HISTORY REPEATS Itself Story by Nick Santora
Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 27
They say that history repeats itself and nowhere is this adage more evident than in the sneaker world. All of us Sneaker Freaker readers who’ve been in the game for years have seen the progression of retros and re-releases over the past decade. We’ve all been able to relive our glory days through footwear-induced nostalgia, but as with everything in life, the OG memories are usually more satisfying than the attempts to recreate them. If we dig a little deeper and research the retro sneaker cycles of the past ten years, we learn that not only does history repeat itself, but the overall looks and styles have come back in almost the exact same chronological sequence as they originally occurred in the 80’s and 90’s. Let’s take a look back at some key dates and releases to illustrate my theory.
1987 – 1988: Style and technology have evolved and begin working off each other. Nike’s visible Air Max and Air Jordan II and III are released. Luxury athletic apparel also starts to trend, which allows smaller niche brands such as Avia, Etonic and FILA to become relevant in the tennis, running and basketball sneaker world.
1989 – 1991: Bright neon colors are incorporated into performance sneakers. Andre Agassi’s Challenge Court collection and Reebok Pumps like the Twilight Zone are two of the most recognizable examples. David Robinson’s Nike Pumps are another.
1992 – 1995: The flashy neon is replaced with toned-down and earthy outdoor looks. Trail Running, Gore-Tex and All Conditions Gear indicate a shift in attitude and style.
2003: Although the Nike Dunk was reintroduced five years earlier, 2003 marked the time when SB Dunks really started popping off and the notion of limited edition sneakers became dominant.
2005 – 2006: What began as a Nike thing at the end of the millennium paved the way for more diverse looks and brands. Vans Vault built momentum and Supra entered the market, debuting a new school metallic high top look that mixed skate with fashion and inspired a slew of imitators.
2007 – 2008: Bright and flashy sneakers like Bapestas and garish all-over printed streetwear arrived in mainstream retail outlets. Before this, most sneakerheads had to visit boutique stores for a piece of this lifestyle. Just as the bright trend was everywhere back at the end of the 80’s, it was now being repeated again on a commercial level.
Today: For the past few years we’ve seen an earthy heritage phase develop in sneakers that was essentially a response to chinos, flannel shirts and hirsute young men. This parallels neatly with the early 90’s, when many of us began wearing cargo pants, ACG, The North Face, POLO Sport, Columbia Sportswear and Patagonia. This was the time when most of my wardrobe was being bought at Eastern Mountain Sports and Army / Navy surplus stores, rather than the shopping mall.
But to tell this story properly, I have to share a little more about myself. Anyone who has been following my (Tumblr) blog can figure out that my formative years (ages 8-14) perfectly collided with the best era of sneakers and fly athletic apparel, which was 1985 – 1991. During those years, I was 100% totally consumed with sports. Every second that I wasn’t in school was spent watching, reading about or playing sports. When I wasn’t doing any of that, I was playing Tecmo Bowl on Nintendo, and even before that I was thrashing Dr. J vs Larry Bird on the Atari 7800. Where are my OG’s? You know you remember the janitor coming out to sweep up the shattered backboard glass.
So now that I’ve given you some context, let’s fast forward just a couple years to 1992. By this time I was still playing sports every day, but it was now more organized at Columbia High School. Fall was football, winter was basketball and spring was lacrosse. Now at age 14 my spare time was centered around girls. I wasn’t totally consumed or anything like that, but the point is that I began drifting from a wardrobe of professional and college team sports (in middle school), too one that was more appealing to the ladies (self-realization is the greatest attribute of CHS alumni). I did continue to mix in athletic fashion every day, but now the athletic brands were more connected with outdoor sports and activities. The North Face, New Balance, Patagonia, Merrell, Nike ACG and even Stussy (considered primarily a surf brand back then) was mixed with corduroy pants and flannel shirts.
Much of my wardrobe shift was also a reflection of my musical tastes and influences during those years. I was still really into hip hop in 1993, but my playlist consisted of A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets, as well as the Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head albums. This was also the time that I began going to live concerts, particularly the Grateful Dead and Phish. I never reached full-blown hippy or ‘Trustafarian’ status, so mellow out kind brother. I never made my own patchwork pants or blew glass pipes either, but I did (and still do) have an insane collection of live soundboard concert recordings. They used to be stored on Maxell XLII tapes but now live on around 10TB worth of hard drives. FLACs. Not MP3s.
