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Kicks : the great American story of sneakers
2018
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Author Notes
Nicholas K. Smith has worked as a reporter for the past ten years, covering a range of topics including stolen WWII art, melting glaciers, Austrian indie gamers, and the New York City mayoral election. He is a 2014 graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, where he was awarded the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. A native of Arizona, Nick now lives in Vienna, Austria with his wife and two children. www.nicholasksmith.com, @nicholasksmith
First Chapter or Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Nicholas Smith "It's gotta be the shoes." Most people have heard it, even if they can't remember the source: a 1989 commercial for the Nike Air Jordan IIIs. In the commercial, Spike Lee, playing his alter ego Mars Blackmon from the movie She's Gotta Have It , lists all the possible reasons Michael Jordan is "the best player in the universe." His dunks? asks Lee. No, Mars, says Jordan. His shorts? asks Lee. No, Mars, says Jordan. His bald head? asks Lee. No, Mars, says Jordan. His shoes? asks Lee. Jordan denies it, but Lee keeps circling back to the shoe guess. In the thirty-second ad, the word "shoes" is spoken ten times. Before the familiar swoosh appears onscreen, a cheeky disclaimer informs us that "Mr. Jordan's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Nike, Inc.," but everyone already knows the message here: "It's gotta be the shoes." Nike sold millions of Air Jordans through that ad campaign, and Lee's most famous line was bound for pop culture immortality. But the ad didn't work just because it was catchy and star- studded; it was also a clever update of an idea that most of us have lived with from a young age: the idea of magical shoes. Cinderella's glass slipper makes her a princess. Dorothy's ruby slippers not only transport her back to Kansas but keep the Wicked Witch of the West at bay. Puss-in-Boots' request for foot- wear helps him win legitimacy for his master. With his winged sandals Hermes can fly. The "seven-league boots" of European folklore let the wearer travel great distances in a single step. A young orphan's shoes compel her to dance in Hans Chris- tian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" and in the Grimms' version of "Snow White," the wicked stepmother dances herself to death in charmed red-hot iron heels. Fast-forwarding a few centuries, Lil' Bow Wow finds a pair of magic sneakers that let him play professional basketball in 2002's Like Mike , and in the Harry Potter series a teleporting "portkey" comes in the form of an old boot. And at the end of the first Sex and the City movie, the first thing Carrie Bradshaw uses in her new apartment-sized closet--a fairy tale for anyone familiar with Manhattan real estate--is the shoe rack. When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were collecting their folk- tales in the early eighteenth century, footwear sometimes did mean the difference between life and death, as well as between rungs of the social ladder. Without owning a reliable pair of boots, finding work was difficult; sturdy shoes gave the lower-class wearer the unmagical but useful ability not to starve to death. Until the mid-1800s, shoes were made entirely by hand in a long and costly process. The supply was always limited, and shoes were coveted highly enough to inspire generations of storytellers. Shoes may no longer mean the difference between starving and not, but they still have great symbolic power. It's embedded in our language: to understand each other we must "walk a mile" in someone's shoes. A guess about one's character will prove true "if the shoe fits." Someone irreplaceable has "hard shoes to fill." Someone may offer to "eat his shoe" if he's wrong. An uncomfortable reversal means that "the shoe is on the other foot." Before the inevitable, we wait for "the other shoe to drop." As objects, our contact with shoes is unusually intimate: shoes change, adjust, and warp to fit us like no other piece of clothing. Finding a worn-out vintage rock tee at a Goodwill store might be a hipster's treasure; finding a worn-out pair of sneakers is infinitely less so. Their soles both connect us to our environment and protect us from it. They can be either utilitarian or expressive or both, whatever we choose. Somewhere in these qualities is, maybe, the source of their appeal as, well, more than shoes. Which takes us back to Jordan and his Nikes. Ever since there have been sports stars to look up to, kids have played their heroes on the fields, courts, and sandlots. "I'm DiMaggio. I'm Elway. I'm LeBron." By pairing the superhuman Jordan with the Everyman Lee, the Nike commercials suggested that there was a way to bridge the gap--a hundred-dollar way, but a way nonetheless. It was a modern version of the old story: an ordinary kid could wear a pair of sneakers and jump like the Jumpman, just as a farm girl could put on a pair of red slippers to get home from the Land of Oz.   