Inside Sneakers Unboxed: exhibition celebrating footwear culture kicks off in London

The new show at the Design Museum traces its evolution from a humble sports shoe to an auction record-breaker

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London's Design Museum opened a new exhibition dedicated to trainer culture.

Despite a pandemic-related delay, Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street has finally thrown open its doors, to show off the best of the latest kicks and track its evolution from humble sports shoe to an auction record-breaker.

Divided into different zones, the exhibition explores the multi-layered appeal of trainers, such as the constant innovations that have kept customers coming back for more.

Here, visitors can explore the earliest days of trainer-dom via the 1919 Converse Chuck Taylor All Star to the revolutionary Reebok Pump of 1989, that offered a custom fit with its inflatable tongue, and see how cutting-edge solutions have been applied to mass-market footwear.

A display wall at the Design Museum, showing the Nike Kyrie 2, designed in 2016 by basketball player Kyrie Irving. Courtesy Design Museum
A display wall at the Design Museum, showing the Nike Kyrie 2, designed in 2016 by basketball player Kyrie Irving. Courtesy Design Museum

There is the Vans Half Cab, created almost by accident when pro-skater Steve Caballero cut down his sneakers for extra flexibility, and the latest iteration of the Nike Air, a space-age shoe from 1987 that was inspired by The Centre Pompidou, now called the Air Zoom Alphafly Next%.

Unveiling the next stage in trainer history, the exhibition is even showcasing a shoe-building robot, built by Kram/Weisshaar for adidas.

Visitors can see the efforts going into sustainability, spearheaded by the likes of Alexander Taylor, Stella McCartney and Helen Kirkum, through collaborations with innovative companies such as Bolt Thread and Parley for the Oceans.

There is a section dedicated to how high-end fashion labels have adopted the trainer, from its first appearance at Hermes, through to names such as Balenciaga, Comme des Garcons, A-Cold-Wall*, Craig Green, Versace and Y-3.

To keep things interactive, Snapchat has even created a filter to allow visitors to virtually try on shoes at the London show.

"At the Design Museum, we're always looking for innovative ways to reshape the museum experience. In partnering with Snapchat we've been able to reimagine that whole process by extending the Sneakers exhibition into people's phones and even on to their feet," said Tim Marlow, chief executive of the Design Museum.

Artwork arrives as visualisations and graphics from the likes of New York designer, artist and photographer Jamel Shabazz; Grace Ladoja MBE, the founder of Metallic Inc cultural studio and manager of grime star Skepta; and illustrator Reuben Dangoor.

Inevitably, the show explores the many tie-ups that have helped shape the trainer scene, from Michael Jordan partnering with Nike, rappers Run DMC joining forces with adidas to promote the shell-toe Samba shoe they made famous, and the extraordinary rise of Kanye West's Yeezy, so popular that each "drop" sells out in less than a minute.

That the show is sponsored by StockX, the Detroit resale site for trainers, also tells its own story.

For a company that has helped build a $6 billion sneaker resale market (according to a 2019 report by Cowen Equity Research), it seems somehow fitting that it is now funding a museum, rather than the other way around.

With the expansion of trainer culture and desirability, StockX has been catapulted from an obscure provider to a platform valued at a cool $3.8bn earlier this year.

As the market grows, and ever more customers scramble to secure the latest arrivals, the world of trainers is growing beyond anyone's wildest expectations, with the resale market alone expected to hit close to $30bn a year by 2030, according to Cowen analysts.

Of course, all the hype and frenzy that defines this unique and fascinating footwear is only aided by the recent $1.8 million realised at auction for a 2008 prototype pair of Kanye West Nike Air Yeezy 1s, proving that trainers have shifted permanently from streetwear to serious collectible.

The exhibition runs until Sunday, October 24.