What if we lived in a world without sneakers? – Downside Up

What if we lived in a world without sneakers? – Downside Up

In the past four decades, people have become obsessed with sneakers. Some people point to run DMC’s classic My Adidas as the thing that started it all.

Clip from My Adidas


I wore my sneakers but I’m not a sneak. My Adidas touch the sand of a foreign land. With a mic in hand, I cold took command. My adidas and me as close as can be, we make a mean team, my Adidas and me

That song came out in 1986. But these days, you’re more likely to hear Drake and Future singing about their shoes.

Clip from Jumpman


Chi-town, Chi-town, Michael Jordan just had text me, woo. Jumpman Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman Jumpman, Jumpman. I just seen the jet take off, they up to something.

Drake may own the most expensive pair of sneakers ever made: a pair of solid gold Jordans that he bought for $2 million. Because sneakers aren’t just footwear, they’re collector’s items, they’re art. They’re increasingly taking up space in our closets and storage units. People download elaborate apps to buy super specific models of shoes like the Ben and Jerry’s themed Nike Chunky Dunkys or the Space Jam Jordans sneakers are big business. In 2020, the global sneaker market was valued at approximately $79 billion, and it’s expected to reach 120 billion by 2026. When I was a kid, I knew I wanted to wear Jordans. Now my kids want to collect them, not wear them. And every time they demand, I take them to the mall to look at shoes, I wonder quietly to myself, What if sneaker culture didn’t exist?

Welcome to The Downside Up, a podcast from CNN where we search for answers to some of the big “what if?” questions in the world. Today, I want to look at the massive impact of sneaker culture on our everyday lives. What would our culture look like if sneakers hadn’t been moved from items used primarily for sports to status symbols, conversation pieces and fashion statements? So join me as we turn our feet Downside Up.

Like I said at the beginning of this episode, people point to a lot of different reasons that sneakers got to be so cool. There’s Michael Jordan, one of the most popular athletes ever signing with Nike. There’s the Run-D.M.C. song we played for you earlier. There’s Breakdancing, which got popular in American cities in the seventies and eighties that showcase B-boys and B-girls with killer moves, outfits and very cool kicks. But one thing is clear: to have sneaker culture, you have to have sneakers. Elizabeth Semmelhack is the director and curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada. She studies the history of fashion and footwear and points out that sneakers are still a pretty new form of shoe.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


It’s one of the most recent forms of footwear that we’ve innovated, and it relied on the harnessing of the sap of the rubber tree in order to even begin to think that sneakers could be possible. So what was amazing about rubber was that it was elastic, it was waterproof. But when you took it from places like Brazil, which is where it’s native to, and you took it back to the U.S. or to France, where experimentation was being done, it crumbled and dried up. And this is why we, in fact, call it rubber, because they thought that it was only good for rubbing away pencil marks.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


And some people had a real belief that this could be made into something that could be useful for industry, and one of those people was Charles Goodyear. He was kind of maniacal about it. He believed in a utopian future where everything we wore would be rubber, we’d eat off rubber plates. He always wore a rubber vest and a rubber bow tie, and he maybe took somebody else’s idea and ended up adding sulfur to boiling latex, boiling rubber, and when it cooled, it was stretchy and it didn’t melt in the heat or fracture in the cold. And once that happened, now, he could, in others, could begin to make products with rubber.

If the name Charles Goodyear sounds familiar, yes, it’s the tire guy, sort of. Goodyear was a scientist credited with patenting the process of making pliable rubber. The tire company, Goodyear, was named after him about four decades after he died. But once scientists cracked the code for moldable, pliable rubber in the middle of the 1800s, that paved the way for industrialists to start putting it into products.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


So the Industrial Revolution took this product and made industrialists. All of a sudden industrialism is going full steam ahead. And now you have a bunch of people who have time to play. Prior to us having the 40 hour work week, the majority of us did not have an opportunity to play. And so these nouveau riche industrialists wanted to show that they had arrived. And so the ancient game of tennis was revived. As they built these huge mansions with this huge lawns, and they began to play lawn tennis. But the problem with lawn tennis, one lawn tennis lawns are extremely expensive, so they didn’t want people running around in leather shoes and digging up the turf, and two, when you play online, you can get your dainty feet wet. So rubber soled shoes, the sneaker, was invented as something that the wealthy could wear as they pursued these wealthy pleasures of lawn tennis.