For a long time, sneakers weren't something I thought about. Growing up, they were just shoes you wore every day until they wore out. The first sneakers I can remember treating with any reverence were a pair of Nike Air Flight Turbulence I wore when I played basketball freshman year of high school. I bought them partly because they'd been advertised in a campaign featuring Damon Stoudamire, a rookie point guard for the Toronto Raptors whom I knew from his time with the Arizona Wildcats, the most popular college team in my hometown. I also bought them be- cause they were last year's model and retailed for $40 at the Nike outlet, a steal at a time when the latest Air Jordan sold for $150. I loved them, with their wavy black-and-white lines and familiar swoosh. For the duration of my freshman season I wore them only for practice and games, after which they went right back into the box. They might not have helped a lanky, uncoordinated fourteen-year-old score a career high of five points, but I sure felt like they did. The one time I wore them off court was when friends who had moved away from my small town came to visit. They had new haircuts, new glasses, a binder full of new CDs. I had my new shoes. It would be years before I again found that sneaker magic. Basketball had long since melted away and been replaced by distance running when I read Christopher McDougall's Born to Run , an ode to distance running that featured unforgiving 100-mile races, a colorful cast of "ultrarunners," punishing desert environments, and an indigenous Mexican tribe whose members seem to run forever in thin sandals. As a marathoner with recurring knee pain, I was interested in what McDougall had found to be a near constant among ultrarunners: minimalist footwear. The implicit promise of the book seemed to be that I could join their tribe and kiss knee pain good-bye by ditching my chunky Nikes. It had to be the shoes. I zeroed in on the then-popular Vibram FiveFingers, which looked as ridiculous as their name--like gorilla feet, with a separate compartment for each toe. But I was suddenly a true believer; I wasn't looking for sneakers anymore, I was looking for a spiritual conduit to the natural world, a connection with some evolutionary past of perfect endurance and form. Shoes shaped like feet seemed about right. I walked into a specialty running store and told the clerk what I was looking for, how the FiveFingers would instantly cure me of pain and allow me to run forever. The clerk broke the spell. He cautioned that plunging down from a big, chunky Nike down to a barely there slip-on was a recipe for creating joint pain, not ending it. I instead ended up walking out of the store with a pair of electric blue Brooks Pure-Connect, an ultralight shoe that still had some cushioning--and, unlike the FiveFingers, still resembled a sneaker. My new shoes made me feel different. Not just because of the way the Brooks sneakers were built (they gripped my midfoot in a way my previous Nikes hadn't) but also because they broke with my pattern of black, gray, or white shoes. For whatever reason, I realized, the all-blue shoes made me feel like a faster runner. Whether that was actually the case was beside the point.   No shoe is more variable than the sneaker. Whether you know them as sneakers, trainers, gym shoes, tennis shoes, joggers, or runners, almost everyone has owned a pair. Sneakers can help us stand out or blend in. They can be the item we build our outfits up from or an afterthought we slip on before running out the door. And every sneaker we wear says something about us in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I saw a glimpse of the many permutations of sneakers at the 2014 Boston Marathon. I had yet again missed out on qualifying for the race, but, being a marathon fan, I closely followed the broadcast on TV and online. One year after the terrorist bombing that had taken the lives of three people and injured hundreds of others, sneakers were the centerpiece of makeshift memorials at Copley Square near the site of the attack, draped over crowd barriers or carefully placed alongside more conventional offerings of flowers and handwritten notes. An exhibit in the nearby Boston Public Library artfully arranged running shoes collected from the previous year's memorial. Outside, high-tech racing flats were on the feet of tens of thousands of participants. Spectators lining the route wore a rainbow of basketball and tennis shoes. Sophisticated engineering and innovative soles allowed amputee athletes to compete. Along the 26.2-mile course, old shoes hung from telephone wires overhead. Athletic equipment, limb replacement, all-purpose fashion, memorial, artwork: in a century and a half of existence, sneakers have become one of our most quietly ubiquitous cultural objects. Sneakers were born at the meeting of the Industrial Revolution and its unlikely by-product, increased leisure time. They grew as sports began to organize. They helped US soldiers train for World War II. They evolved with fashion and consumer culture. They defined the image of both the suburban teenager and gang culture. They appeared in song lyrics at the birth of hip-hop and the were part of the uniform of young punks and aging rock stars alike. They helped create the celebrity athlete and became a universal symbol of globalization. Presidents have worn them, and so has everyone else. The history of sneakers is, in a sense, the recent history of the United States. So how did we get here? Excerpted from Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers by Nicholas Smith All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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Trade Reviews

  New York Times Review

