While most gear from the '80s can look like relics of the ancient past, the groundwork for today's performance sneaker market was laid during this pinnacle decade. Shoes were specialized according to brand and type of athlete, for the first time reflecting a personality.
The jogging boom of the '70s gave way to the mainstream running culture of the '80s, popularizing a sport that formerly belonged to collegiate athletes and their coaches. Converse's monopoly over basketball had ended in the previous decade and tennis' new stars expected more of their signature plimsolls. The decade saw the first women's specific performance shoe (the Reebok Freestyle), the beginning of Michael Jordan's era with Nike, and the invention of most of today's technical running technology. Let's dive into How Performance Footwear Evolved During the '80s.
Nike's Fall and Rise
At the beginning of the decade, Nike only boasted 140 shoe models, by the end of the '80s Nike had overcome Reebok to become the leader of the industry, now famous for the Air Max technology, a dominance over college basketball, and endless athlete sponsorships (most notably winning over Michael Jordan for life with $20 million in '89). Much of this success can be attributed to a new focus on the look of performance footwear, Tinker Hatfield, the designer of most of Jordan's signature shoes, joined Nike in 1981, unleashing the first Air Jordan in '85.
A Focus on Midsole Technology
Asics' GEL cushioning, Nike's visible Air units, and the adidas Torsion System were just a few innovations that continue to drive brands today. In the early '80s, companies elevated sneaker midsole concepts, dicing foam to create more flexibility (as in the case of the Onitsuka Tiger X Calibur GT) or adding to the midsole to supply more cushioning to the heel for the fleets of rookie runners.
Preventing injury through excessive "shock-absorbing" cushioning and slanted midsole "rollbars" was a huge focus, as casual runners were looking to protect themselves from the impact of running. Mizuno, Reebok and adidas offered midsole customizing systems via "keys," "pegs" or "pumps" with a simple twist / push / squeeze to control the hardness or softness of the midsole.
Asics GEL is Born
In 1979 the Asics research facility in Kobe expanded to accompany research of performance footwear, named The Research and Development Center of ASICS in the mid '80s. By 1986, the Asics GT II introduced the GEL cushioning system to the market, a technology that continues to carry the brand. The GEL, much like the Air Max, was first incased by the sneaker's EVA but later was revealed to show the transparent bubble.
This One's For the Ladies
Aerobics, velcro, and spandex leggings were the key ingredients for the first women's specific shoe from Reebok. Though the women of Oregon had started the jogging trend in their plastic rain hoods and rollers, it wasn't until 1982 that a shoe was made specifically for women. Nike and adidas had released plenty of "Lady" versions of basketball and running shoes, but each had originally been built on a man's last. The Freestyle was a hit. By the middle of the decade the shoe had catapulted Reebok, accounting for more than half of their sales.
Not Suitable for Wimbledon
Reebok, FILA, adidas, Nike, Diadora, Puma and Wilson were the most popular options for tennis players in the '80s. Reebok supplied the Club Champion to keep traditionalists happy while sparking new interest in the category for non-players by closing out the decade with the Pump Court Victory in 1990, borrowing the Pump x Hexalite technology from the basketball courts. Nike famously infused the idea of cross-training onto the court with the Nike Air Trainer 1 after a successful run of over-the-top Agassi moments.