Why Jerry Seinfeld Is the Most Important Celebrity in Sneaker Culture

Beyond star athletes, popular artists, and social media #influencers, the comedian has become the most unlikely mainstream sneakerhead icon.

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Complex Original

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Having spent more time than I care to calculate, studying and screen grabbing from every episode of Seinfeld with the intensity of Mr. Pitt and the magic eye poster, I feel qualified to write on the topic of Jerry Seinfeld's shoes. Despite concerns at the time regarding overdosing on Nikes and my favorite sitcom, at the present time, I'm surrounded by new clusters of shoe boxes and I still catch an episode every single day. If Michael Richards' racist buffoonery wasn't going to stop me watching, nothing would.

You see, Jerry Seinfeld is bigger than all this sneaker stuff, yet he's the greatest sneaker-centric celebrity that has ever lived. Does anybody really care what some modern athlete or actor breaks out nowadays? Everyone's on the same seeding program, looking for some Instagram or Snapchat shine. The majority of footwear in the spotlight is from the past anyway. Now celebrities in sneakers are all clickbait—"YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHO WORE THE THIRD REISSUE OF A SHOE FROM 25 YEARS AGO!"

When it comes to sitcoms and sneakers, there are other contenders. Will Smith wore pretty much anything good between 1990 and 1996 on NBC and Martin Lawrence showcased incredible sneakers on Fox between 1992 and 1997. But Smith was fresh-dressed since his Le Coq Sportif-clad rap days, while Lawrence was there to goad "Buggin' Out" when his Air Jordan IVs got dogged back in 1989. I expected them to wear something great.

The joy of unlocking Jerry’s shoe habit is how unlikely it seems, given his Upper West Side existence and average white guy attire. In nine seasons, his taste in comic books and cereals is mapped out, but we don’t get too much insight on his pick of music (though the recent Hulu popup indicated that his collection included Pharcyde and Will Smith CDs). We know that he’s a big sports fan. But with those slim jeans (complete with a doctored sizing on the label), allergy-inducing knitwear, lurid lined suede jackets, and billowing tucked shirts before puffiness was ever whispered, his attire betrayed what was on his feet. Throttled lacing and black 501s disguised greatness, but it was still significantly cooler than jogger pants and hashtags.

It’s a collection barely even discussed in the show either. It wouldn’t be until deep into season six, where Kramer takes a scattering of his friend’s shoes to Mom and Pop for repair that his stash is exposed. After Mom remarks, “So many sneakers!” Kramer turns pop-psychologist and diagnoses Jerry on the spot, “Well, he’s got a Peter Pan complex.”

Just as there’s joy in spotting Mr. T in Night Tracks, Gene Wilder in an obscure early ACG design, finding out that Elton John got an SMU, or special makeup, long before your favorite rapper did, or the knowledge that Steven Tyler from Aerosmith wore an Air Flow colorway that’s rarely seen beyond his feet, Seinfeld’s shoe choices made me respect him more than I ever did before. Seinfeld’s clothing from 1989 to the mid 1990s is practically sleight-of-foot. It’s a distraction. For instance, only when you really focus during the garage-based episode do you realise that he’s wearing Mowabbs (Patta used his jacket and t-shirt combo as inspiration for their ZX 7000 back in 2008).

For years, an assumption spread that Seinfeld was a white-shoe guy who kept dull shoes in volume. That he was so surprised by Wale alluding to owning well over 500 pairs is a surprise in itself, seeing as Jerry has admitted to being a sneaker appreciator since his childhood in one of any number of cash-in biographies. Josh Levine’s 1993 book, Jerry Seinfeld: Much Ado About Nothing would reiterate the collection’s connection to his onscreen and real life inclination towards tidiness, “He owns dozens of pairs of Nikes, all lined up in his closets, and when one gets scuffed he gives the pair away to charity.”

Anyone with a habit has a facilitator somewhere, and Tracy Gray at Nike was feeding that hunger in style. Given Seinfeld’s existing interest in shoes, being presented with a catalog to tick by Gray, he displayed some interesting taste. Take the Air Sonic Flight Mid—the man had the keys to the kingdom, yet still opted for four different makeups of this mid-priced hoops shoe. It’s something to admire.

