a collage of different types of sneakers with the headline Sneaker Nation
Courtesy of Nike (middle sneakers); Courtesy of Puma.com/MEGA TheMegaAgency.com/ Newscom (right white sneaker); Shutterstock.com (all other images)

Sneaker Nation

How a humble athletic shoe became an American icon

By Mackenzie Carro
From the February 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to read an article and an interview about sneakers and draw from both to create a pitch

Lexile: 930L
Other Key Skills: inference, key ideas and details, text features, interpreting text, central ideas

Story Navigation


As you read the article and study the images, think about what led to the success of the sneaker.

Sneaker Nation

How a humble athletic shoe became an American icon

It was April 1985, and everyone was talking about Michael Jordan. The 6-foot-6 basketball player from North Carolina was nearing the end of his first season in the NBA, and he was already a star. He was strong, yet nimble. Fast, yet graceful. Fiercely competitive, yet cool under pressure. His brilliant moves on the court were quickly becoming legendary.

But that April, it wasn’t just Jordan’s extraordinary athletic skill that everyone was buzzing about. There was something else of his that no one could stop talking about.

His sneakers.

A Global Obsession

Jordan’s sneakers were called Air Jordans. Nike had designed the shoes for Jordan after he agreed to endorse a new line of basketball sneakers for the brand.

The first Air Jordans were red and black—far flashier than what NBA players wore at the time. To keep a uniform look on the court, league rules at the time required that shoes be at least 51 percent white. (After the NBA pointed this out, Nike designed a version with a little more white for Jordan to wear in games.)

When Air Jordans went on sale in April 1985, they flew off shelves. In just one year, Nike made $126 million on Air Jordans alone. No other sneaker in history had been as lucrative.

The wildly successful launch of Air Jordans marked a turning point in our relationship with sneakers. What was once simply a comfortable, practical shoe had become a global obsession.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Michael Jordan, 1985

From Luxury to Necessity

Today, sneakers are a $58 billion industry. There are hundreds of styles, colors, and brands to suit our every outfit and mood. For most of us, sneakers are an essential and beloved part of not just our wardrobes, but our lives.

It hasn’t always been this way though. In the mid-1800s, when the first sneakers were created, they were considered luxury items. The canvas, rubber-soled shoes were expensive and meant for playing croquet and tennis. Only the very wealthy had time for such recreational activities.

As the turn of the century approached, this began to change. Many employers were cutting back on working hours, leaving Americans with more free time. Meanwhile, new public parks, gyms, and tennis and basketball courts were springing up across the country. This meant that more Americans could play sports and exercise during their time off. It also meant that more Americans needed sneakers.

Fortunately, improvements in manufacturing were making sneakers less expensive. By the 1920s, most people could afford a pair. Still, it would be decades before the sneaker transformed into the coveted fashion item that it is today.

A Winning Combination

The sneaker industry as we know it today began to take shape in the 1970s. That’s when companies started pumping out a variety of styles and colors to appeal to a wider range of needs and personalities. Now you could get Nikes in electric blue, Pumas in striking yellow, or Adidas with candy-apple-red stripes.

Advertising was changing too. Companies began zeroing in on the most talented athletes and enlisting them to market new designs. In 1973, Puma released a signature shoe, the Puma Clyde, for basketball star Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Not only was Frazier a superstar player for the New York Knicks, but he was also consistently found on “best dressed” lists. Puma’s collaboration with Frazier linked the worlds of fashion and professional basketball to create a top-selling product.

But the sneaker industry didn’t hit its stride until the Air Jordan. Sneakers like the Puma Clyde were popular among die-hard fans of basketball and fashion—particularly in urban areas like New York City—but Air Jordans were popular among everyone, everywhere. After all, Michael Jordan was one of the greatest athletes in the world. Everyone knew his name.

High-profile athletes are only part of the sneaker story though. Elizabeth Semmelhack from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada, says music played a big role too. For example, in 1986 the hip-hop group Run-D.M.C., known for sporting Adidas Superstars, released a song titled “My Adidas.” Adidas sales spiked, and the group signed a $1 million endorsement deal.

