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How trainers conquered the world

Investigating this incredibly popular shoe style and the immense sums invested in its development.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Monkey Business Images |

There is one style of footwear which in recent decades has become ubiquitous. Known in the UK as ‘trainers’ and in the USA as 'sneakers', this casual shoe is now worn by teenagers, millionaire businessmen, rock stars, politicians and people in just about every circumstance and walk of life you might care to think of. As the name 'trainer' suggests, this style of footwear began life as a sports shoe. However, it evolved with a bang into everyday wear and has even developed its own culture as a fashion statement.

Use of the word 'sneaker' is often attributed to an advertising agent called Henry Nelson McKinney. It is said that in 1917 he coined the description because of how quiet the rubber soles were on the ground, in contrast to the noise made by hard, leather-soled dress shoes.

Trainers generally feature a rubber or synthetic material flexible sole and an upper made from leather or synthetic materials and usually look more like sports shoes than do sneakers, which often feature canvas uppers. In this article, the word 'trainer' will be used to encompass all such highly popular casual styles.

Early days

Image © Monkey Business Images |

This casual shoe is now worn by teenagers, millionaire businessmen, rock stars, politicians and people in just about every circumstance and walk of life you might care to think of

One of the forerunners of the modern trainer was the 'plimsoll' of the 1870s. This name was derived, according to some sources, from the coloured horizontal band joining the upper to the sole, which was thought to resemble the 'Plimsoll line' marked on a ship's hull. These shoes were popular with Victorian holidaymakers and also began to be worn on tennis and croquet courts. Such footwear also caught the imagination of Americans during the last days of the 19th century. In 1892, the US Rubber Company launched the first rubber-soled shoes in the country, which sparked a surge in demand.

As leisure activities and the enjoyment of exercise gained momentum, British company JW Foster & Sons produced the first running shoes in 1895. These handmade products were sold to athletes around the world, and the company was awarded a contract to make running shoes for the 1924 British Summer Olympics team. The traditional basketball shoe was designed as early as 1907, and the market for trainers in the USA grew after World War I as consumers bought products endorsed by US football and basketball players.

In 1917, Marquis Converse produced the first shoe made specifically for basketball players, called Converse All-Stars. Five years later, an Indiana Hoops star named Chuck Taylor endorsed the shoes, and they became known as 'Chuck Taylor All-Stars'. These are reportedly the best-selling basketball shoes of all time.


Early sports shoes were popular with Victorian tennis players

Between the two world wars, designs specifically created for men and women became available and innovative shoemakers added novel features. For example, in 1936, the first canvas tennis shoe featuring eight ventilation channels on a vulcanised natural rubber sole was placed on the market.

In Germany, Adi and Rudi Dassler went on to establish two of the world’s leading athletic shoe manufacturers. They successfully marketed their shoes to athletes at the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin (US track star Jessie Owens wore adidas shoes when he won four gold medals), and the Dasslers’ business grew rapidly. Before World War II broke out, the brothers were selling 200,000 pairs of shoes each year. In 1947 they went their separate ways, Adi forming adidas and Rudi founding PUMA.

During the first decades of the 20th century, sports shoes were, quite naturally, normally worn to engage in sports. However, teenagers in the 1950s began wearing them as fashion statements, especially after seeing actor James Dean wearing trainers in the film 'Rebel Without a Cause'. As school dress codes were relaxed in the USA, children and teenagers began to wear trainers for much of the time. At that time, sales of trainers began to adversely impact those of conventional leather shoes, which resulted in an advertising war for market share by the end of the decade. Trainer sales in the US rose to 6 million pairs in 1957.


Chuck Taylor in 1921

The British word 'trainer' (short for 'training shoe') was apparently first used in 1968 as a generalised description for a style of sports footwear made by Gola. Jogging in an attempt to get fit became increasingly popular in the 1960s, and trainers designed specifically for participants' comfort sold well. University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman played an important part in the creation of such shoes. In 1964 he co-founded the company that went on to become Nike Inc.

Trainer culture

The wearing of trainers became an integral part of the music industry and its followers many years ago. This style of shoe has particularly become an important part of hip-hop and rock 'n' roll cultures since the 1970s. In the UK during the 1970s, the punk music scene also developed a reliance on classic trainers – both high- and low-topped versions – regularly worn by members of the Ramones as well as by the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious. This connected the world of trainers to a younger and more diverse global customer base. Brand owners began to release ranges of so-called 'street-inspired' footwear and styles that were as much for fashion as they were for function and performance.

