There’s a certain irony to the fact that deconstructionist techniques have become so prevalent in sneaker design of late. Theoretically, a deconstructed sneaker has been created to be different – in a market of pristine, cookie-cutter shapes, styles and details, this alternative method offers a taste of rebellion, a way of eschewing the aesthetics of mass-market production. These designs can also be seen a critique of consumerism – we buy them, we wear them and never really consider the skill, technique or time that goes into making the pair. Mostly because we don’t want to. Actually examining how and where our sneakers are made often leads us to quite an unpleasant place. But when they’re deconstructed, all of the intricate detailing and craftsmanship that goes into each sneaker is laid bare.
And yet, with each deconstructed release – perhaps seen in its most stark, impactful form in Virgil Abloh’s recent Nike collaboration – the very power of this approach, aesthetically and intellectually, is diminished. This past 18 months alone, we have seen storied retailer Barney’s apply the method to an adidas Superstar, the iconic Jordan One receive similar treatment, and a host of other, more conceptually-laden, deconstructed designs debuted. Naturally, some have been better, bolder, or more pioneering than others.
Here, we present a potted history of deconstructed sneakers, from artists subverting the notion of pop-art, to Errolson Hugh infecting an Air Force 1 with his own sense of neo-brutalism.
If anything, this 2009 collaboration between adidas Consortium and Berlin-based Solebox illustrates the change in the sneaker market in recent years, both in what we deem to be boundary-pushing and the actual consumer itself. At the time, adidas Originals’’ business model was skewed toward its terrace heritage and a glut of reissues with lairy colorways, in particular those from the label’s vaunted City Series of the ’80s and ’90s.
A seemingly simple style in terms of design, this sneaker turned elements of an archetypal City Series sneaker inside out, but at the time was considered decidedly more risqué in terms of design than we would today. In part, this was because adidas Originals’ purview seemed to be to appeal to an aging football casual market. Today, that is no longer the case, as lines outside of sneaker stores have gotten younger and younger with each passing year, and a design like this would be considered ‘safe.’
In 2010, German artist Peter Tillessen debuted a series of sneakers turned inside out. Why, exactly, is unclear – there’s not a lot of information out there about it, and sneaker-related art is surely the most irredeemable form of artistic expression. They also didn’t look particularly practical, or interesting. But nonetheless, he was one of the earlier designers to venture into the territory of deconstructivism, airing much more on the side of fine art as opposed to a wearable product.
Much of Martin Margiela’s work at his eponymous house was underpinned by his constant examination and exploration of how clothes look and function. This was woven into his brand’s DNA from some of its earlier collections, whether it was tops created entirely from recycled plastic bags – as he did for his inaugural Paris show in 1989 – or dresses crafted from old driving gloves – symptomatic of his whole artisanal line, which pioneered the concept of rebuilt clothing, long before many had even considered that creating excessive amounts of garments each year is really not good for the environment. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Maison Margiela was one of the first to debut a deconstructed runner, as well as the brand’s iconic iteration of the German Army Trainer.
Theoretically created to be used by astronauts on the moon, Tom Sachs’ 2012 Mars Yard collaboration (reprised in 2017) with Nike saw the New York pop art provocateur delve into an ongoing theme of his work at that time, which was his obsession with NASA and space travel. “The main thing my shoes do is they embrace the concept of transparency. The midsole will show filth—they have stain-amplifying features. They show other people that, ‘Hey, I was here, and I did something,’ Sachs told GQ of his reissues collaboration earlier this year. Whether that ‘something’ was going to the shops or the moon was for the wearer to decide. But either way, he wanted each sneaker to tell a story.
That concept of transparency also fed into Sachs’ 2012 sneakerboot, created in his signature bricolage style, with tape securing the upper and his own scrawled Nike swoosh. Here, the process of making a sneaker was exposed and revelled in, going on to inform his later commercial releases.
In 2013, long before the hype, Ian Paley’s Garbstore created a series of sneakers with Reebok which effectively turned sneakers inside out. Foam uppers with exposed insole branding, obvious stitch detailing, terry cloth tongue – all of these made for a slew of fresh sneakers, but also preceded much of what we see today. “This feels unique to me,” Garbstore’s founder Ian Paley said of the collection at the time. “It’s a project that seems quite obvious obvious when you look at the original shoes, but it’s an idea that I haven’t seen surface yet in any sneaker company.” He wasn’t far off.
“We also approach it in a fairly minimalist and constructivist way,” Acronym’s Errolson Hugh told Highsnobiety of his 2015 Nike collaboration. To many, the release was unexpected. Hugh is known for his avant-garde, blacked-out, post apocalyptic vision – but here he went for one of the most recognisable Nike silhouettes around, choosing to highlight several of the more technical aspects of this seemingly simple sneaker. “The elements of technology are very visible in the designs – but we use them to enhance them or express a vision,” he said. “They’re not hidden in the aesthetic. For this thing to actually work and be something that you care about you need an emotional resonance. The other stuff is almost like a justification.”
