Preview: Sneakers Unboxed – Studio to Street at Design Museum

H E R O ( )

The Design Museum’s new exhibition, Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street, is dedicated to the trainer for its iconography, mythology and manufacture. Absolutely London has a preview

By Eve Herbert

Trainers have been adopted by social movements and youth cultures across the globe. In 1970s New York, basketball and hip-hop communities elevated the sneaker from sportswear accessory to cultural symbol through the likes of Clyde Frazier and Run-DMC.

An exhibition dedicated to the trainer opens this month at the Design Museum. Showcasing more than 200 shoes alone, it looks at various influential movements including the West Coast Skaters, the Casuals, Grime and the Bubbleheads in Cape Town.


Starting in Tokyo, the tipping point came with early collaborations between streetwear boutiques and designers including the Atmos Air Max 1 Safari and the first Adidas and Yohji Yamamoto sneaker. Explore the key small retailers around the globe who were at the heart of the beginnings of sneaker culture, such as Footwork, Reed Space in New York and Patta in Amsterdam. Following the explosion of commercialisation, the exhibition also questions if collaborations are being developed for the love of sneakers or for commercial benefit.

Sneaker sales continued to rise during 2020; uncover the surge of limited-edition products and collaborations reaching mass exclusivity including Colette, Sean Wotherspoon and Travis Scott with Nike, and Kanye and Pharell for Adidas, as well as some highlights from StockX including the most valuable sneaker release of 2020, the Jordan 1 Retro High Dior; the most hyped women’s sneaker release of 2020, the Jordan 4 Retro Off-White Sail; and the most traded of all time, the Yeezy 350 Zebra.

Relive past collections and see how the streetwear staple infiltrated the catwalk through full looks from A-COLD-WALL* by Samuel Ross and Craig Green’s 2021 Collection. Crossing the boundaries of fashion, designers such as Sacai and Martine Rose are taking design experimentation to new levels, through models such as the Nike x Sacai LD Waffle and Nike x Martine Rose Monarch.

Sneakers Unboxed A C O L D W A L L X Converse Chuck Taylor Lugged
A-Cold-Wall* X Converse Chuck Taylor Lugged

Take a journey into the design process behind some of the most technically inventive sneakers in the world and discover the cutting-edge technology, innovative materials and performative power integral to this footwear style. From the iconic early Converse ‘Big 9’ and materials from basketball clinics run by Chuck Taylor in the 1950s, to the record-breaking Nike ‘Alphafly NEXT%’ and self-lacing ‘Fit Intelligence’ shoe by Puma released last year, unveil the true history of the sport shoe and the incredible designs developed to create more effective athletes through an exploration of eight design concerns.

Expect to see early experiments by Nike, such as the classic blue and yellow ‘Waffle’ sneaker. Stretching the bounds of innovation, the exhibition also features a number of unseen prototypes including a shoe that breathes by using heat patterns from your foot created by the MIT Design Lab and Biorealize and the Reebok ‘Instapump Fury’, which was designed for an optimal fit.

Visitors will be immersed in futuristic designs from the past and present. Explore the emergence of sneaker-tech in the 1980s with the Adidas ‘Micropacer’, featuring an LCD microcomputer embedded in the tongue, to even more controversial designs that question the formation of footwear, such as the first ‘5 finger’ prototype shoe from Vibram that replicates the feeling of running barefoot.

Adidas Future Craft Strung Shoe Making Robot
Adidas Future Craft Strung Shoe Making Robot

Given that trainer soles are lasting in landfills for up to 1,000 years, the exhibition ends with a look to more sustainable futures through three prominent themes: upcycling and repair, circular design and consideration of materials. Unearth plant-based sneakers from around the world from brands including Veja and Native Shoes, then learn more about the ‘repair, remake, create’ philosophy sweeping the fashion scene with customised designs from Helen Kirkum, Alexander Taylor in collaboration with Adidas, and the Adikoggs ‘Billy Bremner themed trainers’ inspired by the Leeds United footballer. The show culminates with the adidas ‘Future.Craft Strung’ designed by Kram/Weisshaar, a shoe-making robot that pioneers a 3D knitting technology enabling it to produce full shoe uppers on the spot.

The exhibition artwork, featuring the footprints of popular sneakers, has been created by London designer Jack Harper. Applying paint onto the base sole of a Nike Air Force shoe, Adidas Stan Smith, Converse All Star Chuck Taylors and the Van Classic shoe, the artwork experiments with differing amounts of force to produce impactful relief prints.

Sneakers Unboxed opens 18 May 2021 – tickets on sale now; designmuseum.org

Like this? Check out our review of Blow Up at Iconic Images Gallery

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