It was these kinds of collaborations with athletes and artists, explains Semmelhack, that created the cultural obsession with sneakers that continues to this day. “What you end up with is this incredible mixture of basketball, hip-hop and rap, dance, and fashion,” says Semmelhack. “And that sets the groundwork for what continues to be some of the magic of sneakers today.”

TheVagabond V.Schaal/Shutterstock.com

Magic Ingredient

The rubber tree grows in South and Central America. For centuries, people there have been using its milky sap to create waterproof footwear. In the 1800s, scientists began experimenting with the material, but it was expensive and tricky to work with.


Then, in 1839, inventor Charles Goodyear figured out how to produce a more manageable kind of rubber. This rubber would be used to make everything from tires and erasers to, eventually, the bottoms of sneakers. It was flexible, waterproof, and wouldn’t slip on grassy fields or slick basketball courts.

Like Precious Gems

By the end of the 1980s, sneaker sales had reached $12 billion, having nearly doubled since the start of the decade. By the 1990s, “sneakerheads” were collecting sneakers like precious gems. Sneaker releases had become highly anticipated events, with hordes of customers camping out hours before stores opened. Kids began saving up for months to buy the latest designs.

Since then, our obsession has only grown, and with brands dreaming up new styles and collaborations all the time, that obsession will likely continue. Meanwhile, Air Jordans remain one of the most popular sneakers of all time. In fact, this past August, Nike revived the original Air Jordan design and released it in new colors. The shoes were, of course, a wild success.

Does He Have the Best Job Ever?   

What’s it like to dream up new sneakers for a living? We asked sneaker designer Jonathan Guisbert.

Jonathan Guisbert/@jon.g.ny

Anna Starecheski: Have you always been into sneakers?

Jonathan Guisbert: I started getting into sneakers when I was about 13. Growing up in New York, basketball was a big part of the culture. I remember watching older guys play at a park in Queens, looking at their flashy shoes and wondering what they were made of. I wondered, if I had shoes like them, would I play better? That moment is what got me interested in sneakers, but I wasn’t a big collector. I appreciated them, but I couldn’t afford to buy that many shoes.

AS: What’s the first sneaker that you loved?

JG: When Kobe Bryant started playing in the NBA, he wore Adidas Crazy 8 sneakers. He’s my favorite player of all time, and the shoes were so unique. I remember playing in them and just feeling different. It was like I had a little bit of Kobe energy in me.

AS: Were you always interested in design?

JG: No, not exactly. When I was a kid, I was super into reading. I didn’t even know what a designer was, and I wasn’t particularly artistic. After college, I was working in finance, but I started taking night classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

AS: Is there a typical career path to get into design?

JG: I don’t think there’s a standard way to get into the field. I’ve met designers who were sculptors, architects, chefs—people from all different fields.

AS: Of the sneakers you’ve designed, which one is your favorite?

JG: My first design, the Boost You Wear. They were inspired by the Crazy 8 shoes! They showed that all my years of hard work getting into design had paid off.

AS: What inspires your sneaker designs?

JG: It varies. Sometimes I find inspiration in a movie or hardware store or museum, or I get inspired walking around or while on a hike. When you get into design, your mind starts opening up. You become more observant, and that allows you to take inspiration from anywhere, really.

AS: What’s the best part of your job?

JG: Oh, man. My favorite part is the beginning of a new season. It’s like a fresh start. It’s the most fun because you’re able to explore without any limits. You’re not worried about any boundaries that you’ll have to consider later, like how much the shoe will cost or what materials you’ll use. You’re just using pure imagination.

AS: What’s the hardest part of your job?

JG: It’s hard to share your ideas and have people not like them. I didn’t realize how emotional the job would be.

AS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a designer?

JG: Think like a beginner. Be open to learning new things. And don’t give up. If you’re lucky enough to find something that you love to do, you just need to go for it and be persistent.

Writing Prompt

Imagine you are a sneaker designer like Jonathan Guisbert. Design a new sneaker. In a written document, poster, or slideshow, make a pitch that includes a sketch of your sneaker, the high-profile person you think should endorse it, and an explanation of why your sneaker will be successful. Draw on information from the article and the interview. 

This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.

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