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Design Museum to place spotlight on sneakers with new exhibition

By Danielle Wightman-Stone


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The Design Museum in London is launching its long-awaited exhibition focusing on sneakers this April, featuring designs by Nike, Adidas, Puma, Converse, Balenciaga, Comme des Garcons and Y3, Kanye West and A-Cold-Wall*.

‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’ will take visitors on a journey through the design process and uncover the icons and collaborations that have shaped one of the most universal design objects, bought and worn by millions of people worldwide every day, explained the Design Museum.

Ligaya Salazar, curator of ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’, said in a statement: “A footwear staple for style, performance and comfort wear, Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street reveals the role young people from diverse backgrounds have played in making individual sneakers into style icons and in driving an industry now worth billions.

“The exhibition also gives behind-the-scenes insight into new upcycling and sustainable design practices, unseen prototypes predicting the future of performance design, and streetwear and fashion collaborations that changed the face of the industry.”

The exhibition will be split into two sections, style and performance, and will showcase a behind the scenes look at the footwear phenomenon that has challenged performance design, inspired new youth cultures and shaken the world of fashion.

With more than 200 shoes on display, the exhibition will look at how iconic trainers have been adopted by social movements and youth cultures across the globe. From New York during the 1970s, where the basketball and hip-hop communities elevated the sneaker from sportswear accessory to cultural symbol through the likes of Clyde Frazier and Run-DMC to influential movements including the West Coast Skaters, the Casuals, Grime and the Bubbleheads in Cape Town.

The exhibition showcases sneakers originally designed for specific athletic activities such as the Converse All Star Chuck Taylor, the Puma Disc, and Nike Alpha fly Next%, to their cultural resonance across the globe, discovering how the shoe became the undisputed cultural symbol of our times.

Design Museum sneaker exhibition to feature more than 200 shoes

As well as the cultural significance of the sneaker, the exhibition will take a journey into the design process behind some of the most technically inventive sneakers in the world and discover the cutting-edge technology, innovative materials and performative power integral to this footwear style. From the iconic early Converse ‘Big 9’ and materials from basketball clinics run by Chuck Taylor in the 1950s to the record-breaking Nike ‘Alphafly NEXT%’ and self-lacing ‘Fit Intelligence’ shoe by Puma released last year.

The exhibition will also delve into the history of the sports shoe and the incredible designs developed to create more effective athletes through an exploration of eight design concerns.

There will also be a look at some of the most technically inventive shoes of today, including the Adidas ‘FutureCraft.Strung’ shoe-making robot and the world’s first biologically active shoes developed by MIT Design Lab and Biorealize for Puma.

In addition, visitors will see early experiments by Nike, such as the classic blue and yellow ‘Waffle’ sneaker, and several unseen prototypes including a shoe that breathes by using heat patterns from your foot created by the MIT Design Lab and Biorealize and the Reebok ‘Instapump Fury’, which was designed for an optimal fit.

Futuristic designs from the past and present will also be on display, such as the Adidas ‘Micropacer’, featuring an LCD microcomputer embedded in the tongue from the 1980s to the first ‘5 finger’ prototype shoe from Vibram that replicates the feeling of running barefoot.

There will also be a look at the collaborations that have shaped the sneaker phenomenon over the years from Michael Jordan and Run-DMC to Supreme and Kanye West, and early collaborations between streetwear boutiques and designers including the Atmos Air Max 1 Safari and the first Adidas and Yohji Yamamoto sneaker.

Visitors will also be able to relive high-fashion reinvention of a streetwear staple including sneakers by Balenciaga, Comme des Garcons and Y3, alongside how the streetwear staple infiltrated the catwalk through full looks from A-Cold-Wall* by Samuel Ross and Craig Green’s 2021 collection. There will also be a look at designers Sacai and Martine Rose who are taking design experimentation to new levels, through models such as the Nike x Sacai LD Waffle and Nike x Martine Rose Monarch.

StockX sponsors Design Museum’s ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’ exhibition

The exhibition will also examine the lucrative resale market that is currently valued at more than 6 billion US dollars through data visualisations from StockX. Sneaker sales continued to rise during 2020 and the Design Museum will uncover the surge of limited-edition products and collaborations reaching mass exclusivity including Colette, Sean Wotherspoon and Travis Scott with Nike, and Kanye and Pharell for Adidas.

This will sit alongside highlights from StockX including the most valuable sneaker release of 2020, the Jordan 1 Retro High Dior, the most hyped women’s sneaker release of 2020, the Jordan 4 Retro Off-White Sail, and the most traded of all time, the Yeezy 350 Zebra.

Derek Morrison, senior director of Europe at StockX, added: “We’re thrilled to be partnering with the Design Museum on this major exhibition about sneakers. The global sneaker resale market is experiencing massive growth, with an anticipated market size of over 30 billion US dollars by 2030 – and we’ve seen that first-hand on StockX.

“Sneakers make us feel connected to brands, people and cultural moments and they serve as a means of self-expression, whether you’re a collector or wearing them right out of the box. They also have the power to unlock economic opportunity, and we have a vibrant community of sellers ranging from students funding their education to sophisticated businesses selling thousands of pairs daily. The love for sneakers transcends age, gender and location, and no matter your background, you probably have a connection, memory, or story about your favourite pair.”

Sneaker exhibition to give insight into sustainable design, collaborations and cultural influences

The exhibition ends with a look at sustainability through three prominent themes: upcycling and repair, circular design and consideration of materials, with insight from designers working to make the industry more sustainable such as Stella McCartney, Helen Kirkum and Alex Taylor.

Design highlights will include plant-based sneakers from around the world from brands including Veja and Native Shoes, alongside how the ‘repair, remake, create’ philosophy is sweeping the fashion scene with customised designs from Helen Kirkum, Alexander Taylor in collaboration with Adidas, and the Adikoggs ‘Billy Bremner themed trainers’ inspired by the Leeds United footballer. The show culminates with the Adidas ‘Future.Craft Strung’ designed by Kram/Weisshaar, a shoe-making robot that pioneers a 3D knitting technology enabling it to produce full shoe uppers on the spot.

‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street’ opens on April 30 and runs until October 24, 2021, at the Design Museum in London.

Images: courtesy of Design Museum; Main image - Sneakers Unboxed artwork by Jack Harper; Second Image - Adidas FutureCraft.Strung shoe-making robot; Third Image - A-Cold-Wall x Nike Zoom Vomero +5 Solarised.

Design Museum