Footwear has evolved considerably over the past few decades, from charting new aesthetic territory to game-changing developments in materials and sustainability. Though some innovations may have been predictable at the turn of the millennium—stepping up the green factor with reclaimed ocean plastics or using 3D printing to create inventive forms—few would have predicted that sneakerheads would be shelling out thousands in cryptocurrency on exclusive drops to dress up their virtual avatars in the metaverse.
Now, an all-encompassing exhibition opening today at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum is shedding light on how footwear has evolved through the years—and predicting where the category is headed next. According to the museum’s director and senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, who co-authored Future Now: Virtual Sneakers to Cutting-Edge Kicks (Rizzoli) that will accompany the exhibition in June, footwear’s foray into the metaverse is carving out new possibilities for the category’s next frontier.
“There’s a huge opportunity for imagining things that don’t exist,” she tells Complex. “In the metaverse, you don’t need shoes to do anything for you. Just think of what can happen if we continue to move forward with fashion in the metaverse. The sky’s the limit.” She also notes that these innovations have pushed sneakers into the realm of artistic objects. “Sneakers have become collectible, if you think about the trajectory of footwear having an athletic function but being part of a wardrobe or expressing an identity, to sneakers that aren’t even being worn.”
For now, several innovations are pushing the envelope in the physical realm. Of particular note is 3D printing, a technique introduced in the ‘80s that has only recently started transforming footwear production. The approach allows for complicated designs to be built up as opposed to carved out of a material—a process that yields far less waste than using moulds. Auto-lacing, meanwhile, was first introduced when Michael J. Fox sported a pair of Nike MAGs designed by Tinker Hatfield in Back to the Future II. Though only a prop at the time, Nike spent years perfecting the technology and reissued the famous sneaker using its novel Adaptive Fit technology—known as “power laces”—that can loosen or tighten with the wearer’s motion. (Michael J. Fox, naturally, was the first to score one of the 89 units.) Nike now offers a range of Adaptive Fit styles.
Sustainability is, of course, a hot topic—more than 20 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured each year, many discarded as quickly as they’re consumed. Makers are constantly striving to figure out how to incorporate more earth-friendly materials in footwear as the industry slowly moves toward a circular economy. Adidas carved out a promising path forward with its 2015 collaboration with Parley for the Oceans and Alexander Taylor, which was knit using threads sourced from discarded gill nets reclaimed from the ocean. Mushroom leather, meanwhile, has also emerged as a viable alternative. Its natural variations of color, tone, and texture allow the material—which grows on dead birch and beech trees—to look and feel like real leather.
Lately, sneakers even wield political power. Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder of Brooklyn fashion label Pyer Moss, often mixes politics and fashion. The label’s first in-house sneaker, the bulbous Sculpt, speaks to his efforts to remind the world of history’s Black innovators while ushering in a new generation of talent. And when Olympic track and field athlete Allyson Felix faced gender-based injustice related to her motherhood, she launched her own sneaker company Saysh. She donned a bespoke pair of running spikes designed by Natalie Candrian, Mike Friton, and Larry Eisenbach when she won gold at the recent Tokyo Summer Olympics, making her the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history.
Given shows like “Sneakers Unboxed” at the London Design Museum, Nike and Louis Vuitton’s current Virgil Abloh exhibition in Brooklyn, the rollout of Lil Nas X’s controversial Satan shoes, and the booming collector’s market, footwear is entering the realm of fine art. As Abloh put it: “My philosophy is there’s a line in the sand. This generation may value sneakers more than a Matisse because [the Matisse] is not attainable.”