So now you know why a lot of people still call these shoes tennis shoes. Hey, wait a minute. Why do some of us call them sneakers?

Elizabeth Semmelhack


The word sneaker actually dates back to American slang, in the 1870s, when kids started calling them sneakers because rubber soles let you pad around noiselessly. So the term sneaker is actually related to the rubber sole.

Got it. Because wearing shoes with rubber soles allows you to sneak around without making too much of a racket. Okay. So wealthy industrialists were buying new shoes that were still typically made of either canvas or leather uppers. That’s the top part of the shoe fastened with laces and had rubber soles so that they wouldn’t mess up their tennis lawns.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


And so those early tennis shoes with rubber soles were themselves quite expensive. A rubber over shoe in the 1840 was five times the cost of a pair of leather shoes.

And by the way, those leather shoes from the 1840s were kind of like lightweight slippers with laces. But back to the tennis shoes with rubber soles, which were really pricey.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


This is how expensive rubber was. So those early, early tennis shoes were linked to expressions of status, both from the cost of the shoe to the lawn tennis that was being played.

But as industrialization continued in America in the late 1800s, the benefits of leisure time and exercise gained traction, at least among middle and upper classes. In fact, wealthy industrialists pushed the idea of exercise in their employees because they thought it would boost moral character.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


All of a sudden, factories were starting to be filled with people coming from overseas. This is particularly important in the U.S. and there was fears, like in New York City that all of these immigrants who are working in factories were living cheek to jowl with each other and that they were bringing both moral contagion and physical contagion that exercise could help ameliorate. So if you think about the founding of the YMCA, which is in the middle of this century, it’s founded in England, brought to the U.S., its original impulse was to make sure that the young men who are coming from the country, finding themselves in these cities of sin, would find a way to continue to exercise their bodies but control their morality. And so the idea that you could exercise for moral purpose was hugely important in the middle of the 19th century. And in fact, basketball, one of the most important sports in relation to what we now consider to be sneaker culture was invented for the YMCA to keep men’s passions at bay over the winter.

It’s so weird that basketball, a sport that would become synonymous with sneaker culture and one that’s so ubiquitous now that I yell Kobe every time I throw a piece of paper in the trash can, that sport originated because James Naysmith, the inventor of basketball, wanted to encourage morality through exercise. So how did shoes go from just a tool for exercise into a trendsetting item?

Elizabeth Semmelhack


If you think about the immediate post-World War II moment, synthetic rubber has been invented. You begin to have the baby boom. All of a sudden, that very American look, the rubber sole canvas high top, becomes sort of a signifier of youth.

Picture Richie Cunningham, Fonzie and the rest of the Happy Days gang running around in Converse high tops.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


But while that’s happening, two German companies, Puma and Adidas, are starting to make, particularly Adidas in the sixties, very different looking sneakers. Adidas begins to make leather sneakers, they come in bright blue, they’re very aerodynamic in shape, they’re specifically made for high end athletes. If you fast forward to the seventies, the me generation is now not interested in exercising because of morality. They’re interested in exercising as a form of competitiveness.

Baby boomers weren’t just exercising out of a sense of morality. They wanted to win. And as Will Ferrell says in Talladega Nights:

Clip from Talladega Nights


If you ain’t first, you’re last.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


When you see marathon running take off, you see tennis really reviving, racket sports, and jogging is introduced in ’66 by the founder of Nike by Bill Bowerman.

Before he co-founded Nike, Bill Bowerman was a longtime track and field coach at the University of Oregon. In the early 1960s he took a trip to New Zealand, where he met people who ran not for sport but just for exercise. He liked the idea so much that he came back to the United States where he wrote a book simply called Jogging. These days, tons of people jog for exercise and a lot of them buy Nike’s. Pretty savvy move, if you ask me.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


And so all of a sudden, in the seventies, you begin to have people who really want to show that they’ve arrived through self care and they’re willing to show that they’re taking care of themselves enough that they’re willing to buy elite athlete level footwear. And so Nike gets into the game in 72 they offer the Cortez it’s eye catching in color, it’s nothing like a Converse canvas sneaker, right, it’s a completely different animal. And all of a sudden, you have them being worn for fitness and fashion. And so people are willing to spend what was a considerable amount of money on these eye catching shoes, both the Nike’s and Adidas.

