It’s difficult to make out the bright-red, patent leather high-top sneakers (with two straps) that Kanye West’s wearing in 2007’s “Stronger” music video, while he wears shutter shades and the screen flickers as Daft Punk’s electronic rhythms crash him rapping about Christian Dior. The shoes remained a big mystery, one that Kanye West didn’t want to disclose himself. It was a big move for Kanye to depart from his pink polos, backpacks, and Nike Air Force 1s to go full-blown Michael Jackson and step into the spotlight, both with his music and style. But what were the shoes on his feet?
The answer is the Ato Matsumoto “Cowhide Boots.” Kanye didn’t want his fans to know that, though. In the August/September 2007 of Complex, West was featured on the cover and gave a “Beatdown,” or critique, of one of his outfits at the time. The clothes that he was wearing are all broken down by brand -- Versace shirt, Dior Homme (not Dior “Homie”) jeans -- but the sneakers were meant to be a secret. At the bottom of his outfit, West is is wearing a pair of white high-top sneakers with translucent soles, but he says, “Wouldn’t you like to know,” when referring to them.
In the early era of hype blogs, where hip-hop fans and style enthusiasts aren’t as informed as they are today, this was a flex. Kanye knew you wouldn’t find out which sneakers he was wearing unless you were in the know or did a little bit of researching yourself. He’s also featured wearing a black pair of the same sneakers, while jumping in a puddle, for a cover story interview with Complex co-founder Marc Ecko in the same issue. Once again, his sneakers are uncredited in the photo shoot. West may have been keeping the sneakers exclusive for himself -- they were made by a Japanese high-fashion brand retailed for over $500 to boot -- or he also may have been daring his fans to do a bit of their own research and discover the pricey, designer-filled world of men’s style that’s now a mainstay in hip-hop and the overarching world of streetwear. Either way, it worked.
The Matsumotos weren’t just gaining steam on the Internet because of Kanye wearing them in the “Stronger” video and their featuring in Complex Magazine, but because he gave them a bigger pop-cultural moment: He wore them on stage at Summer Jam in 2007 during a now-legendary beat battle with fellow sneaker connoisseur, Swizz Beatz.
During the performance, Kanye’s wearing a red leather jacket, massive gold chains, and the red Matsumoto sneakers. What makes them stick out isn’t just the gravitas of the situation or how bright Kanye’s outfit was that day, but how it contrasted against what everyone else was wearing at the time. In the background, you can spot long jean shorts, Air Force 1s, and fitted hats. There’s even a Kid Robot T-shirt in the mix. Kanye was always ahead of his time when it came to style, even if his earlier outfits don’t seem as bold and dramatic these days as they did back then. But this wasn’t a moment to be written in revisionist history, even as his 2007 Graduation turns 10 years old today.
In the same Complex issue, Kanye says about his Summer Jam outfit, "This is number-one stunna style. This might be my best ever. Shoes are crazy, you got the Louis Vuitton Millionaire glasses, two chains, a matching jacket, and a lot of red. The 'hood love red...unless you're a Crip."
Kanye’s style at the time, as a whole, was a signifier of bigger trends in music and fashion. Graduation might best be remembered as the time when Kanye challenged 50 Cent to an album-selling contest and won. It’s been dubbed as the day that Kanye West killed gangsta rap, but he didn’t just do it musically, he also did it through the clothes that he wore, and the Matsumoto sneakers were a big part of that. (Not to mention, that 50 Cent had his own sneaker deal with Reebok at the same time that was soon to end.)
The shoes can also be viewed as inspiration for Kanye’s Air Yeezy line, which wouldn’t launch for another two years. The Matsumotos, with their straps and Nike Dunk outsole, can be seen as inspiration for the Air Yeezy 1, which was a cross between the Nike Air Revolution and high-fashion footwear. The same thinking would also be carried over to the Air Yeezy 2, with its notable all-red “Red October” colorway that bears a lot of resemblance to the shoes that Kanye wore on the Summer Jam stage.
Although Kanye wouldn’t be forthcoming and tell his fans what the sneakers were, the blogs eventually figured it out and his devotees ended up searching them out. “I got them for my 30th birthday,” says Brandon Edler, who works as Content Manager and Creative Strategist at Finish Line. “I had them on my eBay alerts for five or six years until I could track down a pair. I had a to buy a size 11, because they don’t make them in a size 12. And I’ve only worn them a couple times and the toe box ripped.”
The sneakers still don’t pop up often on eBay, and there’s currently only one pair (in a US size 7) listed.
The sneakers were also a gateway for Edler to look at footwear outside the realm of sports and start to appreciate more high-fashion designs, too. “I never thought I was going to get into the high-end stuff, but these shoes tricked me because they kind of look like a basketball sneaker. I also thought they were dope, because this was the era of aggressive tongue-popping, and the Matsumotos have a huge tongue on them.”
Kanye last wore the Matsumotos in 2010, this time a black studded pair, but people had caught up to what he had on his feet. The Internet’s coverage of the brand abruptly ends in 2011, right around the time Chris Brown and Lance Gross were spotted wearing the sneakers. Ato Matsumoto is still churning out collections, although the brand did not respond to a request to talk about Kanye West and its sneakers.
It’s old news that Kanye has moved on to Adidas and become the most-talked-about rapper to have a footwear deal, but he’s been influencing everyone’s sneaker choices for more than decade. Even if it started with a pair of obscure high-tops that no one could place a name on.