First things first: If you’re within reasonable traveling distance of the Brooklyn Museum, you really should try and see “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” the exhibit that opens today and will be on display through Oct. 4. The exhibit, which originated at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, packs an awful lot into just two rooms. Still—while it represents a tremendous start in mainstream respect for sneaker culture—there was something missing.
Sneaker culture isn’t just the sneakers, it’s not just what you see.
Yesterday’s New York Times review more or less hit the mark, I thought—there are way more sneakers than culture—but didn’t quite clarify how things should have been better. Certain contextual items would have been nice to see, like the “Your Sneakers or Your Life” Sports Illustrated cover, or maybe a reel of sneaker commercials spanning from the ‘50s to the current day.
And some of the sneaker choices seemed odd, like De La Soul Dunk Highs or the Reebok Shaqnosis (a retro, no less). But that’s nitpicking, considering just 150 or so sneakers were chosen. Plus, for every clunker there is a real gem you might never see anywhere else, like 1917 Chuck Taylors, original adidas Robert Haillets or the nearly mythical Chanel x Reebok Instapump Fury.
But there’s a different kind of contextual problem that overlies the entire exhibit: That is, how do you display something in a museum without making it seem like a museum piece? Which is to say, how do you display something that’s alive without inadvertently killing it? Sneaker culture is something that is very much alive—the title of the exhibit affirms this—but putting everything under glass does it a disservice.
Sneaker culture isn’t just the sneakers, it’s not just what you see. There is a tactile element—opening that box for the first time—the unmistakable sharp smell of fresh glue and beneath it the rich odor of new leather or suede. That feeling may have transported from shoe stores to homes thanks to internet purchases, but it hasn’t gone away. It’s integral to the experience, and always will be. And while it would be impractical for people to handle many of the shoes on display, this is an exhibit that really calls for sneakers that can be picked up and touched. Because for every person who makes this a daily occurrence, there are others who would be transported by the experience.
It would also have been good to get a better sense of the human element, from the creators to the collectors. Small video screen and printed testimonials aside, there is scant attention paid to those who not only made the sneakers great, but made the sneakers themselves. Blown-up design sketches are helpful, but it would be even better to see the designers themselves. If Tinker Hatfield’s designs are so important, let’s hear more about the man himself. (It is good to see Reebok Pump designer and outsized personality Paul Litchfield get some shine on screen.) Basically it would have been nice to see more WHO DID THIS? than WHAT ARE THOOOOSE? A finished Mache custom does little to introduce us to the man and his process.
Make no mistake, though: “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” is a tremendously important exhibit just for the fact that it exists, that it makes sneaker culture itself a real thing for many who may not recognize it as such. It’s, if you’ll pardon the expression, a foot in the door.
And maybe the fact that it struggles to represent a living culture is more a testimonial to the vibrancy of the culture than a failing on the part of the exhibit itself.
Russ Bengtson is a senior editor at Complex. 'The Russ Report' appears every Friday and you can read previous columns here.