DISCLAIMER: This will never, ever happen.
This will not be the last time I talk about a hypothetical situation in sneakers that would not be popular. It is definitely not the first time either. It’s just a matter of recognizing that the status quo is not the only way things can be, and wondering, “What if?” That’s all. What if?
First, some background. For the majority of sneaker history, there was no such thing as “retro.” Models came out, stayed on the market for a couple of years (if that), then went away, replaced by something else. For a majority of THAT history, changes were gradual, and the introduction of a whole new model was itself somewhat unusual. Those major shifts generally emerged when there was a new material in use or a new technique in manufacturing. Think the adidas Pro Model, the first leather basketball shoe. Then, gradually, the use of personalities to sell shoes entered the game. Puma had Clyde Frazier, adidas had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Stan Smith. Nike, founded in 1972, entered a far different sneaker market than adidas had over two decades earlier. Who wore the shoe began to be as important as the shoe itself.
Designers would once again actually have to design rather than put new colors and materials on old designs. Creativity would be more than just a buzzword. People would have to try again.
Retro came around much later, essentially starting in 1994 with the first Air Jordan re-issues and gaining popularity around the turn of the millennium. In less than two decades, what started as a way of honoring the recently retired GOAT has expanded at shocking speed, finding its way into every category and consuming an ever-increasing part of the market. Kids who never saw Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley, or Dikembe Mutombo, or even Allen Iverson play proudly, sport their sneakers. Clearly this has been a great boon for the industry, as they can simply release a slew of past models every year, with no need for further R&D or product testing or even marketing. The old designs sell themselves. It’s been great for them. But has it been good for us?
here are two ways to look at this. The first way is the shortsighted one—hey, look at all these sneakers you can buy! Maybe this is the real golden era, when the best sneakers from every decade share shelf space. Gone are the days when guys like Chris Hall and Adam Leaventon had to scrounge through dirty sporting goods stores basements for hidden gems—now they’re all on next year’s release schedule anyway. (Er, and those sporting goods stores are Starbucks or Paneras.) Because retro hasn’t just unearthed the popular shoes, but increasingly obscure models as the popular ones either get overdone or go back into the vault.
Then there is the second way, the longview, which isn’t nearly as positive. What will tomorrow’s retros be? What will the kids of today want? And with their tastes neatly curated for them by sneaker companies, who simply provide them with everything they’ve ever wanted (or been told to want), will that previous question even make sense? Younger sneakerheads today have the privilege—or misfortune—of being able to decide between sneakers that already have legacies and status. It’s virtually impossible to walk into a sneaker store these days and come out with something daring, or (gasp) uncool. Well, maybe not entirely, but it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be. What fun is that?
Retro sneakers have gone from a niche item to a vast safety net for both consumers and corporations. For the companies, they are an easy path to profits as retros are generally something that can just get produced and go straight on the shelf. They market themselves. And for the consumer, they’re a sure bet—no one will ever clown you for wearing the latest retro Jordans. Everyone knows Air Jordan IIIs are cool, even if they have no idea why. There are no difficult things to think about outside of “do they have my size?” and “what can I wear with these?”
What would a world without retro look like? There would still be some classic models, like the Chuck Taylor, Vans Eras and Authentics, and even the Nike Air Force 1, all of which have been in near-constant production since they were originally introduced. Much of the rest, though, that would all be gone. Emphasis would return to current models—hello, LeBron 12—and street wearability would become more important even on the most technical performance shoes. The need for more “lifestyle” models would be greater, and perhaps there would be more unpredictable hits like the Nike Roshe Run, an unassuming model forced to the forefront simply because it struck a chord.
History wouldn’t be entirely off-limits either. But rather than companies strip-mining their pasts for entire models, they’d look back for more general design cues. Instead of stitch-for-stitch retros, there’d be new, retro-inspired sneakers like the adidas ZX Flux or the Nike Air Yeezy or the Jordan Future. Remixing the past instead of simply repeating it. Designers would once again actually have to design rather than put new colors and materials on old designs. Creativity would be more than just a buzzword. People would have to try again. And consumers would have to ask “do I actually like this?” rather than “will everyone else like this?” A subtle difference, but a huge one.
Maybe my disclaimer is too harsh. This actually could happen at some point, given the incredibly rapid expansion of retro (and the increasingly less-popular models that are being retroed). The ‘80s and ‘90s are being picked clean, and eventually the supernova is due to collapse. Even the most popular models can only be re-issued so many times in a single generation. And as consumers become more removed from the original releases (and the athletes who wore them) meaning will fade. Future generations will hopefully have their own heroes, who will have their own sneakers.
In the meantime, all we can do is be more honest with ourselves and more critical of what we’re buying. Break free from the social media vortex and buy what you actually like, not what others have liked before you. The athletes we cheer for and support always make the point that they’ve just built on the accomplishments and achievements of those who came before them, that they’re not trying to be another—whoever—but the first them. We can do the same.
Russ Bengtson is a senior staff writer at Complex who doesn't always listen to his own advice. You can follow him on Twitter here.