Drawing from Darwinian principles, mankind has relied on walking as the first mode of transportation. Men conveniently roamed the Earth’s different landscapes barefoot, until footwear was introduced. Footwear was invented to protect the foot, with the earliest made of straw, animal hide, or cloth. Shoes then were more of function rather than style.
Function over form
In the early nineteenth century, Plimsoll, a British brand of shoes made of canvas, was created. It is inspired by the Plimsoll line or the reference mark on a boat’s hull: it marks the area at the tip of the shoe that is kept dry even when in contact with a puddle. Its design, however, was originally to protect the feet from the hot sand, thus, its popularity to vacationers in Europe. Despite the crude technology (the shoes had no left or right foot, they were called “straight shoes”), the rubber soles provided much comfort that even sportsmen started using them in playing courts.
In 1895, British company J.W. Foster and Sons created the first pair of running shoes. It had spikes that provided traction to any surface it stood upon. As for the rubber-soled shoes, manufacturers started to engrave patterns on the soft rubber soles in order to provide traction and surface grip as well.
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The Americans would later follow suit. In 1892, the U.S. Rubber Company made versions of Europe’s Plimsolls, called Keds. The rubber-soled shoes were lighter, and they emitted less noise compared to the hard-soled leather shoes. Hence, “sneakers” was coined.
Marquis Converse caught up and produced the All Star collection in 1917. The Converse shoes became more popularly known as the Chuck Taylor’s, courtesy of the American basketball player who endorsed the brand. The Chuck Taylor has since become one of the bestselling basketball-turned-lifestyle sneakers. (The first basketball shoes, however, were by Spalding, which launched its creation in 1907.)
Sneakers had canvas as the main material for its body, providing flexibility and lightness. Soft rubber lined the soles, giving traction to the surface. Such design was popular among sportsmen, as it proved comfortable and ergonomic when used during a game.
A growing fad
The 1924 Olympics played a big part in starting a global fad, as different athletic shoes were suddenly highlighted for every sport. Basketball had the usual All Star’s and other sneakers similar to that line. Spring Court, a French brand established in 1936, produced the first handmade tennis shoes crafted in Egyptian cotton canvas and featuring perforated leather tops. The pure rubber soles boasted of the brand’s trademark eight ventilation channels.
Amid the sneaker trend, Adidas founder Adi Dassler was already making sports shoes with his brother, Rudolf, in their hometown Bavaria. During the 1936 Olympics, he drove to Berlin just to persuade US sprinter Jesse Owens to use Dassler’s line of running spikes. Owens hauled in four golds, bolstering the popularity points of Dassler’s shoes. This eventually led to the Dassler brothers’ success. They had sold as many as 200,000 shoes every year since.
The brothers would later split, with Rudolf moving on to establish Puma. In 1949, Adi registered Adi Dassler adidas Sportsschuhfabrik, along with a shoe that had the iconic three stripes. By 1954, Adidas had crafted football boots that featured screw-in-studs that the German national team donned in their World Cup game against the stronger Hungarian team. Over time, Adidas expanded their sports shoe line to different sports fields, along with key innovations like the Micropacer in the 1980s, currently known as miCoach, which is basically a computer that tracks down performance statistics for its users.
In Japan, Onitsuka Tiger rose as one of the biggest names in the sneaker industry. It was established in 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka, who branded it initially as Onitsuka Co. Ltd., with the hopes of raising the morale of the youth after the World War. Onitsuka Tiger initially produced just basketball shoes, eyeing the sport as the next big thing in Japan. It was unsuccessful at first, until it began adding engravings that resembled suction cups, which enabled players to achieve friction and accelerate on the playing court. By 1953, Onitsuka focused on producing running shoes, aiming to solve the runner’s problems of sustaining blisters during long runs while allowing the feet to “breathe.”
In 1977, Onitsuka joined forces with GTO and JELENK, its contemporaries at the time, and formed one of the most popular sports brands, ASICS.
An exciting journey
But it was the birth of Nike that picked up the pace. Bill Bowerman, a respected track and field coach from the University of Oregon, was a constant seeker of innovations that would improve the state of running: from experimenting on different track surfaces to rehydration drinks to improving the running shoe. Along with Phil Knight, he worked first as a major distributor of Onitsuka shoes in the US. Bowerman then used his connections with Onitsuka to come up with designs that would improve the shoes. He then founded Nike with fellow athlete Jeff Johnson, in 1971.
The Nike line adapted the internationally renowned swoosh, designed by Carolyn Davidson, as its symbol. It worked on innovations over time. In the 1980s, the brand launched Nike Air technology, which used pressurized pockets of air inside a flexible bag usually located at the midsole beneath the heel, forefoot, or both. The design helped reduce the force of impact whenever the wearer landed after a high jump, or a long, forceful stride. But what greatly helped in shooting Nike’s reputation up was choosing Michael Jordan as endorser also in the 1980s. Nike then started gaining prominence as a brand that values both style and performance technology.
Companies like Under Armour, Peak, among others, have also come to prominence, working on specialized features that boosted both form and function of the shoe, and, eventually, the performance of the person who wears it. Reebok, on the other hand, has continued to focus on their roots in fitness and style.
It’s interesting to note that such a simple item actually took centuries to develop, but only decades to transform into a big business. It has employed thousands, given birth to legends, and set the essence of sports ablaze.
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 15 No 3 2014.