Meanwhile, while all this is happening in the sports and exercise world, you’re seeing the beginning of the hip hop movement emerge in New York City, and tied to that is breakdancing.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


Breaking is becoming a highly competitive form of dance, and the shoes that are of importance to breakers are shoes that the German companies Puma and Adidas have been offering basketball stars.

And then in the mid-eighties, two major events happened that really ignite what we come to know as sneaker culture. Run-D.M.C. releases their song My Adidas, prompting Adidas to sign them to a sponsorship deal and Michael Jordan signs with Nike. So you mix in hip hop, some flashy colors, a basketball star, and you wind up with something very cool.

Clip from Get Down


G-g-g-g-g-get down to the rhythm that’ll rock the walls. Cold sportin’ Air Jordans and I’m on the ball.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


It’s- it’s absolutely being infused into sneakers. And so by the eighties you have Flashdance, which comes out, I think it’s 84 and Rocksteady Crew is in that movie and that goes worldwide. And so breakdancing can be seen worldwide.

A lot of the sneaker culture that we know about today is a result of a lot of the community and culture that happened within the inner city. A lot of it started there. And the people that were quote unquote, doing well within those communities, they had the nicer sneakers and it became something aspirational early on. It also came something a part of the style early on.

That’s Jacques Slade. He’s a sneakerhead who has turned his love of shoes into a career. He started out as a blogger and YouTube post and has created shows for Complex at NBC, among others. And just like the original tennis shoes were a status symbol during the Industrial Revolution Jacques remembers the shoes growing up in Los Angeles in the late eighties as being a sign of status.

The older kids in my neighborhood that played basketball, I absolutely love and adored basketball and wanted to play, and I would watch the older kids in my neighborhood play. And as a kid, you see what they’re wearing and their shorts and their shirts and their shoes. And you think, Man, if I could just get those shorts and shoes, I can play just like them kind of thing, you know?

And the person everyone wanted to be like was Michael Jordan.

Clip from Gatorade Commercial


I could be like Mike. I want to be like Mike, like Mike. I could be like Mike.

That’s a Gatorade commercial from 1992. And back then, Jordan could sell basically anything Gatorade, McDonald’s, Hanes underwear and of course, lots and lots of shoes. Michael Jordan signed his deal with Nike in 1984. And at the time, Adidas and Converse were at the top of the basketball shoe world. As Jordan’s star rose, so did Nike’s and so did the iconic Jordan brand.

I think Jordan and Nike, like the timing was just perfect. It was literally just the right time for that to explode. So I think for Jordan, it’s just a matter of being like that inflection point of basketball hitting the upslope on the graph and sneakers hitting the upslope on the graph at the same time. I remember the Air Jordan 4, some of the guys that my neighborhood, they wore the Air Jordans 4 and you know, they’re dunking and they’re shooting three pointers and I’m just a little kid watching them and I think, Oh, like I’ve got to have those shoes in order to do those types of things.

Jacques also points out that as sneaker culture got popular in hip hop culture and in the Black community, so did a lot of other cool fashion trends.

A lot of style is created within the Black community and it’s, it sparks from there and it just grew from there. I mean, I don’t think it’s limited to sneakers at all. It’s from the way they wear their pants to the cut of a shirt that they wear. There are stories of fashion brands coming to the ghetto years and decades ago, looking at what people were wearing and how they were wearing it and turning that into the line for their next year. Sneakers is just a part of the puzzle.

And shoe culture offered an entry point for a lot of Black tastemakers and creators. Michael Jordan grew his brand into a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But there’s still also an imbalance about where a lot of the money created by sneaker culture goes. Just 5{a0ae49ae04129c4068d784f4a35ae39a7b56de88307d03cceed9a41caec42547} of sneaker retailers are Black owned businesses in a market that generates around $70 billion in sales every year.