Seinfeld liked being seeded. Garry Trudeau’s Time magazine article ‘Sneakers in Tinseltown’ noted that, “Seinfeld's appetite for free sneakers became legendary,” describing an office that, “overflowed with shoe boxes,” and Seinfeld’s regular giveaways creating addictions in other staffers. Maybe that’s how Larry David ended up in a pair of Jordan VIs.

It’s probable that Gray (who would head up talent relations for Nike for years after she was simply known as the “Nike Lady”) laced the Fresh Prince and Martin casts too, and the none more caucasian Friends and Home Improvement could well have been on her rounds. So why this examination of Jerry’s feet and not the tool man? Simple answer—Home Improvement was never actually funny. These were TV show and brand relationships that ran so deep, the cast got their own SMUs—the Nike Binford, a quite appealing Air Edge for Friends and, best of all, the Air Seinfeld—a reworking of the GTS long before Supreme got their hands on it. The Great Tennis Shoe seemed almost too bland for Jerry to wear in the show, but it’s the kind of shoe that wouldn’t get strange looks in his onscreen ‘hood.

Giving Jerry shoes meant that they got the desired exposure — from early promo shots in Delta Force St Lows to breaking out cardinal Jordan VIIs for Playboy. He genuinely appeared to be a fan, but he wore the things rather than coveting them. This was a time when retro wasn’t an emphasis for lifestyle wear.

The main cast may have been whiter-than-white, but those Agassi Tech Challenge IIIs, Lava Flows or "scream green" and "purple punch" Huaraches were far from it. Nothing too insane, but the kind of models that a connoisseur appreciates. By 1994, the show could have a couple of sightings per episode. With his escalating wealth, those picks of tennis shoes were probably getting plenty of play in the backyard of a palatial pad.

Then, something seemed to go down. Did network regulations shift? After season six, overt shots of Jerry’s Nikes seemed confined to very specific sporting scenes—on tennis courts or the gym with Izzy Mandlebaum. George Costanza’s Cortez (Costanza originally wore Reeboks) were still a regular sighting and Newman seemed to get a lot of wear out of his Air Structure IIs (despite their intense rivalry, both he and Jerry owned the same shoes) until the very end.

Post-Seinfeld, bar an unexpected shift to New Balance with a pair of the 800 series trail shoes, Jerry’s obsession never seemed to diminish. In the mid 2000s, a friend of mine working at the New York NIKEiD Studio at 255 Elizabeth Street reported that Seinfeld was a regular visitor. On being asked why he opted for the oft-maligned Shox so often, he reportedly shrugged and announced, with that familiar escalating high pitch, “I love the Shox!” That preoccupation with the boing technology is evident in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, where it looks like he’s wearing the fruits of those design sessions—gold to hang out with Steve Harvey, a pair that matches the white, green and blue of a 1979 VW Beetle police car, a makeup to coordinate with a Tahiti blue 1976 Lamborghini Countach, or the editions he made to match the hand formed aluminium of his 1949 Porsche 356/2. True Oligarch maneuvers.

Okay, so Jim Courier might have brought the Air Resistance to a global TV audience months before Jerry got to do it, and he wore the grape Vs to the chemists after MJ had immortalized them on a cereal packet, but this comedian’s co-sign was important. And who else was on primetime in a pair of Air Madas and Escapes? By never cowing to any notion of cool, Jerry Seinfeld was as hip as it ever got. While to see him in boutiques looking at retro shoes makes me feel melancholic, in a world where someone would actually call themselves influencers and brand ambassadors on LinkedIn and everyone’s keen to do everything else with their shoes—drawing them, putting them on a t-shirt, giving them a little party and taking pretty pictures—except actually wearing them to the ground, Seinfeld is more relevant than ever.

Just don’t call it normcore. That was a misinterpreted trend forecast term wrecked by clueless style editors and ironists. Jerry wore what he felt like wearing, but he knew a great sneaker when he saw it, and that’s what makes him the ultimate ambassador for the damned things. Plus, his character got laid significantly more than anybody who ever referred to themselves as an influencer in their social media bio.

Seinfeld had the perfect answer to queries regarding the constant lack of footwear formality. Levine’s book recounts Seinfeld’s response to being quizzed by Entertainment Weekly about his choice of shoes, "If someone says, 'Hey, do you want to play a game of touch football in the street?’ I don’t have to go home and change.”