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Out of the Box: Exploring the rise of sneaker culture

Bata Shoe Museum's Out of the Box exhibition follows the rise of sneaker culture. The exhibit includes designer sneakers from Prada, Adidas and Christian Louboutin, among other.

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As The Globe and Mail's Russell Smith writes: Sneakers are meant, in theory, to be the most practical of footwear, designed to enhance athletic performance. The history of rubber-soled practical footwear, in fact, is documented in the strangely fascinating exhibition currently at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, called Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.

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The show consists of a collection of more than 100 pairs of significant rubber-soled shoes, including some of the earliest rubber overshoes (hard, crusty things from the early 1800s) and uncomfortable-looking leather sprinting shoes, with medieval torture spikes, from the 1860s.

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The show, curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, contrasts the humble origins of the athletic footwear first called plimsolls in the 19th century (after the invention of flexible, vulcanized rubber in 1839) with the extravagant and absurdly expensive designs of Prada, McQueen and Jeremy Scott in the 21st. This is a Adidas Gazelle shoe, from 1971.

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The word sneaker first came into use in the late-1800s because of the silent treading that could be effected with a rubber sole. Seen here: Green Pradas.

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The first American sneakers were all produced by rubber companies – in the early 1900s, Goodyear, U.S. Rubber and Converse began selling iconic canvas designs that have hardly changed since. Keds, created by U.S. Rubber, were the first to use the word “sneakers” in marketing, in 1929. Bata itself made a fortune with its Czech version, called trampki. These Adidas Totem shoes are a 2013 design by Jeremy Scott.

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Now, design houses such as Lanvin and Jeremy Scott create limited, special-edition Nikes and Adidas for dandies and collectors. Some ludicrously elaborate ones are on display here. The bright green Prada “Kiltie Wingtips” from 2013 look like 1970s’ golf shoes on acid; the 2012 Louboutins (seen here) are covered in prickly gold spikes.

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Smith writes: The idea of the perfect sneaker put me in mind of Spike Lee’s character Buggin Out from Do The Right Thing (1989), who wears a pristine pair of white Air Jordans and takes any scuff as a racist affront. The impossibility of maintaining the unblemished whiteness on his shoes leads to an inevitable confrontation.

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Industrial designer Karim Rashid, who created the look of this whole display, contributed one of the most bizarre pairs, black Fessura boots with gold accents, a sultan’s shoes from a dark fairy tale. These shoes have no relation to sport of any kind.

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At the very end of the show you’ll find the most rarefied result of the fixation with sneaker as art form: A 2009 design by postmodernist sculptor Tom Sachs for Nike is “unconstructed” – that is, it was meant to be sold unfinished, held together with pieces of tape and the logo scrawled on it with a Sharpie. The idea was to “engage the fetishization of branding.”

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