The unstoppable rise of sneaker culture

A new show at the Design Museum is tracing the journey of the sneaker from sportswear staple to cultural icon. We explore how the marketing strategies of the biggest brands in the game have evolved hand-in-hand with the $80 billion industry

It’s been almost two centuries since American shoemaker Wait Webster patented a process to cement rubber soles to the uppers of shoes in order to make them more suitable for sporting activities. The word ‘sneaker’ didn’t even exist at that point, and Webster’s initial idea has gone through countless iterations since then, but what he did do was lay the foundations for one of humanity’s most universal design objects, one which is now worn by millions of people everyday.

Today, the global sneaker market is valued at roughly $80 billion, with big brands such as Nike and adidas releasing thousands of new models in endless colourways every year. But the significance of sneakers goes beyond just being a desirable item of footwear – they have become a cultural symbol of our times. In Sneakers Unboxed, a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum, we get to delve into the story behind the footwear phenomenon, examining sneaker culture’s monumental rise over the last four decades in particular.

“I did a show at the V&A in 2008 on fashion sportswear, and at that point I think people were not that ready for the subject matter. Whereas now I think people are very open to it in a way that they weren’t before, and I think that’s to do with the fact that it’s become a key part of everyone’s lives. Most people wear sneakers on a daily basis … so I think it’s a good time to explore where all that comes from,” says the show’s curator, Ligaya Salazar, who has devised creative programmes across the cultural and museum sectors for the last 15 years.

Puma x Clyde Frazier advert

Split into two sections, Style and Performance, the exhibition traces the history and evolution of sneaker design from being overwhelmingly sports-focused to how we know it today. It starts with early examples of the trainers created by John Boyd Dunlop’s Liverpool Rubber Company, which resulted in Dunlop’s now iconic Green Flash model being worn by Fred Perry at Wimbledon in 1929, as well as the story of Chuck Taylor, a travelling salesman who toured US high schools in the 1920s, teaching basketball and promoting his Converse All Star boots.


Milton Keynes