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First major show on sneakers in Germany on view at MKG Hamburg
Exhibition view. Photo: Michaela Hille.

HAMBURG.- Sneakers first attracted widespread attention in 1985 when they became associated with youth and hip-hop culture. It was also the year in which Joschka Fischer wore trainers when he was sworn in as environment minister for the State of Hesse. At the time this earned him the nickname the “tennis shoe minister”. Sneakers have surreptitiously evolved from special-purpose sports shoes and quietly sneaked into the midst of our society. They have become a worldwide phenomenon and a vital accessory for the modern city-dweller. Some dozen major brands – and hundreds of lesser ones – are in competition to find favour with consumers. This struggle is being conducted less and less through price wars and is instead being fought by other means: in the battle for hip design and a cool image. Of course, there are still shoes for particular types of sport but these days a more important market is street shoes, which appear in series, have “names”, and are often only brought out in limited editions, accompanied by elaborate advertising campaigns. Charting the astonishing rise of the trainer over the last thirty years, the exhibition Sneakers. Design for Fast Feet looks at this seminal piece of footwear, which serves as a fashion statement, providing a splash of colour in our daily lives. As the first major show on the subject in Germany, it examines the phenomenon of sneaker culture from a variety of angles, shedding light on its importance in youth culture, its design, the marketing strategies adopted by its manufacturers, and the collector scene. There are a total of around 250 exhibits on display, including some 120 pairs of shoes – historic examples worn by famous sports stars, constituting a selection of prized items from private collections. Designers and customizers like Sebastian Thies and Henriette Wagener have their say and collectors give short accounts of their proud conquests. Also on show are around 120 posters and promotional print materials from around the world, created by young designers and mostly distributed by large agencies – often ones with an international presence – as well as a series of commercials.

The exhibition brings together shoes and posters from over twenty different manufacturers and presents the most famous companies like Adidas, Asics, Converse, New Balance, Nike, Puma, Reebok, and Vans. The main focus is on the major lines that individual firms have developed since the 1980s: for example, Chucks, Superstars, Stan Smiths, Air Force Ones, and Air Jordans. Older models like a running shoe with sharp spikes from the 1930s and a football boot from 1954 bear witness to a time before the sneaker boom. The posters are often less in the spotlight than the shoes. Here it is frequently young designers and illustrators who develop new ideas and arrive at original solutions. Illustrations, photography, and computer graphics all come into play. The posters and large-format prints that are on display come from all over the world, from New Zealand to Brazil, from Chicago to Hamburg. A sneaker ABC elucidates terms like “Deadstock” and “Jumpman” and explains what a “Hype Beast” is or what “HTM” stands for.

Shoes for particular types of sport have been around for a good 150 years – nails have been driven into leather soles, toes reinforced, lacing improved. This happened initially in the UK and applied to sports like croquet, tennis, and hockey. The introduction of rubber was a key development: plimsolls – shoes with a flat rubber sole – appeared in the UK around 1860. They got their name from the dividing line between the sole and the upper, which resembled the load line that runs around ships, a feature that was introduced by Samuel Plimsoll.

A new phase in the history of the sneaker began fifty years later. In 1917, the Converse company in Massachusetts started producing sports shoes with rubber soles and an upper made of canvas. The basketball player Chuck Taylor made improvements to the concept and in 1923 Chuck Taylor All Stars came on the market, soon to be known simply as Chucks. With over 600 million units sold, the Converse All Star is the most successful shoe of all time. In the 1920s the Dassler brothers began making sports shoes in Herzogenaurach near Nuremberg. Their breakthrough came with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and they produced 200,000 pairs of shoes per year up until the beginning of World War II. After 1945 a dispute led to a split in the family firm, which was divided into two companies: Adidas and Puma. Adidas developed into the global leader in sports shoes. In 1970, the company launched the Superstar basketball shoe, which was one of the most successful of any series. A year later Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight gave their small shoe firm in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, a new name: Nike. In only twenty years the business grew to become the leading manufacturer of sneakers.

The year 1985 represents a watershed in the history of the trainer: Boris Becker won Wimbledon, wearing Puma shoes. The basketball player Michael Jordan brought out his own shoe in collaboration with Nike: Air Jordan. And the hip-hop band Run DMC performed in Adidas shoes, while Joschka Fischer was seen in trainers at the state swearing-in ceremony. The sports shoe was turning into everyday wear and a means of making a fashion statement.

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