The sneaker industry in the US is more than a 22 billion dollar business with big contenders such as Nike, Adidas and Puma, just to name a few. While other forms of footwear — high heels and sandals for example — date back to the 17th century, sneakers, on the other hand, only date back to the mid 19th century. It is hard to imagine a world where this multipurpose invention did not exist. From sports to fashion to comfort, there is always a reason to put on a pair of sneakers.

The Rise of The Sneaker Culture is an exhibition that walks you through the development of the sneaker. You will see some of your favorite brands first products and how they evolved into the sneakers you just had to have growing up! The exhibit does an amazing job of taking the audience from the beginning to current day of sneakers.

We are so happy and proud to say that The Rise of The Sneaker Culture exhibit has made its way to the Brooklyn Museum! It is up and running from July 10th to October 4th. We at EXP not only had the opportunity to see the exhibit but we also had the opportunity interview the brilliant head curator of The Rise of The Sneaker Culture, Elizabeth Semmelhack!

EXP: How did your career start at the Bata Shoe Museum?
Elizabeth:  It started because there was an opening for the head curator. I saw that the Museum had a really interesting collection and a very wide-ranging mission statement. I’m very curious so I thought that I would be able to ask all the questions that I was interested in and find a pair of shoes to start with.

EXP: How did you connect your art history background to shoes and sneakers?
Elizabeth: I mean I did study art history, but I think what I liked about art history was looking at objects that told me something about the time in which they were made. Even when I was studying I wasn’t so interested in the unique object made by the the unique individual to be purchased by one person, I was interested already in things that were being mass produced.

I was studying Japanese prints and I realized later what I like about looking at mass produced items, is that mass produce items are meant to be consumed at the moment that they are made. So no sneaker designer no shoe designer is trying to make a platonic ideal of a shoe. They are trying to make a shoe that will speak to the immediate moment.  What I find interesting about looking at these items is they help take a pulse of a society as opposed to exploring the deep feelings of one person.  I’m more interested in looking at how society functions. I think that mass produced items such as footwear allow for really interesting avenues into trying to gain insight into a society.

EXP: It’s meant for you to wear live and feel…
Elizabeth:  And it has so much meaning. Like someone who wears Converse is saying something different than someone who is going to put on a pair of Jordans that day.  And so how can we read those differences? And why can we read those differences?

EXP: That’s interesting! I mean when you look at it art, has a certain connotation to it. But sneakers and heels are art…
Elizabeth: I think I’m more provocative question is: Is art art? I mean is it simply that humanbengs make stuff and that we don’t need to divide high from low or popular from esoteric. I think that it’s interesting to think about the fact that human beings make and human beings consume and what are the motivations for that.

EXP: What is the most gratifying part of your job?
Elizabeth:  The most gratifying part of my job is literally when I figure something out. I teach as well and I have been asked what is my teaching philosophy. I realize that I think that learning, which is what I get to do all day long, is like hearing a good joke and teaching is being a good joke teller. What I mean by that is that when you’re trying to figure something out you’re sort of following crumbs, right? It’s like someone telling you a man walked into a bar…a joke and you get a little piece here and then in the end they give you the punch line and you’re like oh my god I get it! I feel like that is what my life is on a continual basis. So following the crumbs and then figuring it out and then getting that sensation of oh my god I get it — and that is extremely satisfied.

EXP: So with sneakers what is it that you’re trying to get?
Elizabeth: Well I think that it is interesting sneakers with maybe the exception of Crocs are the most recent form of footwear ever invented. You know sandals date back to antiquity, high heals date back to the early 17th century, platform shoes date back to antiquity. Sneakers date back to the middle of the 19th century. So my immediate question, my favorite question, is why?  Why the sneaker? Why was it invented when it was invented?  Who were the first customers? What did it signify?

It is by asking those questions that I am able to then start to follow the crumbs.  What I’m really interested in about sneakers, is that it has such currency in contemporary society but, many of the elements of sneaker culture today link back to the origins of sneaker. Rubber it wasn’t a very common product because it came from Brazil. You can only tap a rubber tree every other day and get a tiny bit of rubber because it’s the SAP of a tree. And so rubber was expensive and when it finally gets vulcanized it helps to become, as one author has put it, the sinew of industry.  That helps to create an industrial class who now has the money and the time to play.  So they become the first sneaker consumers because they want to show that they have time to play Lawn Tennis and they have time to go yachting.

EXP: You know what’s interesting? I would have thought is was cheap to make rubber so that the masses could have it. I would have never thought it was for the high class.
Elizabeth:  Yeah I know!  It was and so you find out that the early sneakers are actually expensive, they are status based, they’re about expressing the fact that you have time to play.  We have today still sneakers are connected to ideas of status. They are also connected to ideas of play, even though it is often as spectator.  So I’m interested in those kinds of continuities.

EXP: Wow I would have never guessed! There was a time period, Not now because more people wear sneakers, but a time where the certain type of person wore sneakers.
Elizabeth: Right, exactly. There was one point where sneakers were extremely democratic. You had to have it for gym, everyone wore them but they didn’t signify status.  So I’m interested in how sneakers returned  to be a status symbol.

EXP: Why do you think it was necessary to bring this exhibit to Brooklyn?
Elizabeth:  I really wanted to be at the Brooklyn Museum because I thought you know Brooklyn is one of those epicenters of sneaker culture. I thought that there couldn’t be a better place for it to be then in the Brooklyn Museum. So I was very happy that Brooklyn took it!

EXP: Where else has The Rise Of The Sneaker Culture been?
Elizabeth:  It opened in Toronto but then it has been expanded for the traveling exhibition. It is going to the High Museum in Atlanta, and it’s going to The Speed Art Museum, The Toledo Museum, and there is one Museum in the works.  So it looks like they’re will be five venues.

20150730_182251EXP: What are some of the sneak peek that sneaker lovers will see at this museum?
Elizabeth: Well my dream for the exhibition…I only had 150 sneakers to work with so it is a very limited amount of footwear that can tell this very long history.  But I wanted sneaker culture people to see what they expected to see, you know she had to have the shell toes, the Air Jordan 1… but then I want them to be like oh my god and she had the first… you’ll see a lot of really early material. I think a lot of people that visited the exhibition before really were fascinated by seeing the early stuff because they never get to see, like the first Keds 1916, the first Converse from 1917, even the pre-vulcanized overshoes are amazing!  And then, you know having the rear material having the Yeezy boost and the high fashion stuff.  I wanted to make sure that it was stuff that they would expect and some of the stuff that they wouldn’t expect.

One of my favorite set of artifacts is that I have the Haillet. So the story of the Stan Smith, which is so popular, originally it was the Haillet sneaker. Haillet was the famous French tennis player and so the exact model was called the Haillet. He was getting ready to retire and so Adidas asked Stan Smith if he would become the new endorser for that model of the sneaker. So for a while the sneaker had both name on it and then eventually it moved to just having Stan Smith’s name on it. But I have all three and I have the rare Haillet Stan Smith. It’s interesting evolution shifting from one celebrity to another celebrity.

Click here for PART 2 of the Elizabeth Semmelhack “The Rise of the Sneaker Culture” interview.