In the sneaker game, and the wider, more generalized sphere of streetwear, nostalgia acts as both currency and market. Without nostalgia, there would be no resale economy of hoarded deadstock and bloated eBay auction earnings. Nostalgia also offers footwear manufacturers an insurance policy: why take a pricey gamble on a untested new design that might tank, when you can simply make a few cosmetic tweaks to a tried-and-tested favorite and watch the money roll in? It’s simply too easy a gambit to ignore, and in financial terms it must feel like playing a videogame with the cheat codes on.
But what does this retrospective rubbernecking mean for the future of sneaker design? As is usually the case when human beings find a way to hack a system, the inherent gluttony of our nature gets us lazy, and if you look at the stock of your average footwear store, they’re often dominated by decades-old silhouettes — Stan Smiths, Air Max 90s, Huaraches, Reebok Classics and the like — all of which collude to create a feeling of stagnation. The longevity of these examples is a testament to the immortality of their designs, but how can you stride forward with a head turned 180 degrees towards the past? Maybe it’s time that we asked: is nostalgia crippling sneaker design?
It’s a question that’s stuck out in my mind for the past couple of weeks, ever since I presented my fairly unpopular argument on why Nike’s Air Max 97 should never be reissued. In case you missed it, the tl;dr version basically boils down to this: the AM97 is such a complete embodiment of late ’90s design and aesthetic principles that so much of its value is derived from its context. Taking it out of that context weakens it, which is why it should stay where it is: in the past.
Going through the comments, I got the impression that readers generally didn’t share my concerns. Most fawned over the silhouette, pleading Nike for a reissue so they could snag a pair for themselves. I find this completely understandable, and as I stated multiple times, the AM97 is truly a great piece of design, but there’s something telling in the fact that people lust so much more disproportionately over a 20 year-old shoe as opposed to ones being created today. Unattainability surely plays a part – everyone likes to feel like they’re special, and they’ll take that feeling in any way that they can get it – but is nostalgia really that powerful of an urge? Or is it simply a case that modern sneaker silhouettes aren’t as good as those of the past? Does nostalgia give their designers a free pass?
In that aforementioned AM97 article, I used the Air Max 2015, its design and its comparative lack of fanfare as proof that Nike’s sneaker design is in a particularly underwhelming period right now. Sure, there was the inescapable, titanic success of the Roshe One, but that’s an anomaly in a market dominated by Huaraches, where Nike celebrates Air Max Day with the release of the Air Max Zero (whether or not that one is a genuinely vintage silhouette, or just a calculated marketing ploy is a discussion for another day), and a poll that gives voters the chance to revive their favorite deadstock silhouette. The Air Max 2015, like 2014’s Air Max Direct, and 2013’s Air Max Defy Run simply aren’t imaginative or good-looking sneakers. They’re not so thoroughly thought out like the Air Max 97, and as I mentioned earlier, I get the impression that nostalgia has made the Nike design team lazy.
Of course there’s no way to quantify these claims, but there’s reasoning to them: they’re hardly being pushed by a sense of urgency, are they? Nike isn’t a struggling company that needs to do something radically different to turn its fortunes around, it’s a global behemoth that raked in $30.6 billion in revenue for the 2015 fiscal year. Only a mere 5-10% of that revenue comes from the U.S. fashion and sneakerhead demographic (or so we were told by NPD's Matt Powell, an industry analyst) – a sizeable portion of whom are content with re-releases of age-old silhouettes in slightly-tweaked colorways. There's simply little pressure to do something new.
Tinker Hatfield, a living legend of modern design that sits up there with the likes of Dieter Rams and the Eames', hardly has that fiery hunger that drives creative inspiration. Is it any wonder why musicians typically create their greatest work when they’re young and struggling? Creativity is a lot like youth: it comes in one condensed, fleeting burst and then it’s gone forever. Tinker has had his moment. His legacy is secure and so is his future, because it doesn’t hinge on creating anything new. If sneakerheads weren’t so content in wallowing in nostalgia, maybe TH would find it in him to dig deeper, think harder, and conjure up a new footwear icon. Of course, it's not entirely clear how much actual designing Tinker does these days, but he's still a totemistic figure within the company. His mere presence no doubt casts a long shadow that can be impossible to escape, like Sir Alex Ferguson sitting in the Manchester United stands, watching his seemingly doomed successors struggle to fill his shoes. Sentiment and nostalgia makes it impossible to usher him through the door.
This sits in stark contrast to adidas, whose NMD line is arguably the silhouette of the moment right now. adidas is the challenger brand trying to gnaw away at some of Nike’s dominion of the market. To do that, it has to try something different if it hopes to shake the status quo. The NMD’s designers looked back through the adidas archive, taking elements from three mid-80s silhouettes: the Micro Pacer, the Rising Star and the Boston Super, before giving it a thoroughly modern update. I can’t say I’m a huge fan, but it’s something new, and consumers have responded to it. Not that adidas is entirely immune from the criticisms that I lobbed at Nike earlier – the NMD is an isolated instance of innovation, and if it weren’t for the resurgence of the Stan Smith, or Pharrell’s revival of the Superstar, maybe the German sportswear giant would pushed into expanding its innovative boundaries even further.
Or maybe I’m looking at this from the completely wrong angle. Maybe a sneaker’s true value can only be understood through the passage of time. Nike’s Air Presto and TN, both released roughly 15 years ago, are currently back on people’s feet after a long period of almost total anonymity. For many years Huaraches were effectively a relic, yet in 2014 you couldn’t avoid them if you tried. The fabled Air Max 97 may be adored now, but it’s difficult to gauge what the response was like on drop day unless you were only enough at the time to have a conscious awareness of it (which I wasn’t).
Nostalgia is ultimately retrospective; it’s an attachment that grows as the years and seasons pass and fade to memory. When we look at an age-old silhouette, do we see its design or its context within our lives – the people we’ve seen wearing it, the mythology that has grown around it through time? If that is the case, then a sneaker’s appeal doesn’t stem from its design but from a meaning that takes time to develop. Who knows, maybe the Air Max 2015 will be a bonafide great by 2030. If it is, make sure you pop back in 15 years time to watch me eat my words.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.