I think that that’s rooted in a lot of things that go beyond sneakers. A lot of times those communities didn’t have the capacity or have the information to make the manufacture, to design the whole process of sales. And so I think there’s a lot that goes into that. And, you know, we’ve got to go way deep here. A lot of America is built on the backs of those that are without that want- they’re forced to buy, you know, in a sense, from those that have, it’s like the same story of the haves and have nots. And unfortunately, a lot of the black community has been the have nots for the majority of American history, and that translates from society to money, even thinking about housing and why certain people live in certain areas and Black people live in certain areas. There’s stories of banks not giving Black people loans, so they’re forced to live in a certain community even if they had the money. So I think sneakers is really no different. There’s often a misconception that it’s always like the high profile sneakers that these communities are turning into style things, but it’s really the basics, the essentials, like these communities are really able to turn the essentials into like pop culture icons in the fashion world, how they wear them, how they style them, and really change the meaning of a product.

And that’s one of the most amazing things about sneaker culture, a product that many of us where every day has been elevated into a collector’s item into art for around $100, you can literally step into the shoes of your favorite athlete or celebrity.

You know, um, a lot of sneakers are attached to sports moments and a lot of us dream of hitting that last second shot or dream of, of dunking from the free throw line. So those aspirational moments that kind of take us away from our everyday lives, I think they’re vehicles for storytelling. And it’s a story that you can tell that a lot of people can relate to it, that a lot of people know about.

Jacques actually got the opportunity to design a pair of sneakers with Nike, and it’s fascinating to hear him talk about the storytelling that can go into a single pair of shoes.

I made the design for my grandfather and also made one for my mother. For my grandfather shoe, the beginning of it was the color of a truck that he used to drive. It was like this really beat up turquoise color, so that’s how I came up with the color. After that, it turned into this pair of gloves that he would always wear, these work gloves that he was always where they had like this nappy suede on the back. So I made the primary color of the shoe, the turquoise button for the inlays, which is the middle section of the shoe near the top part of your foot, the part that goes there. I made those out of the nappy suede material, so as a reminder of that. It’s finding the way of telling your story through the materials, through the colors, through the density of the foam, all of those things. They help tell the story.

Elizabeth Semmelhack points out that sneakers were one of the first things that gave a lot of men the space to talk about fashion, something that had historically been considered women’s domain.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


I think it’s also interesting and this is maybe a little controversial, ever since the Enlightenment, Western fashion or Western culture has told men that they shouldn’t participate in fashion, that they shouldn’t be interested, they should wear the suit of uniformity, which is their seat of authority, but that they shouldn’t be interested in these details. And sneakers are starting to soften that. And it’s the one place because it is related to sports.

And so suddenly men who are used to wearing suits were now navigating a wider range of fashion thanks to sneaker culture, and dressing down became the new sign of being cultured.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


That idea of dressing down as a signifier of power is starting to happen in the eighties. Then you add in casual Friday. Casual Friday says to the average businessman, You’ve been hiding behind your suit for days a week now, one day a week, we want to see who you really are. And all of a sudden, you can see all these amazing articles of men in panic mode as they’re now being expected to do what women always have to do, which is dress and express some sort of individuality. And so sneakers can come in to help with that. And so sneakers are slowly making their way into ideas of masculinity that are shifting over the course of the 20th century.

And then in the nineties and 2000, some combination of sneaker culture and the Internet age completely flipped the idea of corporate attire on its head. You may not associate the personal computer with sneakers as much as you do Michael Jordan or Jay-Z, but Elizabeth says you should.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


That completely changes how men begin to dress in the workplace. If you think about the early computer geeks, they are able to wear playground clothing to board meetings and be the most powerful men in the room. They are the men who can see the future, which is why when you imagine a start up guy, he’s often wearing sneakers in your mind.

It’s Mark Zuckerberg in a hoodie and sneakers, of course. If you think back to the movie The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is almost always dressed casually, despite being surrounded by a room full of lawyers in suits. But he still absolutely controls the room.

Clip from The Social Network


If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.

And the rise of the Internet also accelerated who could shop for sneakers and poured gasoline onto the flames that were lighting up sneaker culture worldwide. After the break, we’ll look more at how the Internet changed sneakers and what society might look like if sneaker culture never existed.

