Sneaker makers had realized decades earlier that they could use athlete endorsements to make their shoes more desirable. In the 1920s, Keds got the endorsement of the Original Celtics basketball team, for instance, and in 1934 Converse took the idea another step, releasing the first signature sneaker. Its Chuck Taylor All Star, made with basketball player Chuck Taylor, inaugurated the model that Nike and others have continued since.

But the Air Jordan 1 created demand never seen before for an athletic shoe. The black-and-red design looked nothing like the typical plain white basketball shoes of the time. Jordan himself was young, brash, and explosively athletic. The Jordan 1 was a different kind of shoe for a different kind of athlete, and Nike’s marketing shrewdly linked it to youth, rebellion, and individuality. When it went on sale, it instantly became a status symbol like no athletic shoe before.

A visitor photographs an Air Jordan I during a preview for "The Rise of the Sneaker Culture" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in the Brooklyn borough of New York, July 8, 2015.
The Air Jordan 1 was a turning point in sneaker culture.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

As Nike kept releasing new Jordan models, and then re-releasing old ones, the company worked out a distribution strategy more commonly seen in the luxury sector, limiting the supply of shoes available to keep demand and prices high. It fueled the growth of a secondary market for sneakers and helped give rise to the subculture of sneakerheads.

Sneakers kept gaining cachet, helped along by music, pop culture, and the spread of the internet. Meanwhile, dress codes have broken down, fitness has become a fixation, and showing off on Instagram has grown into a popular pastime. All these factors have influenced how people dress.

Sneakers aren’t just a part of fashion today. They’re a microcosm of all fashion.

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