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From Keds to Designer Kicks: The History of the Sneaker

The sneaker is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and that’s no small feat! Like other groundbreaking inventions, the sneaker started out small and evolved to the point where we can’t imagine life without it. We no longer rely on them for practicality alone; rather, we have reached the era of the designer sneaker.

  • 1844
    You could say that sneakers would never have been possible without Charles Goodyear’s patent on vulcanization, a process that allows rubber to mold to a variety of materials, including fabric. Thus, the rubber-soled shoe was born.
  • 1916
    The United States Rubber Company released Keds, the first mass-produced shoe to be marketed as a “sneaker.” The brand advertised the sneaker as a shoe that would allow the wearer to do all the strenuous activity that a leather sole couldn’t handle.
  • 1917
    Iconic shoe company Converse introduced their All Star basketball shoe, which was the world’s first high top sneaker. The extension of the canvas all the way around the ankle was meant to provide the same support as a boot while being lightweight for easy movement.
  • 1924
    Adi Dassler founded Adidas in Germany, focusing primarily on soccer and running shoes. Adidas soon became the most popular athletic apparel brand in the world.
  • 1950s
    Sneakers first appeared on the streets as the emerging counterculture embraced their lack of formality. James Dean and Marlon Brando sported sneakers in their films, perpetuating the “coolness” of the nontraditional shoe.
  • 1970s
    By the 70s, dozens of sneaker brands had established themselves in the casual footwear industry, including Nike, Vans, Reebok, and Puma. Sneakers became specialized for various sports and athletic activities. For the first time, footwear technology used physiological science to create ergonomic designs that provided extra comfort for the wearer.
  • 1984
    Nike introduced the Air Jordan I. These iconic basketball shoes, designed in collaboration with superstar Michael Jordan, were against NBA regulation because of their color scheme: red and black. Every time Jordan stepped onto the court wearing his shoes, he was fined $5,000. Air Jordans became an international sensation, which further established the emerging “sneakerhead” culture.

Sneakers only grew in popularity in the decades following the 80s. Today, sneakers come in a huge variety of styles. In fact, many models of designer sneakers are not even considered athletic shoes at all. From suede slip on sneakers to sneakers you can wear with suits, designer sneakers introduce to men’s fashion a whole new world of possibilities.

Even the world’s most highly regarded fashion houses are manufacturing sneakers. Prada, originally known for excellent leather craftsmanship, extended their product range to include footwear in 1983. They now make sneakers.

Gucci grew out of a luggage company founded in Florence in 1921, but after debuting their famous loafer in 1953, they became a staple in the designer shoe industry. They, too, now sell sneakers.

Our 21st-century sneaker craze rose to a whole new level with the debut of fine Italian leather sneakers. In 2013 Italy’s footwear exports increased 2.5% in volume and 5.6% in value, reaching 220 million pairs exported across the globe.