When you think of sneaker culture, what do you picture? Likely it’s a scene where bunch of guys are crowded around some classic kicks. Sure, sneaker culture may revolve around shoes originally designed for the boys, but Reebok has a particular shoe in its archive that’s not just a classic statement sneaker—it’s time-tested, ladies only silhouette that’s made the boys envious for over three decades. Allow us to reintroduce you to the Reebok Freestyle.
Originally released in 1982, the Reebok Freestyle was a major leap forward not just for female footwear, but for of-the-era athletic performance. Tapping into the aerobics craze that swept the early to mid 1980s, the Freestyle was one of the first athletic shoes created exclusively for women. This detail is especially important, giving a then-underserved ladies market the option to express their creativity with their footwear, and—by extension—empower them to pursue both their athletic and personal ambitions in style. With its garment leather construction (shout out to those cult favorite toe box creases), highly flexible split innersole and studio-ready terry cloth lining, the Freestyle managed to hit a sweet spot between style and substance right from the beginning.
By 1983, the Freestyle Hi hit shelves, the first version to incorporate the silhouette’s now signature double velcro straps. Athletically, it was a detail that provided ankle support for those rocking the Freestyle during their workouts. Aesthetically, it was a style statement for those flexing their Freestyles on the sidewalk. As expected, the Freestyle line took off like a rocket, making up more than half of Reebok’s sales by 1984. This popularity hit another spike in 1986, following the launch of the “Life is Not a Spectator Sport” ad campaign. By encouraging women to be active participants in the rapidly expanding world of wellness, health and fitness, Reebok was simultaneously generating a new…well, generation of female sneaker fans.
Of course, the Freestyle (both in its OG low top-with-gum sole and in its more widely known double strap high top iterations) was prominently featured in this new initiative. Throughout the 80s, Reebok would continue to release new looks for the Freestyle, with some of the brightest colorways—an ad from the era highlights versions in Banana Yellow, Electric Blue and Bubblegum Pink—becoming cult classics in their own right. Thinking back on these high-vis colorways, its a reminder that the Freestyle has always been a canvas for personal style and creativity. As Reebok representative (and long-time sneakerhead) Teyana Taylor explained, “The 5411’s really opened the door for creativity in women’s fashion, it gave permission for sneakers to be feminine.”
Even though the Freestyle cemented itself as an icon as early as the mid-80s, its pop culture status—along with its equally iconic nickname—were established thanks to New York City. As a pedestrian-centric city, it’s no secret that most New Yorkers treat their favorite sneakers like luxury vehicles. The Reebok Freestyle was no exception to this mentality. With an easily recognizable silhouette, fans flocked to the sneaker for both its all-day comfort and sidewalk stunting style. Its popularity within the city only helped bolster its reputation, with people all across the five boroughs referring to the Freestyle as the “5411”—a nod to its $54.11 price tag after applying New York state sales tax. Thanks to rappers like Redman and DMX dropping references to the 5411 in their lyrics, the Freestyle’s second name ascended from the streets and into the studio. It wasn’t long before the city’s unique nickname stuck to the silhouette, becoming as well-known as the Freestyle sneaker itself.
Today, as the Freestyle celebrates its 35th anniversary, it continues to represent the contemporary mix of hip-hop and high fashion, streetwear and statement style. With a New Yorker like Teyana Taylor representing the next wave of Freestyle ambassadors, this Reebok classic has found new life for yet another generation of influencers and innovators. You may not be able to cop the Freestyle at its equally classic price (except, of course, on special occasions), but let’s be honest: the Freestyle’s 35 year impact is much greater than $49.99, plus tax.
In celebration of this classic high top, Reebok’s throwing a major party at its Union Square location. Kicking things off with an appearance from Teyana Taylor from 4 to 6pm on May 4, the celebration continues with an all-day event starting at 10 am on May 5. With exclusive gear, onsite photobooth, and hyper-limited, Teyana Taylor-signed sneaker giveaway, there’s never been a better time to free your style with the Reebok Freestyle. In the meantime, head over to Reebok’s to scoop up your own pair of this cultural classic.
- Photography: The History Project / Reebok