“My work is formed from commerce and it rebels against it. I need hyper-commerciality to exist for my work to have meaning, yet my work invites you to think about a structure of circulation post commerciality,” said Helen Kirkum of her Frankenstein sneaker creations in Highsnobiety Magazine issue 13. The fledgling designer graduated from the Royal College of Art last year, also winning the International Talent Support 2016 accessories award – judged by the likes of Demna Gvasalia, Sarah Mower, and Marie-Claire Daveu of Kering. Kirkum’s sneakers, which first debuted for her Masters collection, are pieced together from scraps of various mass-produced sneakers – both a response to the wastefulness of fashion consumers, she says, but also as a convenient way of creating something truly unique.
In response to recent developments in the sneaker world – namely the the release of certain “designs” that seemed to draw from a similar aesthetic – Kirkum wrote on Instagram: “I believe that, although it has inspired many brands to commercialize on the beauty of the aesthetic, the original message to rethink our power to interact with sneaker culture, how we can adapt and evolve what we are fed and create something inherently personal and meaningful, is still very relevant today.”
Kirkum’s work has since seen her land a design role at adidas Originals.
Arguably the queen of deconstruction, Rei Kawakubo’s recent collaboration with Nike – first debuted year prior at her SS17 Homme Plus show in Paris last summer – saw a typical take from the designer on the classic Dunk High Retro. With see-through panels on the upper, leaving the iconic swoosh looking as if it was floating in mid air, it was a novel take and chimed with a sneakerhead who is becoming increasingly more experimental in their choices. Taking a different approach, this manifestation of a deconstructed aesthetic opted for clear panels over inside-out details, or raw edges and seams.
Elisa van Joolen is an Amsterdam-based artist and designer, who places the inversion and subversion of garments and sneakers at the heart of her work. Recently, she took to Instagram to call out Virgil Abloh’s OFF-WHITE, based off the similarity of several recent releases – such as inside-out uppers and the bold printing of “Sample” on them – to her past work. She wrote: “Last spring I was contacted by @off____white if would be interested to design footwear for them, didn’t go through in the end, now I understand why they asked me,” posting two sneakers side-by-side – one being her own design, and the other being Off White’s.
She continued in a follow up post about her process: “I literally turn existing sneakers inside out. I make new soles out of flip-flops, while using the soles of the sneakers to create new sandals. Each pair of shoes that results from this process is unique, despite consisting entirely of mass-produced parts. With this treatment I invite you to look at these shoes with fresh eyes, to see them independently from their original brands and accompanying marketing campaigns.”
The two posts were seized upon by @diet_prada, the Instagram vigilante railing against copying within the fashion industry. The duo behind the account called on Off White to recall the product in question, or “cut the original designer a fat check. It’s time to recognize talent and give credit where it’s due.” Van Joolen first debuted her sneakers in May 2016.
Deconstruction – something that’s typically an aesthetic rather than a functional choice – was a decidedly practical decision for Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 collaboration with Reebok. Incorporating the colors of both the Bloods and the Crips – the two opposing gangs from his home city of Compton – splicing the shoes together allowed him to marry both colors and create a display of visual unity. The message here chimed with a recurring theme of Lamar’s music – in 2012 he rapped: 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, he rapped, “If Pirus and Crips all got along / They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song,” and went on to address similar themes on his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly.
If deconstruction has traditionally been employed as a form of standing out, its application to the Jordan 1 is unintentionally quite amusing. A trailblazing shoe in its own right, and one of the most revered ever created, much of its initial power derived from its color. It was the inclusion of bold, Chicago Bulls red which initially caused the NBA to ban the shoe. Of course, Michael Jordan continued to flout the ban, with Nike happy to foot the bill for the subsequent fines.
So, in 2016, when this shoe was created, pared-back and in an off-white colorway, it presented a perverse irony. This iteration, if they had been worn by Jordan, would have been perfectly permissible – purely because they did the opposite of what the original Jordan 1s did. Here, a radical design process applied to an already radical shoe had an oddly cancelling effect, placing an icon in the shadows, muted and understated. In the same year, Nike also did the unthinkable, and released a Swooshless Air Jordan 1 low, deconstructing the shoe’s signature features even further.
Few designers are as adept at tapping into the current zeitgeist than Alexander Wang. So, when Wang debuted the latest installment of his ongoing collaboration with adidas earlier this year, including a deconstructed sneaker boot – and a host of delightful variations on a soccer kit, another thing that’s decidedly on-trend right now – we should have known that this current wave of reconfigured footwear was here to stay. Indeed, some have also drawn parallels between these designs and Virgil Abloh’s Nike “The Ten” series, which were released some nine months later. The only real question left is whose turn is it next?
And so we come to Virgil, fashion’s great aggregator, a millennial-courting designer whose curatorial skills chime with a generation raised on the diverse nature of Tumblr and Instagram feeds. In his collaboration with Nike, and the 10 shoes it spawned, very few of the ideas on show were wholly original. But Abloh has always had a knack for creating projects that appear cohesive, despite stemming from a bricolage design approach.
The shoes were split into two sections, “Ghosting” and “Revealing.” The latter was straightforward enough – taking cues Martin Margiela, Tom Sachs and Elisa van Joolen, Abloh set about exposing the inner-workings of iconic Nike shoes in his typical maximalist manner. Because why riff on one good idea, when you can incorporate four, or five? That manifested itself in several ways, from Nike’s Beavertown address being printed on the upper, to a tongue jammed inside the casing of a Nike Presto, to the highlight of the pack – the Air Jordan 1 – which featured Nike’s iconic Swoosh pinned onto the lateral side of the shoe with just stiches.
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