Welcome back to Downside Up, I’m Chris Cillizza and today we’re looking at what the world might look like if sneaker culture never was born. Nick Engvall has turned his passion for sneakers into a career. He was one of the earliest sneaker bloggers, and today he runs the blog Sneaker History and is host of the weekly Sneaker History Podcast. Even today, Nick will never forget the first pair of sneakers he bought growing up in Oregon.

As a kid, my family didn’t really have money to buy sneakers, so we had a budget of $30 for every school year and, you know, Nike’s were always 50 or 60 bucks at minimum so kind of always desired a swoosh on my shoe at the end of the day. And with a $30 budget, I convinced my mom to let me spend two years worth of shoe money and had a $60 budget. And I was able to get a pair of Nike Ultra Forces and that is the real like starting point. You know, I had had a couple of pairs of shoes, but they were, you know, very basic. But to get that Nike Air on the back and on the outsole, you know, I wore those shoes for two school years. And you can imagine as a sixth, seventh, eighth grade kid, I’m playing basketball, I’m skateboarding, I’m playing football. It was a struggle to keep them alive. And I reglued them, I- eventually they started squeaking because the air bubble popped and I filled it with glue, thinking maybe this will keep it together. And I repainted them and the paint was wrong. My mom took me to a craft store, we mixed paint to try to keep them lasting because, you know, especially that second year, you wanted to have a new pair of shoes going into school.

For kids like Nick. The rise of online shoe sales was a game changer. It meant that kids like him in Oregon could see the style of kids in New York, and kids in Wisconsin could follow the trends of what people were wearing in L.A..

It gives access to kids that lived in small towns and weren’t in those places that had them all with a sneaker store of some sort in it.

And it also created a larger platform for the resale market.

I would say probably around 2000, 2005, eBay really kind of became the place where, oh, I could actually find some shoes that weren’t here. To the point of Nike kind of leaning into this hype and this limited nature, they would release shoes in Japan, but not release them in the United States, but then we would find out about them through a message board or from a friend of a friend of a friend. A lot of the people that have been in the sneaker thing for a really long time have that story of, well, I bought this shoe from somebody around the world that I don’t know and sent that money order or sent the check and hope that it showed up and I think that just, you know, like you said it, the crescendo of that, we’re still feeling it. It all came together at this crazy time.

Companies like Nike and Adidas watch this demand happening. Sneakerheads scouring the internet for old models and paying premiums. So they began releasing limited editions as well as classic models of popular shoes. Here’s historian Elizabeth Semmelhack again.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


I do think that one of the things that really changed the desirability around sneakers was when Air Jordan came out with a different model every single year. And so given that the Air Jordan now we call it the One was so different from the two, so different from the three and the four and the five and six that that also it helped justify collecting because if you have the one, two, three, four, well then the five comes out, you got to add it to your collection.

You start to have these nuance stories that go along with the sneakers. Maybe it’s a particular person that got to work on them or a particular person that got to do the color of the shoes or a sneaker boutique or skate shop. And they became limited in nature at that point. And Nike really leaned into that because they would produce limited quantities for all these different places that wanted to partner with them. Kind of started with Nike SB.

Nike SB stands for Nike Skateboarding Shoes, just in case you were wondering.

But I think the display aspect and the collectible aspect was always like right underneath the surface, because you think about sports and autographs and, you know, memorabilia and game worn things. So there was always this like kind of other part of sneakers that was “let me get these Jordans that Michael actually wore.”

It’s funny, you don’t ever walk into someone’s house and see a collection of their pants displayed on the wall, but sneakers have evolved into as much a collector’s item as fine art.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


The word sneaker can cover a wide range of types of things, right? Some are extremely rare and have high value. Some are just what we put on our feet and run to the grocery store. And I don’t necessarily see that there’s a problem with the fact that there’s different types of sneakers out there.

And as Elizabeth points out, fashion has always been a major global economic engine.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


Canada, which is where I’m living, was founded on fashion. People got in boats and sailed across the Atlantic to come to Canada to get beaver pelts, not save the world, not to feed the poor, but to make men’s hats, like that was the purpose. You know, if we if we think about world exploration and being motivated by the spice trade, fashion, silk trade, fashion, beaver pelts, fashion. And when you begin to realize that humankind has been motivated to make incredible social, environmental changes in the pursuit of fashion, I think you begin to see fashion differently. And then when you add in the economic structures, the amount of money that is being made, like I’m not so worried about the flipper who makes $250 on a sneaker, what about the giant corporations that are literally making billions? Right. Like, why is it that we do focus in on the individual as opposed to the larger structural issues? Right. And so I think fashion somehow we have and I think in part because fashion has been considered feminized or feminizing, we are trained not to stand back and look at we- how is this all interconnected and interlaced and what are the power structures and the economic structures that fashion is upholding?

