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.

Unlike traditional marketing, a celebrity-endorsed line of sneakers could speak to more than just the company; it also vouched for the player’s skill. Nike understood this implicitly; by the 1982, it officially adopted its legendary name and logo with an ad agency to match. The advertising firm of Wieden and Kennedy would go on to create some of the most legendary sports advertisements in history for the brand, such as Ken Griffey’s 1996 ad campaign and the memorable “Spike and Mike” TV spot (in which Spike Lee questions incredulously, “Are you sure it’s not the shoes?”)

Ultimately, it was Michael Jordan’s signature that would seal Nike’s place in sneaker culture history. The then-21-year-old inked his NBA deal and his legendary Air Jordan deal within weeks of each other in 1984, despite being dedicated Adidas fan in his college years. He went on to debut the first ever pair of Air Jordans later that year in a game against the Sixers, catapulting him and Nike to the forefront of sportswear.

Adidas, however, wasn’t too far behind. Two years after the first Air Jordan sighting (and one year after they were released to retail), a curious duo of rappers and their dutiful DJ appeared with an ode to the Adidas Superstar, entitled “My Adidas.” The trio was known simply as the Queens rap group Run DMC, and their affection for leather jackets, dookie chains, and wide brim hats would become synonymous with their careers and hip-hop fashion overall. The Superstar, then usually found on basketball courts, could be seen at nearly ever Run DMC concert following the single’s release, which sparked an interest in the shell-toed shoes that have never been seen before. Adidas, on their part, met the newfound praise with a $1 million sponsorship deal for the trio.

Whether paired with a tracksuit or a jersey, sneakers offered credibility. In their first year, Air Jordans could cost anywhere from $50-$65 — — which was unheard for any pair of shoes that outside of the high fashion realm. Owning a pair meant many things, but most importantly, that you were certainly not broke. With such exclusivity came a personal attention to detail; for a such an investment, it was not at all unheard for young men to be cautious in preserving their shoes.

The cultural “war” between Adidas and Nike would continue through the ’80s and well into the ’90s. Though Nike had won the race of bringing “fashion-function” to the courts, Adidas first succeeded in creating a lifestyle of its sneaker lines. Perhaps no one believed “ball is life” more than Adidas in the ’80s; with a dedicated precision, its branding transcended simple television spots and print advertisements. Names like Chris Rock and Ice-T sported Adidas Phantoms in New Jack City; Eddie Murphy, then Hollywood’s most famous star, fought crime in the famous three stripes in 1984 long before Run DMC made their debut. In the ’90s, britpop  —  with mega band Oasis leading the way  — adopted Adidas wholesale in their rise to popularity.

Adidas was particularly successful in integrating sports and leisurewear in a way that Nike and other brands could not. If sneakers were a lifestyle, there certainly had to be more to life than just sneakers  —  a theory Adidas believed in thoroughly. It was understood that a typical Adidas sneaker came with its own styling guide: If not a tracksuit, then a sweatband, or perhaps a chain. To its credit, Nike almost immediately followed suit with baseball caps and shellsuits, owning its audience with baseball players and trackstars.

Such expansions certainly had an impact. Sneaker culture instantly proved that it could be more than simple sneaker fodder. Nike, Adidas, and the brands that followed easily expanded to accessories like slim fit jeans (especially of the True Religion brand), headphones, leggings, socks, sunglasses, graphic T-shirts, and hoodies. By the mid-90s, it was possible to build your entire outfit from one line alone; it was not at all uncommon for sneaker lines to come with a full accessory line attached.

In the 1990s, fashion continued to take its cues from music, immortalizing the fashion of everyone from gangster rappers to grunge. Still, sneakers  — along with baseball caps  —  kept their hold on menswear sales, earning a steady increase every couple years. Sneakers themselves had become something of a collectible item, valued by their rarity, signature, or celebrity model. Soon, they were notable simply by name, making appearances in songs like Nelly’s “Air Force Ones,” a catchy tune that doubled as a warning not to step on his favorite pair of Nikes.

Still, no one has more to thank for celebrity-focused sneaker lines than G-Unit. After Reebok introduced his own personal line of sneakers, the G-Unit Sneaker, in 2003, it opened doors for non-athlete celebrities (mainly rappers) to cash in on the sneaker culture they too had enjoyed. Kanye’s Yeezys’ or Pharrell’s Ice Cream sneaker line would simply not exist without the sales of the G-Unit sneaker, which peaked at $80 million in 2003 (or so 50 himself says.)

In just forty-five short years, sneaker culture birthed a menswear movement that offered men options and opportunities to create a representation of themselves. Thriving designers that now cater to their new “yummy” market undoubtedly owe much to the athletes and rappers who paved the way before them with sneakers.