A new exhibition at the London Design Museum offers a closer look at the evolution of sneaker design and innovation. The show is called “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street.”
The LDM exhibition is timely. Or rather, it’s a long overdue survey of the sneaker as a designed object. As The New York Times put it in their review, “we are living in the age of the sneaker.” But the Times also goes on to pose a question about the current elevation of the sneaker. It asks “Are they really an art form?”
It’s a fair question, but it may be moot. We also live in an age where the lines between design, art and commerce are increasingly blurred. The gray area is in the overlap of where design and art meet. In a word, this is “aesthetics.“
There’s also an overlap in the ways sneakers are consumed. Sneakers are a designed fashion product, of course. But they’re also canvases for expression. A cool pair of kicks are a form of coded communication that reveal the wearers’ tastes.
As the Times also points out, sneakers have become a “dominant sector of the fashion industry.” So dominant that it’s a $115 billion sector. As the most popular form of footwear, sneakers are functional and designed to be worn.
However, like artwork by high-profile artists, sneakers have increasingly become a valuable collectible asset class in their own right. Millions of pairs of kicks are purchased solely (no pun intended) for the purpose of collecting. Many are acquired for re-sale. Many are purchased never to be worn. Some sneakers have sold at auction for millions of dollars.
The exhibition has over 270 pairs of sneakers that show the historical origins of the shoe and its evolution since the early 1900s. The sneaker has gone from athletic footwear to cultural signifier to ubiquitous street-fashion and pop-cultural staple to, depending on the creator and context, an art form.
And the show points to the sneaker’s future. Brands are creating innovative design. They’re using new manufacturing techniques and technologies. And they’re doing so with sustainability in mind.
“Sneakers Unboxed” confirms that sneakers are worthy of serious aesthetic consideration and appreciation.