Fashion is big business. And these days one of the primary drivers of fashion is sneakers. It’s also changed women’s fashion.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


I think that what sneakers did once they were able to become something that could be worn first casually and now even formerly, is that they are a new type of shoe that we are allowed to add into our wardrobes. They have been for a long time very coded masculine, but now women are being more readily welcomed into sneaker culture. And so I think what’s interesting, particularly if you think about women in sneakers, is that a lot of the work that high heels have done in the past, which is you wear a certain brand and you’re able to express that you spend 1200 bucks in your shoes and you’re at the height of fashion, but now you can accomplish that wearing a pair of designer sneakers, and maybe you’re doing that in greater comfort.

Imagine that expensive doesn’t have to mean uncomfortable. And as Elizabeth looks to the future of fashion and shoes, she thinks Sneakerheads are already starting to colonize the metaverse.

Elizabeth Semmelhack


Fashion is colonizing this different and new space. I actually started thinking about this, I don’t know, maybe 12, 13 years ago when my eldest would play City of Heroes and they would have their friends over and they’d spend all this time dressing their avatars and not as much time on gameplay, but more time just seeing their avatars. And I was like, Oh, it’s so interesting how fashion choices are starting to be important in gameplay. And then seeing NFTs, seeing like the Jordan drops in Fortnite and thinking about how, as the metaverse opens up, how are we going to represent ourselves in the virtual world? And so clothing is one of the principal ways that we make alliances, we express who we are, and so it’s no surprise to me that you might have a closet of virtual sneakers to put on your avatar as you go into Decentraland or wherever.

If clothing and fashion are one of the principal ways we express ourselves and make alliances, what would we lose in a world without sneaker culture? YouTuber and Sneakerhead Jacques Slade thinks the NBA might not be as popular, for one thing.

I think it would be popular, but I don’t know if it would be as popular as it is. Like when Jordan came along, basketball was really starting to go global. It was becoming a bigger thing. So we had Magic Johnson, we had Larry Bird and we had Michael Jordan and those three guys, I would say we grew the NBA probably more than anybody else in the history of the NBA, and I think sneakers added on to that. I think the NBA would probably be in a different place, not necessarily worse, but it would be in a different place because I think the love of sneakers tied so closely to basketball made those two really, really hard to separate those two from the growth that they’ve both seen.

And what do you think about the cottage industry that’s built up around athletes fashion choices, you realize that this has spilled over into football players specialty cleats and into the clothes that players are wearing when they show up to the locker room. A lot of money and interest around clothes has been driven by this connection to sports, says Nick Engvall.

There are millions of people and millions of accounts that talk about the shoes that that people wear on and off the court now. So like when you realize that there are tens of thousands of people that get to work on different aspects of what footwear and the sneaker culture really is and how it moves as a whole, it’s a, it’s really an awesome thing to have.

And then imagine some alternative history where all of us are still wearing the exact same pair of white sneakers or the leather shoes from the 1800s without rubber soles, no variation. What would that culture look like?

That’s a great question. I have nephews that go to school and they all have to wear the same uniform that they can wear any sneaker that they want, and that’s kind of how everyone kind of shows their own personality. So I feel like this is probably the opposite. What it would probably be the clothes we had to wear, the same shoes for whatever reason, it would have to be like the pants and the shirts that people use to show their own personality or maybe even its hair like dying your hair are parting your hair a certain way, it was like personality. I can imagine a dystopian world where someone has a part on the left side, like the community is like, Oh, on the left. He parted it on the left. But like, can see that world coming.

If our culture were based on hair, well, I’d be in some trouble. But it’s clear that sneaker culture has given thousands of people the tools to express themselves, and it’s turned into big business along the way. And it’s also allowed a lot of us to be a lot more physically comfortable in the workplace.