LEAVE IT TO A SNEAKER historian to note that when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, they stepped up to the podium shoeless, each sprinter carrying a single Puma Suede. (The gesture was meant to symbolize black poverty.) In "Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers," Nicholas Smith is continually freezing such iconic moments and zooming in on the overlooked footwear. We learn that Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, the British Olympians memorialized in the 1981 movie "Chariots of Fire," were shod by Joseph William Foster, whose grandsons went on to start Reebok. And that Jesse Owens won his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin games in a pair of track spikes courtesy of the brothers Rudolf and Adi Dassler, the future founders of Puma and Adidas, respectively. The Dassler brothers' role in Owens's triumph over the Übermenschen is, however, somewhat diminished by the fact that they also outfitted the German team and had belonged to the Nazi Party since 1933 - and sold soccer cleats called "Blitz" and "Kampf." But mostly the story of sneakers is, as Smith's subtitle suggests, an American one: of humble origins and unapologetic success, of self-expression through consumerism and association with celebrity, of a product being put on a pedestal and a brand name serving as artist's signature. The boom was fueled by a series of fitness crazes, beginning with "pedestrian fever" in the mid-19th century, when spectators filled New York City's Madison Square Garden to watch a six-day walking race; followed shortly thereafter by the vogue for croquet, the first sport to necessitate a rubber-soled shoe; "sidewalk surfing," better known as skateboarding, in the 1960s; jogging in the 1970s; aerobics in the 1980s; and "cross-training" in the 1990s. "Kicks" is filled with interesting trivia - Plimsolls are named for the horizontal stripe used to judge a ship's seaworthiness; the exposed bubble on the Nike Air Max was inspired by the Pompidou Center in Paris - but it relies too much on contemporary sources. Smith mentions in passing that Michael Eugene Thomas, the killer in the horrific 1989 case that prompted the Sports Illustrated cover story "Your Sneakers or Your Life," went on to commit a series of non-sneaker-related murders, yet presents the original media narrative at face value. He recounts the controversies surrounding the slavelike working conditions at overseas contract factories, but has little to say about the industry's environmental impact. Smith is not a "sneakerhead" himself, and "Kicks" is not for the initiate. But there is enough material on the cult of the sneaker to satisfy most curious outsiders. The modern era began in 1985: Year 1 in the sneakerhead calendar. The "Buttfaces," as Nike's executives called themselves, decided to let their roughly 120 N.B.A. sponsorships expire and bet everything on one promising rookie named Michael Jordan, based largely on a single crowd-pleasing N.C.A.A. title-winning jump shot. In a preseason game, Jordan was fined $1,000 for violating the league's dress code - a steal, publicity-wise - but the offending article was a pair of Air Ships, not Air Jordans, as Smith suggests. "If kids out there are into the new sneakers, that's cool," Mike D of the Beastie Boys is quoted as saying to MTV's "House of Style" in 1992. "We just lean toward the classic, functional design." (In this case, the "deadstock" Adidas Campus.) The group kept a "sneaker pimp" on the payroll to root around the stockrooms of sporting goods stores for such unworn relics of the old school. "You gotta find them, like records," his bandmate Ad-Rock said. "It's like a hobby." The Beasties represented the classicist strain of sneaker collecting, which had by then entered its rococo phase. The "Made in Italy" Air Jordan II, released in 1986, featured faux-lizard leather detailing and cost a "then-unheard-of" $100. Today, limitededition models like the Supreme x Nike Air Foamposite 1 retail for hundreds, and trade for thousands on the billion-dollar secondary market. Meanwhile, at Puma, the mantle of creative director has passed just last month from Rihanna to Jay-Z. Soon the finer auction houses will have credentialed experts on hand to authenticate Dunks of dubious provenance and appraise heirloom Yeezys. ? ASH CARTER is a senior editor at Esquire.
Summary
When the athletic shoe graduated from the beaches and croquet courts of the wealthy elite to streetwear ubiquity, its journey through the heart of American life was just getting started. In this rollicking narrative, Nicholas K. Smith carries us through the long twentieth century as sneakers became the totem of subcultures from California skateboarders to New York rappers, the cause of gang violence and riots, the heart of a global economic controversy, the lynchpin in a quest to turn big sports into big business, and the muse of high fashion. Studded with larger-than-life mavericks and unexpected visionaries--from genius rubber inventor, Charles Goodyear, to road-warrior huckster Chuck Taylor, to the feuding brothers who founded Adidas and Puma, to the track coach who changed the sport by pouring rubber in his wife's waffle iron--- Kicks introduces us to the sneaker's surprisingly influential, enduring, and evolving legacy.
Table of Contents
Prologuep. 1
1The Father of Inventionp. 7
2Peach Baskets and Tennis Setsp. 23
3Johnny Basketballseedp. 35
4War and Brothersp. 47
5Buildermanp. 61
6Swooshp. 75
7Courting Stylep. 89
8Everyone is Doing Itp. 103
9Meanwhile, on the West Coastp. 117
10Let's Get Physicalp. 133
11Style and Flowp. 145
12His Airnessp. 159
13Mars and Mikep. 173
14Battle of the Brandsp. 185
15Sneaker crime and Punishmentp. 203
16I, Sneakerheadp. 217
17Back at it Againp. 235
Epiloguep. 253
Notesp. 259
Acknowledgementsp. 297
Photo Insert Creditsp. 300
Indexp. 301
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