The Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit, “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” chronicles the evolution of the now commonplace footwear from a nearly unrecognizable version of the shoe to mid century signifier of youth and athleticism to highly-coveted collectors item, status symbol and cultural icon subject to haute couture designer and cutting-edge artist creative collaboration. It also covers the development of industrial and architectural design in relation to the shoe and the effects of social and cultural developments on who wore sneakers, and when and where they wore them. It’s also just a really cool, fun, good-looking exhibit the kids will dig, whether they absorb any of that or not.


photo: Brooklyn Museum/Jonathan Dorado

Sneak on in!
Originating at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto — where they know from shoes — “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” includes works (read: mostly sneakers) from Bata’s collection, the Kosow Sneaker Museum and the Northampton Museums and Art Gallery. You’ll also find pieces from the archives of all the big name manufactures such as Adidas, Converse, Nike, Puma and Reebok (and some little and forgotten ones), as well as kicks from private collections from the likes of Darryl “DMC” Daniels, sneaker guru Bobbito Garcia and Dee Wells of Obsessive Sneaker Disorder.

The exhibit also includes video clips featuring cultural watershed moments for sneakers, ranging from RUN-DMC talking about and performing “My Adidas” on Yo! MTV Raps, to Missy Eliott’s 2005 video for “Lose Control”, to the debut of designer Rick Owen’s “Vicious” Collection as modeled by step dancers performing in Adidas By Rick Owen’s running sneakers. Longer-form video pieces include excerpts from the forthcoming documentaries Jordan Heads  (dedicated to devotees of Nike’s Air Jordans) and Just For Kicks, which examines sneaker culture from the 1970s to 2004.


photo: Brooklyn Museum/Jonathan Dorado

History, Hip-hop, High Fashion
Organized into six sections, the exhibit highlights some of the earliest examples of the form from the early to mid-1800s (when a slip-on rubber shoe was more expensive than those made from leather) to the debut of the Converse All Star/Non Skid sneaker in 1917 and a 1920s Keds rubber-soled, canvas top shoe, when an increasingly industrialized society provided people with more leisure time and playing sports recreationally became a more common pursuit.

Additional areas of the show address the democratization of the sneaker, the evolution of consumer culture and celebrity endorsements, the synergies between hip-hop culture and basketball, and more. Everyone from Chuck Taylor, tennis player Jack Purcell and Knick Walt Frazier to RUN-DMC, Kanye West and legendary sneaker designer designer Tinker Hatfield get their deserved moments in the spotlight.


photo: Brooklyn Museum/Jonathan Dorado

Major Eye Candy (and Flashbacks) Ahead
Forget the history and contextulizing, this show has tons of cool stuff small museum patrons will love. (Admittedly, it’s for older kids, as toddlers are still getting up to speed on the whole “sneaker” and “contemporary culture” thing.) A few dozen sneakers, representing all kinds of developments and trends in sneaker design are encased in Plexiglass to behold, with explanatory text if you want or need it (i.e., the ultra-rare Nike Air Max LeBron 7 All Black sneaker is inspired by a lyric from Jay-Z’s “Run This Town,” and is a tribute to the rapper mogul and Lebron James, listing the achievements of the two men on the insoles. )

Highlights (and there are many) include: a shiny gold sneaker worn when Olympian Michael Johnson won his  20 gold medals at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta; artistic/trippy/fun works by Damien Hirst, Jeff Staple and Kanye West, and one of the original pairs of “My Adidas” from Run-DMC. Additionally, “Shoefitti” — AKA sneakers hanging from faux telephone wires — looms overhead, and you can read about the origins and interpretations of this tradition from both academic and personal perspectives.


photo: Brooklyn Museum/Jonathan Dorado

From Jordan, with Love
Yes, there is an entire section devoted to Air Jordans, its fans and the shoe’s impact. (For the uninitiated: the introduction of the Nike shoe in 1985, named after then-rookie Michael Jordan was a huge deal.) “Jordanheads” will be pleased to learn that the display of every Air Jordan resembles a shrine of religious relics.


Share Your Sneaker Story
One of the overarching themes of “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” is that the shoes are deeply personal items. Throughout the show, quotes from various notable people in the sneaker culture community relay the importance of the shoe to them, and visitors are encourage to share their “Sneaker story” as well on social media.  As people exit the exhibit, they are encouraged to share their own sneaker story — with words, an illustration, or both — on slips of paper at a large bulletin board. (Or, they can tweet it with the hashtag #sneakerculture.)

The Rise of Sneaker Culture
Through October 4, 2015
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Pkwy.
Crown Heights

Have you and the kids seen “The Rise of Sneaker Culture”? What did you think? Tell us in the comments below!

—Mimi O’Connor