first appeared back in the early 19th century, though unlike modern-day iterations, these were quite roughly crafted from canvas, featured rubber soles, and were mostly marketed as beachwear. It took nearly six decades for this flimsy footwear to become more refined and eventually capture the mass market’s interest.
As for etymology, unsurprisingly, they got their name simply because they were nearly inaudible underfoot, allowing wearers to quite literally ‘sneak’ up on you. The interesting fact is that sneakers emerged in early ’20s Germany, where an intrepid entrepreneur by the name Adi Dassler invented the first real sports shoe. It was clearly a success, and his company evolved into Adidas, one of the most recognisable athletic wear brands. However, it was in 1984 that sneakers became a status symbol. This was the year Nike collaborated with basketball superstar Michael Jordan and changed the world of sneakers forever.
In the intervening decades since that Damascene moment, the sneaker industry has grown beyond imagination, currently grossing an eye-watering US$60 billion each year, with that value predicted to grow to some US$95 billion within the next four years. What’s more, hundreds of millions are also spent by sports brands in continuing efforts to tempt buyers with ever-more exciting designs.
Heightening their popularity even further are the numerous multi-million-dollar collaboration deals that have sprung up between major brands like Adidas and Nike and celebrities such as Kanye West and LeBron James, binding fans from the worlds of sport, music and fashion.
The name of the game, in short, is to add to the prestige of what’s available, even, or maybe especially, when applied to a utilitarian accessory. Everyone can have a pair of Adidas shoes. Buying Yeezys, though, is akin to hitting gold. Also, with the entry of countless luxury design houses – Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Versace, to name but three – into the industry, sneakers have become even more of an aspirational accessory, enticing the wealthy elite to buy into the craze.
The recent record-breaking performance by the Nike Air Yeezy 1 Prototypes is, perhaps, the greatest indicator of this. But it is by no means the only pair of sneakers to reach stratospheric prices. Sotheby’s inaugural 2019 sneaker-dedicated sale saw a pair of Nike Waffle Racing Flat Moon Shoes sell for US$437,500. A year later, a pair of autographed, game-worn Nike Air Jordan 1s sold for US$560,000, which held the Guinness World Record until it was superseded by Kanye’s kicks this April.
But while not all ‘sneaker heads’ – as aficionados of this sporty footwear have dubbed themselves – can afford one-off designs at such staggering prices, it hasn’t stopped the most dedicated from attempting to amass as many pairs as they can afford. Take, for instance, US musician DJ Khaled, who is rumoured to own 10,000 pairs and even managed to collaborate with Jordan Brand – created by Nike for legendary basketballer Michael Jordan – to put his own spin on the Air Jordan 3s.
Another of the world’s biggest sneaker collections is actually in the hands of three 20-something sisters, Ariana, Dresden and Dakota Peters. Together, the trio own over 6,000 pairs of sneakers, including thousands of coveted designs such as Nike Air Force 1s and Air Jordans, as well as rare prototypes designed for celebrities and star athletes, and even a few whose existence have perplexed their maker, Nike. In total, the collection, which they inherited from their retired real-estate developer father, is said to be worth millions of US dollars.
Sneakers continue to appeal to consumers across the wealth spectrum, but, as with the rest of the fashion industry, sustainability and environmental concerns have definitely made an impact on this niche sector. And, when you look at the facts, these worries are surely justified.
Sneaker production is exceptionally carbon-intensive, accounting for about 1.4 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions (as compared to air travel, which in pre-Covid times produced 2.5 percent of such emissions). If it were a country, it would be the world’s 17th largest polluter. Furthermore, each year, some 23 billion pairs of sneakers are produced – often under exploitative conditions – and simultaneously, 300 million pairs are tossed into the rubbish pile. Given that many sneakers are predominantly fabricated from plastics or plastic-like materials, the devastating truth is that it will take decades for them to fully decompose in a landfill.
This is a major environmental issue, but there are ways to deal with it successfully, and one of them is switching to sustainable and ethical production as priorities when looking for stylish kicks. A good example of this is Adidas, who started making inroads into sustainable production in 2015 by utilising recycled ocean plastic in its products. It also launched Futurecraft Loop, a groundbreaking sneaker design that is made from 100 percent reusable thermoplastic polyurethane, a substance that can be repeatedly recycled after use. A growing list of brands has followed suit, focusing on creating footwear that is both ethically and sustainably produced.
Whether or not the entire industry can shift its mindset to a greener, more environmentally friendly production process is still up for debate, but it’s a problem that needs a real, long-term solution, especially given the continuing, unabated rise of sneaker culture across the world.