Image © Joe Hastings

There are now thousands of different trainer styles available around the world, many of which are the target for counterfeiters

Then, in the 1980s, trainers could be seen everywhere – not just on the feet of sports or music fans. Celebrities were often photographed wearing them – film producer Woody Allen even wore them to the ballet. By the 1990s, trainers became the everyday footwear of choice for many people – sometimes simply because of their perceived comfort, and by others as a blatant fashion statement. It was particularly during this decade that sporting endorsements started to be viewed as an essential marketing tool by many of the biggest manufacturers, resulting in rapidly growing marketing budgets.

Naturally, followers of sports stars have contributed to the popularity of the trainer by buying them in the millions. Sales of trainers really took off in 1984, when Michael Jordan signed a contract to wear a Nike shoe called 'Air Jordans'. As the major international companies competed for the target market, the way trainers looked changed dramatically, with the introduction of vivid colours, eyecatching designs and fixing systems as alternatives to traditional laces.

The burgeoning music-linked market has led in more recent days to a number of rap artists signing multi-million dollar deals with major brands to promote their shoes. Other stars, such as Jay-Z and 50 Cent, have even helped to design their own collections, some of which have become best sellers. Kanye West designs his own limited-edition Air Yeezy 2 range for Nike, a pair of which reportedly sold in 2012 on eBay for $90,300 after 84 bids, despite having an original price tag of $245.

Image © Rik Goldman

Johnny Ramone, along with other members of the Ramones, helped to create the trainer culture of the 1970s and 1980s

As footwear producers recognised the growing popularity of the trainer and its incredible potential, the number of different sport shoe models available in the USA rose from five designs in 1970 to 285 in 1998, and an incredible 3,371 choices in 2012. The popularity of the trainer has, of course, resulted in global counterfeiting on a massive scale (see the article 'The fight against fakes').

Technological marvels

The technology employed by global brand owners in the design and production of the modern trainer is cutting-edge for the industry and phenomenally expensive to develop. Over the years there have been such innovations as new upper materials (including those crafted from a single piece of ‘techno-fabric’ knitted from recycled polyester/PET bottles), new solings which grip and twist as never before, midsoles that absorb more shock than previous versions, and gas cushioning marketed as providing exceptional levels of comfort. It is apparent that the major manufacturers value the trainer market greatly and accept that making significant continuous investment is necessary to stay in touch with their competitors in such a lucrative market.

Image © Sry85

Trainers became an important part of fashion in the hip-hop music scene

It is not unheard of for lines of people to camp for days outside shoe stores in cold weather to ensure their purchase of the latest endorsed shoe. In recent years, such is the desperation for some shoppers to get hold of a limited edition trainer, that there have been reports of fights breaking out over the last few pairs available. Customers even broke through the glass front door of a sports store in the USA to steal advance vouchers for the low-quantity release of a popular shoe and, on another occasion, police in the city of Seattle used pepper spray to subdue a crowd of over-eager consumers.

There has even been a term coined for trainer collectors – 'sneakerheads' – who view this style of shoe as an important item of fashion wear. Artistically modified trainers – often unique in their design – are much in demand, and have sold for more than $1,000. Although many wearers are quite happy to buy a cheap, unbranded pair of trainers from their local supermarket, there are connoisseurs who search out rare, unworn styles from the 1970s and 1980s – called 'deadstock' – and viewed by some as being 'sartorially superior'.

Some big names in the fashion industry – including Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen, Jeremy Scott and Yohji Yamamoto – have realised the value of the trainer and so have collaborated with brand owners to create limited-edition collections, including such oddities as wedge trainers. The resulting footwear is often pre-ordered to the last pair, which can then fetch a small fortune on resale.

Among certain members of the trainer-wearing population, trainers have become a 21st-century status symbol, ranked according to their brand, style and rarity. The intrigue of the trainer culture is that it is both an equaliser and a mark of exclusivity – both egalitarian and elitist. With everyone from rap artists and suited hedge fund managers to school children regularly wearing trainers, the trend has become all-pervasive. Even US President Barack Obama is said to have a bespoke pair of red, white and black basketball shoes which feature the presidential seal on the tongues.

Undoubtedly, the trainer – or sneaker, or whatever it is called around the world – is one of the most popular and best-loved types of shoe ever seen, being worn by both sexes and by people in all walks of life. With demand continuing to grow, and manufacturers willing to expend effort and resources to make their products better and brighter, the future of the trainer is a bright one.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 8 of the February 2016 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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