The Sneaker Book, Tom Vanderbilt

The New Press, 1998, 177 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 1-56584-406-8

My troubles with footwear began a few years ago, as my favourite model was discontinued. Through high school and most of college, I bought pair after pair of Reebok Pro Volley Mesh. After some experimentation, this had proven to be the most comfortable, most versatile, relatively sober design. I really liked these shoes.

But, inevitably, the soles of my old pair cracked, it began to snow, my favourite model wasn’t available any more and I eventually found myself in the market for new shoes. A few trips to specialty footwear stores were unforgettable experiences: The shoes there bore no relation to what I really wanted to wear: I was looking for something relatively modest, not too flashy and as close as possible to the streamlined shape of the Reebok Pro Volley shoe.

What I discovered was an assortment of globulous, multicolored, fanciful shapes that looked more like Jim-Burns-drawn futuristic weapons turned upside down than footwear. I retreated to the nearest general-interest megastore and came out with a pair of white Nike Air.

I hated those shoes. Lightweight and featureless, okay, but two weeks after buying them, one of them began to squeak. You can imagine the infernal sound in a deserted corridor: Clop, squeak, clop, squeak, clop, squeak… I toughed it as long as I could (one year; my self-imposed shoe replacement delay) and went back to Reebok sneakers.

I consider myself a sane customer, but that, by any standard, was demented. No sneaker nowadays lasts more than a year, and it’s impossible to find a good model since they keep changing year after year!

The Sneaker Book finally put some sense in the mania that is the Sneakers industry. Design changes every quarter; squalid production conditions, obscenely-paid celebrity endorsements, nauseatingly pervasive marketing, shameless commercialisation of an image over function… there is a lot of material there for a scathing denunciation, and this is what Tom Vanderbilt delivers.

He takes us from design to sales, intelligently pointing out the crazier parts of the industry without necessarily being arrogant or spiteful about it. The result is book that reads well, and can be consulted easily. (There is a good index at the end.)

The design of the book, however, is less successful. In an effort to appear hip and modern, the designers have shot themselves in the foot (har-har) in matter of readability. Some sidebar excerpt from other works are run consecutively on several pages, running alongside the main text; the effect is to force the reader to either read one and go back, or to try to follow both threads simultaneously. The good idea of illustrating each page with a sneaker is undermined by the lack of identification of each shoe, and the repetition of several similar images.

Nevertheless, The Sneaker Book is an excellent work. It takes a product that most of us take for granted, and deconstruct it in such a way that we’re never going to think of sneakers in quite the same way again. It’s a precious document chronicling not only sneakers-as-footwear, but as a chilling materialization of some of the late twentieth century’s worst traits: Rampant commercialism, sports as entertainment, ghetto formalization, third-world exploitation, women inequity, image-as-substance…

Whatever you might choose to see in The Sneaker Book, it certainly made me look at my footwear often. The “Made in China” tag in all of my shoes never seemed more ominous. Who should care about my petty complaints of squeaking, changing models and lack of durability when I’m really the living incarnation of the first-world nations stepping on the product of the less fortunate members of the human race?

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