How Sneaker Culture Made Men Care About High Fashion

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Menswear in 2016 believes wholeheartedly that men care about fashion. Long before menswear graduated into a $460 billion industry, “fashion” often served as a poor synonym for “women’s wear,” leaving men to fend hopelessly for themselves in the world of “ready-to-wear” style.

Now, tailoring, silhouettes, and Instagram-famous Shiba Inus are just a few of the norms on the menswear market. They serve as markers of a new era of men’s fashion that caters exclusive to the man who color blocks, accessorizes, and thinks critically about the way he looks. Gone are the days where shopping was left to one’s mother or wife. Now, men actively shape their style and tastes within a market that has learned to chase “yummies” (that is, young urban males) and their endless supply of disposable income.

How and when did the fashion industry begin to take “men’s style” seriously? There are plenty of factors contributing to the rise of the menswear market, but none more apparent than sneaker culture.

Once limited to the bounds of hip-hop, sneaker culture has since permeated the menswear market implicitly by advocating for the young urban male’s expense account. Sneakers have been around since the 1890s, of course, but it took another 80 years for them to become the extremely profitable consumable it is today. With the release of the first signature shoe  —  to coincide with the superstar talent of NBA favorite Kareem Abdul Jabbar  — Adidas unwittingly launched the culture that would drive over $340 million dollar in sales just last year.

Sneaker culture precedes menswear  — specifically, the “ready to wear” component that now churns out “fits” (outfits) and style concepts to young urban males routinely. Before the ’80s, it was as unnatural to have a style budget as it was to have a personal style. Sneaker culture, then, not only spoke to young urban male’s income, but also the athletes, musicians, and values he considered important. To a larger extent, it encouraged a healthy pursuit of his own representation — and the sneakers, accessories, and trends he’d curate to make his vision a reality.

Pre-sneaker culture, menswear was only meant to be admired — occasionally aped, but never duplicated. Men’s fashion took its cues from movies, athletes and, for much of the decade, Michael Jackson. But the average teenage male could only ever hope to mimic with the help of a thrift store if he had neither the resources or the funds to secure his favorite “looks.” At the time, sneakers themselves were admired for their functionality, but reserved for the talent of athletes. A good sneaker was merely known for its ability for perform, and assist athletes  —  sometimes, but not always, basketball players — — during the heat of the game.

Though the semi-pro basketball player Chuck Taylor was the first athlete to have a pair of sneakers named after him in 1921, sneakers and athletes would not become so closely linked until 1971, when the rapidly-rising sports & leisurewear brand adidas first released their Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sneaker line. Up until that moment, sports brands  —  like Adidas’ rival Puma  — and the recently-launched Nike, pushed sneakers onto their audience by heralding their usability. Customers wanted to know if sneakers were comfortable, not if they were stylish. Abdul-Jabbar’s indisputable skill and charisma on and off the court built a suitable cult of personality that Adidas could successfully cash in on: After only two years in the NBA, he’d already won Rookie of the Year and a MVP title. It marked the first time sneakers could sold in conjunction with a player’s brand, rather than focusing on the company brand alone.