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A long time ago—before sneaker companies had the marketing clout to spend millions of dollars sponsoring telecasts of the Super Bowl; before street gangs identified themselves by the color of their Adidas; before North Carolina State's basketball players found they could raise a little extra cash by selling the freebie Nikes off their feet; and before a sneaker's very sole had been gelatinized, Energaired, Hexalited, torsioned and injected with pressurized gas—sneakers were, well, sneakers.
They were flimsy things, canvas on the top and rubber on the bottom. The lowtops came in white or blue. The hightops came in white or black. They were all made in the U.S.A., and you could call them tennis shoes if you wanted, even if you didn't play tennis. The older and rattier they were, the better. You kept them until they wore out, or until your mother or a roommate threw them out, for there was nothing in the world quite like the smell of an old pair of canvas sneakers—it could overpower the stench from the bottom of a birdcage.
No worries. For less than $15, you could buy another pair exactly the same as your last pair, because year after year sneakers didn't change. Sneakers weren't slaves to fashion. They weren't used for making statements. The only statement you made by wearing your sneakers was that you were going to hack around all day, and you were going to have to wash your socks afterward.
That was a long time ago, before the kids of the baby boom launched the fitness boom and, simultaneously, the yuppie-consumer boom, creating the sneaker boom, which has caused a shortage of floor space in closets all over America.
I just wanted everyone to remember his P.F. Flyers, Converse All Stars and U.S. Keds.
No doubt about it, sneakers have improved. Today they are cushioned by various space-age technologies and have arch supports and waffled soles to allow the foot to exert its natural torque. Did you know your foot had torque? Very scientific stuff, this modern sneaker business.
Virtually all sneakers are now made in the Far East—South Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia—after being designed in the U.S., Japan or West Germany. Flexibility, stability, cushioning—those are the things that podiatrists and orthopedists look for in a modern sneaker. To that foundation, the marketing gurus must add something called attitude. Nike's newest Air Jordan sneaker, for example, due out this spring, will have a molded collar that was inspired by the contours of the Bat-boot—which Nike designed for the hit movie Batman—and a row of little red flames. That's attitude. If those shoes were playing in a theater near you, no toe under 17 years old would be admitted unless accompanied by a big toe.
As for the consumer, he wants everything: fashion, support, attitude, plus a perfect fit. Money is apparently no object. "Price levels meet resistance only when the product doesn't work," says Reebok's chairman, Paul B. Fireman, whose Pump model went on the market for $170 last Thanksgiving weekend and has sold like hotcakes.
The modern sneaker is constantly evolving in its search for perfection, as everyone who has recently tried to replace his old worn-out sneakers knows. If your favorite sneaker model is more than three years old, it's probably no longer around. Sneaker fashion and technology march on. Sneaker loyalty is trodden into the dust.
Specialization is the sneaker buzzword of the 1990s. Today, sneakers are made for every known activity, in colors God never thought to put in the rainbow. (How about money-green?) Reebok alone has 175 models in 450 colors and patterns, and Nike offers an even larger selection, with a separate line of sneakers for each of 24 different sports and a total of 300 models and 900 styles. There are sneakers designed for walking, for cycling, for hiking and for aerobics. There are even sneakers for boardsailing—laceless bootie-like things called Aqua Socks. If you want to give your friends some laughs, just try playing touch football in Aqua Socks.