Writer & consultant

Product design

Beyond cars, I also write frequently about product design, architecture, aircraft, art and music. As a fan of trainers since childhood – and now a collector – I had been keen to write about the way the formally humble sporting item has become the world’s default footwear of choice for some years. This long-form article for architecture and design magazine Blueprint scratched that itch. You can read the introduction below…
“With an exhibition at the Design Museum, the 21st-century shoe of choice has arrived in a cultural sense too”

Trainers – or sneakers, depending on your geographical location and naming inclination – used to be about one thing: functional footwear for sporting activity. Now, they are as likely to be worn at a business presentation as at a football match, by models on a high-fashion catwalk or indeed their influential front-row audience. And not just wearing traditional sports brands like Adidas, Nike and New Balance but also Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. In simple terms the trainer now dominates global shoe style among all ages, races and genders and is a massive – and highly influential – industry. Grand View Research put the value of the global athletic footwear market at $64.3 billion in 2017 and it is predicted to increase by 5% per year until 2025. Trainers are getting taken seriously culturally too, from exhibitions like 2015’s The Rise of Sneaker Culture at The Brooklyn Museum in New York to the London Design Museum’s Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street opening in May 2021.

How on earth did it get to this point? Increasing engagement in sport and fitness, greater disposable income and easy access to product via e-commerce are definitely factors within the 21st century but the roots of the trainer as fashion statement rather than merely sporting enabler go back more than half a century earlier and to the USA in particular. With prosperity returning after WWII and a relaxing of societal attitudes, less formal fashion became widespread and one of the few sneakers then available, the Converse Chuck Taylor’ All Star canvas high-top basketball shoe, became the go-to model. Adopted by both sexes for its comfort, versatility, simplicity and style, the All Star boasts wearers as high-profile, diverse and inter-generational as Elvis, The Ramones, Snoop Dogg and Emma Watson. As such, it popularised the idea that sneakers could be for anyone. Indeed, Converse – owned by Nike since 2003 – still sells circa 100 million All Stars a year of a design almost unchanged since 1917…