And now it’s time for our resident Sneakerhead and shoe blogger Nick Engvall to join me for a little sneaker trivia. Okay. Just so you know, I never get all of these, right? Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Okay. Question number one: ever since Run-DMC first released My Adidas, there’s been a ton of crossover between hip hop and the sneaker business. What rapper was the first non-athlete to release a signature shoe with Reebok? The shoe released in 2003.

A signature shoe with Reebok. I’m going to say that that is probably either Jay-Z or 50 Cent.

I’m going to give you Jay-Z because you said it first. Correct, Jay-Z, one for one. All right. Michael Jordan’s Nike deal obviously changed a lot about all this stuff, but who was the first NBA player, and NBA player is key here, to have a signature shoe? He played point guard for the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavs and released a shoe with Puma in 1973.

That’d be Walt Clyde Frazier.

100{a0ae49ae04129c4068d784f4a35ae39a7b56de88307d03cceed9a41caec42547}, correct. Well done. Two for two. In 1995, what basketball player became the first woman in history to launch a signature shoe when she signed a deal with Nike. 1995.

Three for three is hot, folks. In 1989, a pair of self lacing light up Nike’s appeared in the movie Back to the Future II. In what year were a version of those shoes finally made available to the public, albeit in limited quantities? What year were those made?

Ooh. Well, that’s the Nike MAG.

I think it was supposed to be originally on the clock in Back to the Future was 2015, but I think maybe they released a limited version in 2013?

You were closer in the beginning, 2016. Tell me how much those shoes cost if you get a pair of them.

Oh, I mean, they could be- there’s almost no limit to how much you could ask for them to the right person.

I- it doesn’t get more rare than that in my opinion.

Okay, got it. That’s the top of the pyramid.

Yeah, I think, I think because it’s it’s also the widest, earliest, you know, most kind of visible, visible moment of sneaker culture, right? Like we wouldn’t think of Back to the Future II as sneaker culture, right, in that conversation. But everybody saw that movie. You know, literally tens of millions of people have seen that movie so that aspect of it means that there’s just every- anybody that has the ability to buy, you know, potentially a few hundred thousand dollars shoe is potentially a customer if you want to sell it.

Clip from Back to the Future


Great. Scott.

My kids speak of those shoes in reverential terms. Okay. Last one, you’re three for four, last one. With mass production beginning all the way back in 1917, what sneaker is considered the first to ever be mass produced? What sneaker is the first to ever be mass produced?

That’s got to be Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, right?

Oh, Keds. I should have- I should have known that.

I would guessed Converse Chuck Taylor as well. Well, you started off great. Three for five gets you a passing grade. Thanks to Nick Engvall for playing along, and thank you to Jacques Slade and Elizabeth Semmelhack for helping us understand the world made by sneakers. It’s hard to imagine that the shoes that were once the fever dream of a rubber scientist could become the focus of exercise culture and then suddenly be at the center of sports, business and pop culture. Now, at least I have something to think about every time my kids drag me to that mall. But what about you? Do you have a favorite pair of sneakers? How have they shaped your life? What would your world be like without them? Let me know by tweeting me at Chris C-I-L-L-I-Z-Z-A And if you’re liking our show, please share it with your friends and make sure you rate review and subscribe as well. Next time on Downside Up: what if we all need to work four days a week?

Charlotte Lockhart


Piece of research came out that said that if the four day week was in the UK, it would be the equivalent of taking every single private car off the road.

Downside Up is hosted by me, Chris Cillizza. It’s a production of CNN in collaboration with Pod People. At CNN our producer is Lori Galarreta, and our executive producer is Abbie Fentress Swanson. Alexander McCall leads audience strategy for the show. Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny is our production manager and Jamus Andrest and Nichole Persaru designed our artwork.

The team from Pod People includes Rachael Kang, Matt Sav, Amy Machado, John Hammondtree, Madison Lusby, Regina de Heer, and Morgane Fouse.

Theme and original music composed by Casey Holford. Additional music came from epidemic sound.

Special thanks to Lindsay Abrams, Fuzz Hogan, Drew Shankman, Lisa Namerow, John Dianora, Katie Hinman, Robert Mathers and Sarina Singh.