BY Tom Gidley in Profiles | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

The Chosen Few

Confessing to an obsession with (certain) shoes

BY Tom Gidley in Profiles | 02 JAN 97

While recently hunting for long deleted Nikes in a shop on lower Broadway, my eyes flickering across racks of trainers whose subtlest design feature marked the difference between an instant purchase and a disinterested sneer, I found myself looking at three rather shop-soiled Air Jordans: the recent 'Lows', in both black and white (rare) and the earlier patent leather (even rarer). Slightly surprised at such luck, I asked if they might have my size in any one of them. The assistant gave me an incredulous look. 'They're not for sale' he laughed, as though I had just asked the price of the metal racks the shoes rested on. My confidence slightly dented, I sarcastically suggested that in that case they must be for show. 'That's right. Our own little museum', he replied. I swiftly made an exit, my craving unfulfilled, and limped on to the next inevitable disappointment, wondering how I'd ever reached such levels of frustration in pursuit of so frivolous an obsession.

Things were not always so. Until a couple of years ago, my taste in footwear ran to Trickers' boots and Grenson shoes - 'quality' leather items. Trainers somehow reminded me of dreary days spent lamely running around school grounds in the rain. To wear them now seemed to indicate regressive taste and capitulation to a dubious fashion. And then I saw them: a perverse hybrid of hiking boot and running shoe, the Air Neon Max was like nothing I had seen before. Felt-textured uppers with gradated grey bands ran down each side to meet clear inflated bubbles that revealed an inner core of luminescent yellow. What also impressed me was the apparent lack of any obvious branding - a truly radical feature for a corporation as large and mainstream as Nike. I bought them immediately, spending a sum that only seemed appropriate for a pair of leather-soled brogues. The following day, I was asked by three complete strangers what I was wearing on my feet, and where they could possibly buy them. Still stunned by such reactions, I descended the stairs of Tottenham Court Road tube station, where two homeless teenage boys in ragged jeans and dirt-smeared T-shirts asked for spare change. I realised one of them was looking at my feet - 'those the new Air Max?' embarrassed at the attention focused on my new footwear, I nodded and walked on. As I turned the corner, one boy said to the other: 'those are definitely the best ones, 'cause you can wear them casually, with jeans, but then they also look great with a suit...' The term 'Street Credibility' was never so literal. Since then, I've bought a pair roughly every three months, or whenever something interesting appears. Having initially seen trainers as generic, I quickly realised that other brands didn't produce anything nearly as exotic, and, as the 'old-school' type didn't interest me, I stuck with Nike. The only exception has been the Adidas Claw Sandal of last summer, which I felt strangely obliged to supplement with a second pair when a 'solid' version unexpectedly appeared in yellow.

As I sit writing, I'm wearing what can only be described as a pair of dull brown shapeless suedette booties, drawn tight around the ankle by a nylon cord which dangles to the floor from the rear. Discreetly embroidered on the heel is a small purple logo, commonly known as the 'swoosh'; a symbol that subtly enlightens those sufficiently interested in their origin (and completely validates their perhaps questionable credibility). For these are the Nike Air Moc. I bought them because they looked like no other shoe I had ever seen outside Mothercare: a slipper-walking-shoe-orthopaedic-boot of a thing, seemingly with no practical use. I thought they looked great in a very weird way. I also knew that most people wouldn't wear the Air Moc if you paid them, and there is always a certain pleasure to be had in wilfully annoying others by means as simple as unusual footwear.

Apart from my beloved, ugly Air Mocs (which are, by the way, very warm and comfortable), one of the most interesting trainer designs ever would have to be the Air Rift. Its 'feature' is a split that separates the big toe from the remaining four and gives the wearer the appearance of a genetic mutant. To me, this seems a genuinely radical departure. I'd wanted both shoes for a while, but not desperately enough to fork out the exorbitant sums demanded by the few shops importing them: limited availability in London had increased their desirability - and cost - beyond measure. But with a trip to New York approaching, I knew I would be able to buy them at half the price. This matters. On entering a club recently, someone blocked my path and, eyeing up the distinct cloven toes of my new Rifts, asked simply, 'how much did you pay for them?' '$80', I said, trying to sound equally casual and knowing. He looked up at me, grinning, 'that's okay then, some wankers spend 140 quid on them' he replied, shaking my hand and moving away.

In defence of my little obsession, I should point out that most Nike trainers are awful; I mean, really, really horrible. The new range of ACGs ('All Condition Gear'- hiking boots to you and I) is particularly disappointing, especially given Nike's past ability to come up with designs that fall squarely between categories (the Lava Dome, for example, combined orange and brown suede uppers with the sole of a rock climbing shoe). What makes a shoe interesting is difficult to define, though it would seem to rely on unexpected combinations of materials that result in something that is neither a regular shoe nor a trainer. Nike's insistence that its shoes are designed purely for practical purposes, or for a specific sport, is laughable - unless of course you count everything from 'Club-Entering' to 'Pub-Leaving' as valid sporting activity. I have only ever bought one pair for their intended use, the Supa Pooh-Pah cycling shoe, but if there had been a version with a normal sole, I'd have bought that instead. I'm also rather suspicious of Nike's particular brand of corporate evangelism. The company's insistence on its contribution to global social interaction is a little hard to wear - though I suppose strangers stopping to ask you where you got your shoes counts. Likewise Nike's gritty optimism and adaptation of sports vernacular, aimed at encouraging us all to achieve self-fulfilment through hard work (plus the right footwear) has rather different connotations for the Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese who actually make their products.