With streetwear, athleisure and sports lifestyle brands ascendant, footwear now reigns as the most powerful category in the Millennial-driven online luxury market. Premium sneakers are ubiquitous on the feet (and social media feeds) of star athletes, musicians, celebrities and tastemakers around the world, while exclusive colorways and high-profile collaborations and lines by talents as varied as Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Rei Kawakubo and Tom Sachs fuel a multi-billion dollar global sneaker resale market that is expected to grow exponentially over the coming decade.
Just how did the humble athletic shoe go from the basketball courts and skate parks to high fashion runways and auction houses? First invented in the 1860s for croquet and tennis, sneakers were long associated with function over fashion, and did not achieve widespread appeal until the latter half of the 20th century. When the jogging and aerobics craze of the 1970s ushered in a new and more inclusive era of athleticism – one in which fitness was fun and anyone could be an athlete – sneakers began to gain traction as a fashion statement.
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Their defining moment, however, did not come until 1984, when Nike signed basketball rookie Michael Jordan to an unprecedented $500,000 a year endorsement deal. With the rising star now sporting the brand’s sneakers on the court, and Jordan’s black and red Air Ships notoriously violating the dress code (an act of rebellion that Nike savvily exploited in their Air Jordans campaign), their shoes became symbolic not only of Jordan’s exceptional talent, but of a willingness to challenge authority. Nike Air Jordans debuted in stores the following year to whirlwind success, and modern sneaker collecting was born.
Nevertheless, sneaker collecting remained a niche interest until the dawn of the digital age, when the advent of online marketplaces made possible a robust and wide-reaching secondary market. Today, rare and coveted pairs sell for many times their retail value, leading to ever more pedigreed collaborations: luxury fashion houses like Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, musical artists from Pharrell to Drake to Eminem, and even contemporary fine artists including KAWS, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami have released novel interpretations of the sneaker.
In 2019, Sotheby’s made history with its first-ever rare sneaker auction, featuring automatically lacing Nike Mags that recalled the ones worn by Marty McFly in the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II, rare designs from Kanye West’s Yeezy collaboration with Adidas and other iconic shoes. The crown jewel of the collection, a pair of Nike “Moon Shoes,” sold for $437,500 – a record since broken by a pair of Michael Jordan’s game-worn autographed Air Jordan 1s, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2020 for $560,000. Whether pursued as a status symbol, investment vehicle or for pure passion, one thing is clear: sneaker culture is here to stay.