By Shu Xie
Have certain sneaker styles become so generic that they can appear as standard across brands? Fashion, as we’re told, changes so quickly that we’re not always catching up. Yet, some things do not really change; some things, such as sports shoes, get re-interpreted. A recent re-interpretation really had me wondering: should luxury brands leave the producing of sports shoes to specialist makers or take it on themselves? Is paying tribute really emulating some shoes in their cultural significance? Is following the leader fashion’s silent march to wider acceptance as brands expand product categories to create monumentally profitable businesses?
When I saw Louis Vuitton’s ‘Run Away’ sneaker last year, I thought it would be a one-season shoe. But when I spotted them in different iterations yesterday (and the sales person was quick to point out to me—gleefully, no less—that they were “new arrivals”), I had a nagging feeling that the ‘Run Away’ isn’t loping off anywhere any time soon. Its prominence (there were at least six versions) on the shelves heightened its similarity to Nike’s Internationalist, which I was willing to ignore previously, but not anymore.
Nike’s shoe designs have been inspiration central for so many non-athletic shoe brands that it’s hardly surprising that the Oregon-based company’s best—and best-selling—would be duplicated. For a long time, I didn’t get myself too bothered when the Air Force 1 Mid was the serial flavour of the month for luxury brands since I am not a big fan. Happy to be loyal to kicks normally trailing in the looming shadow of, say, Roshe Run, I reassured myself with the belief that less flashy shoes were not going to get noticed in the first place, and less likely the targets of discreet or over-enthusiastic homage. I couldn’t be more wrong.
The Internationalist first appeared in 1982, making it a rather established 33-year-old shoe. Back then, sneaker launches weren’t what they are today (no pre-release buzz and certainly no pre-orders!). Still, the Internationalist was Nike’s star design. Created for long-distance running, it debuted with marathoner Alberto Salazar in the 1982 New York Marathon, in the same weekend that Nike aired its very first TV commercial (a general branding exercise rather than promoting any particular shoe). Mr Salazar is currently the head coach of Portland’s Nike Oregon Project, a group created by Nike to promote long-distance running in America. The Internationalist’s destiny in popular culture was sealed when it was worn by the bookish Brian Johnson (played by Anthony Michael Hall) in John Hughes’s 1985 teen brat-pack classic The Breakfast Club. Costume designer Marilyn Vance had wedded khakis to running shoes, and the marriage, as it turned out, was perfect. Geek chic, as proponents would say, had an early start.
While Nike’s follow-up, the Air Pegasus, released in1983, seemed to have upstaged the Internationalist, it was the latter that would, more than two decades later, attract those with a passion for early-Eighties running shoes. I didn’t pick up a pair of Internationalist until 10 years after its debut, and I have not stopped loving and wanting them, particularly those soled with Lunarlon foam cushioning. In recent years, I have enjoyed wearing the mid versions as much as the low-cuts even when plain—particularly all-white—tennis shoes were (and still are) the rage.
Nike has constantly released updates of the Internationalist and in colour waves the industry calls “packs”. I can hope against it, but it is a matter of time before these kicks get noticed. LV’s reiteration is evidence that even not-quite-out-there shoes can be so inspiring that they get “interpreted”. The “Run Away” sneaker, to be fair, is handsome. It has all the quality of a luxe sports shoe that’s not destined for sports or Usain Bolt’s track wardrobe. To satisfy my curiosity about its comfort and fit, I tried on the “Run Away”. It was not easy to get into the shoe (due, perhaps, to the overzealousness of the person who tied the laces), but once inside, my sockless feet felt utterly coddled. The interior comfort is obvious. The collar is generously padded, augmenting the luxuriousness of the shoe, but they wrap the lower ankles a little too snugly. In place of the Swoosh, LV has worked in a large cut of their instantly recognisable Damier pattern, embossed in leather. This is flanked by seam work similar to the Internationalist’s. The upper, which also includes mesh, sits atop a bi-coloured mid-sole with the back spotting an Internationalist-like heel base—LV’s, expectedly, shinny or ultra-bright. The sum effect is not vintage in appearance. Looking down, the “Run Away” sneakers did not sport an old-school silhouette. Is this, for LV, the ultimate accentuation of a classic running shoe?
Perhaps it’s not quite fair to single LV out, since so many top-end brands, too, are as inspired by classic sneakers. Just look at one of Lanvin’s spring offerings: a neoprene sock mid-top, which, to me, looks like a barefaced take on Nike ACG’s cult classic, the Air Moc, first seen in 1994. I didn’t expect Nike’s shapeless, sock-like shoe to inspire a supremely elegant fashion house, yet it did. Lanvin has placed the toggle in front rather than at the rear, and given its version a shapelier, boot-like form and fancier sole. However, when I gave them a second look, as I should, I really saw Skechers!
Any sports shoe, it would seem, can attract interpreters. It is understandable when fellow sports brands create their version of the competitor’s best-sellers. The Roshe Run, as fans will point out, has spawned many look-a-likes. But when top-end fashion houses do too, it smacks of a sell-out. In recent years, the bubble-up effect is effervescent to the point it’s over-aerated, pushing originality out of the cup. With the exception of Rick Owens (and, maybe, Raf Simons), which luxury label has truly created a unique sneaker silhouette? To say trainers are having a moment in fashion is understating it. Designers were once happy for you to couple your favourite sneakers with their trendiest looks, but now they want you to be shod in a pair of their interpretation. When brands that have no association with sports—Chanel, here’s looking at you, tweed—produce sports shoes, it’s clear no category of footwear is sacred.
The irony of it all is that sneakerheads don’t care. Those who collect or covert limited-editions (or any collaboration involving, say, Mita Sneakers) isn’t the least concerned with what’s displayed on LV’s shelves. To them, designer sneakers do not speak their language—a lingo that draws from pop culture than Fashion Week, from Tinker Hatfield than Riccardo Tisci. If luxury brands need to return to their heritage to rebuild their credibility (after years of trying to sell just about everything to just about everybody), then they should consider authenticity too.
Both shoes are available for men and women. Nike Internationalist, SGD 108, is sold at Nike stockists while Louis Vuitton ‘Run Away’ sneakers, SGD1,200, at Louis Vuitton stores