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Sneakers and their Subculture - The Three Stage History

March 13, 2021 4:00 PM
Sneakers and their Subculture - The Three Stage History

Hey sneakerheads! I have always been fascinated by the emergence of certain subcultures, especially those in the fashion industry. In many subcultures, social developments often contribute to fashion styles and streetwear, which are often linked to certain lifestyles. Sneaker history has a rich social base that goes against the mainstream and creates a culture where many can celebrate their individuality and creativity. In addition, technology and globalisation have had a major impact on the rise of sneaker developments.

In this post, I take you on a journey through history, starting in the 1970s. As with many trends, it often goes in waves or phases. This is also true for sneaker culture, its subcultures and their popularity.

But of course, sneaker culture has a long history in which many different brands and people have played a big role. That's why we can't describe all the brands and all their influences in this article, so we'll focus on Nike just for now.

NYC Bronx Sneakers

Stage one - New York, 1970s

If we want to look at the origins of the sneaker subculture in the United States, especially in New York, we first have to look at the social situation in NYC in the 1970s.

The birthplace of the first Sneaker Stage was the South Bronx, NY. In the 1970s, this was the neighbourhood most affected by poverty. On top of that, the 1970s are often seen as very negative years in New York's history. The city was socially and racially divided, the economy collapsed and racism was present in high intensity.

The economic collapse also increased social segregation, as most impoverished households were racial minorities, especially black families. Shaped by the circumstances of social division, hip-hop culture and also rap music found their way. Hip-hop, as a culture born in the ghetto, offered a family and was thus an answer to the social problems.

NYC History Bronx sneakers


Hip-hop culture was anti-mainstream and it thus offered a new space for this subculture. Hip-hop was a product of creativity, pride and self-determination. Components of hip-hop, which at the time was also partly to be understood as a lifestyle, included rap music and a particularly expressive style of dress. Here, sneakers also became part of the styles of rap musicians. Since hip-hop is directly linked to black culture, sneakers were also more likely to be associated with black people.

In the beginning, sneakers were never considered mainstream, only among OG sneakerheads were the hip kicks known. In the mid-1970s, sneakers were often worn in pristine condition. At the same time, prices were also rising. This made people want to keep their shoes in good condition for a very long time, to really do justice to their value.

"This trend was seen the world over; whether sneakers were initially worn for skateboarding, playing football or just wandering the streets, it was hip-hop culture that turned them into objects of desire. Just think back to Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” promo; it’s a much-cited example, but those box-fresh adidas Superstars had a lasting impact on the youth culture of the day.”

- Art and Sole: Contemporary Sneaker Art & Design.

Stage Two - The Post-Jordan Era of Sneaker Subculture 1985

As we move from stage one to stage two, we see that the sneaker subculture is finding its way more and more into the general public - the popularity is increasing. This also ensured that the competition between brands intensified. As a result, companies began to focus more and more on producing the latest sneaker designs in combination with the latest technologies.

In this technology competition, Nike was often the pioneer, producing kicks with cutting-edge features. Right from the start, in 1974, one of Nike's founders, Bill Bowerman, began experimenting by pouring rubber chemicals into his waffle iron to form the sole of a sneaker:

Nike Waffle Sneaker

Still a classic today by the way:


Nike Waffle Racer 2X

Available at 3 webshops
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Michael Jordan

The second phase also began with the release of the Nike Air Jordan 1 in 1985. These sneakers were of course named after the famous NBA basketball player Michael Jordan. Nike originally signed Jordan for 2.5 million dollars, which to their surprise resulted in a profit of 1.3 million dollars in the first year.

In 1984, MJ wore his own sneakers on the basketball court for the first time. However, these red and black shoes were banned by the NBA because they violated their colour rules. Nevertheless, he wore them three times. This rebellious act was celebrated by fans and sneaker collectors, which laid the foundation. Nike seized this opportunity and started a hype with their "Banned the NBA" commercials and paid easy Jordan's fine of 5,000 US dollars per game. There was no better advertising!

Michael Jordan Jordan 1

Stage Three - The Evolution of Smartphones in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, sneaker brands became even more aggressive in their technological development. In 2000, the Nike Air Woven was designed to look like a basket weave.

Nike decided to release the sneaker in Tokyo first, before releasing it in New York and London. In addition, each country had a different sneaker. This meant that you had to fly around the world or ask someone to ship them to you to get a different or more colours.

Nike Woven
size? and Nike Archives


However, the third stage came mainly with the flood of the internet as well as the development of smartphones in the 21st century. In the third stage, the trends that started in the second stage were accelerated due to the invention of the internet and smartphones in particular. Globalisation and the advancement of new technologies have also increased the worldwide spread of sneaker popularity with social media as a communication tool.

News about releases and purchase options increased worldwide and became more accessible. In addition, as we know, specific media such as Twitter and Instagram have had a big impact on creating trends and pushing releases that have gone viral worldwide. This also increased competition among sneaker enthusiasts, as they were now competing not only with their immediate surroundings, but also with the global community.

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We have come to the end of this journey through history, although current innovations will of course ensure that the future is not boring either. If you want to keep up to date with future releases or new ones, just download our App!