The look I’m describing here wasn’t reserved only for hippie and grunge kids. There was a general shift in consciousness around this time that brought everyone out of the health clubs in the 80’s and into the great outdoors in the 90’s. Trail running emerged, which created sneakers such as the Mowabb and Escape from Nike and various adidas Torsion options for the back woods. New Balance was another brands who’s products and aesthetic blended into this category very nicely during this time.
Mixing Patagonia with a parking lot tour t-shirt and a pair of New Balances helped me fit in at places like the Wetlands in Tribeca. I was like Capadonna back then though because ‘every other day my whole dress code switched.’ I distinctly remember taking the train into New York City three hours prior to a Blues Traveler concert at Roseland in order to make stops at Union for vintage Clydes and adidas Campus (thanks to Beastie Boys and Butterfly from Digable Planets , I rocked the light blue suede Pumas). From Union I made my way to Stussy on Prince for a couple of fresh new tees.
For the past few years I’ve joked that ‘Brooklyn is the new Vermont’ with its beards and pork belly menu specials. What is so ironic is that the look I’m talking about is straight out of the mid-90’s-Amy’s Farm-blasting New England dorm rooms and smoke-filled Beacon Theater. Did I also mention these same 90’s hippy kids invented ‘kind bud?’ Curren$y and Wiz should pay a little respect to all the heads who held it down for all those years.
So let’s get back to the sneakers, because there is still the other side of the style spectrum’s parallels between then and now, which is very important. The main reason I personally adopted a more basic footwear style of canvas and suede New Balance runners and Merrell boots during that time was because 1993 – 1996 marked an era of (IMO) overly technical and bulky basketball styles. Let’s think about what was red hot at that time. Patrick Ewing’s own brand of kicks, Air Jordan 8, Kamikazes, Shaq Attaq, Shaqnosis, adidas Mutumbo and wait… these are the exact same sneakers making comebacks this year!
I have to give credit to Charles Barkley for starting the bulky ball trend in 1992 with the Air Force 180. This look was quickly solidified the following year by the Fab Five’s (now sophomore) Air Force Max with matching black socks and baggy shorts. At this time we also had trends like Streetball and shoes such as Nike’s Air Raid and the Reebok Blacktops. There was also a little thing that happened in the NBA that had the best player of all time retiring in the prime of his career. I’m not crediting Jordan for creating this new athletic aesthetic, but the void caused by his absence certainly opened up the doors for other brands to enter the market.
Reebok showed the most balls by signing Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Shawn Kemp, while another brand surprisingly emerged on the basketball scene thanks to some prime time endorsement deals that infused Italian luxury into professional basketball. FILA came with big ambitions and even bigger checks, and they began to sign high profile college players from the country’s most prestigious programs. During the 90’s, FILA had Grant Hill (Duke), Jerry Stackhouse (UNC), Jamal Mashburn (Kentucky) and Chris Webber (Michigan) inked to endorsement contracts.
By combining these players with some far-out-Kevin-Crowley-designed sneakers and legendary hip hop placement (Mr. Meth and 2Pac), the brand was able to make an impact in the urban market. This aesthetic was a little too strong for my own personal style back then, but it definitely helped define a moment in time that is being relived today through 90’s-era ball sneakers and a new generation of recording artists.
The combination of the general heritage trend mixed with bulky basketball kicks happening all over again at the exact same time is what inspired me to write this article. It seems like the heritage work-wear look is slowing down a little, but I can’t really see ‘heritage’ going out of style as long as it’s authentic. As with any trend that emerges, you have the originators and the imitators are never too far behind. There are a lot of American heritage brands that are simply being labeled and marketed as such while being produced in China, but that’s an article for another time and place.
When we look at the current leaders in basketball, there’s no question that Nike is still king, but the recent re-emergence of Reebok, FILA and even Ewing is something to keep an eye on. Will Nike have the balls to let converse release some of their brilliant basketball retros? Or will this fizzle out and become a short-lived fad? Who knows, but a quick look at recent retro history offers us the best indication of what the future holds.