The Sneaker Book

Dante Ramos reviews 'The Sneaker Book: An Anatomy Of An Industry And An Icon' by Tom Vanderbilt.

By Dante Ramos
Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The world's largest sneaker company touts its giant Nike Town stores as the
future of retailing, but as writer Tom Vanderbilt wanders wide-eyed through
the Chicago outlet he sees the place as a weird corporate pastiche. "What
is ultimately fascinating about Nike Town is the way in which corporate
consumer capitalism has absorbed and seemingly replaced so many other
spheres of culture," Vanderbilt, a regular contributor to the Baffler,
writes in "The Sneaker Book." "We can see in Nike Town the minute
architectural touches of a Gaudí and the ambitious, all-encompassing design
aesthetic of the Bauhaus." With its in-house re-creation of a "classic
high-school gymnasium," the Nike Town in New York is just as strange: "Nike
is in essence reinserting itself into a history in which it didn't exist."

This first installment in a series by the New Press on individual consumer
goods is subtitled "An Anatomy of an Industry and an Icon," and as that
phrase suggests, Vanderbilt is trying to explain anything and everything
about the history, marketing and manufacture of sneakers. And in fact, the
evolution of the lowly canvas-and-rubber sneaker into today's array of
pricey, highly specialized athletic shoes is a lively enough story. In the
early 1900s, the mass producers of sneakers were resolutely industrial
firms. Over the years, Adidas and other manufacturers started introducing
new styles at an ever-increasing rate and paying athletes to act as
pitchmen for their products.

Not surprisingly, Vanderbilt views Nike, with its anti-authoritarian image
and big spending habits, as the company most responsible for the present
culture of cutting-edge marketing, zillion-dollar endorsement deals and
heavy spending on design. But he identifies a host of other factors that
accelerated the growth of sneakers into an $11 billion industry: the
running and tennis booms of the 1970s, the rise of free agency in
professional sports, the relaxation of dress codes in schools and
workplaces, the singular talents of Michael Jordan. Vanderbilt dutifully
catalogs sneaker imagery as it bubbled up into comic strips, movies,
music and literature, from a Run-D.M.C. interview to Stephen King's "The
Body." He clearly wants his book to end up in the cultural studies section
of American bookstores, not with the business books.

Yet the intellectualization of kitsch, as academic Gerald Early has called
it, is a risky endeavor. The premise, of course, is that there are plenty
of goods and pastimes that people don't think twice about and that by
unpacking these phenomena you can learn something about the world. When it
succeeds, it's dazzling. At worst, though, you end up trolling for new
insights about a topic worn out by other writers.

"The Sneaker Book" falls somewhere in between. In his clever ruminations on
Nike Town in particular and the atmospherics of sneaker marketing in
general, Vanderbilt seems guiltily fascinated with the corporatization of
everyday life. But he seems far less interested in the concrete product
itself, and much of his book's main text reads no better than a very good
term paper. A chapter on the manufacturing-and-distribution process dwells
upon poor working conditions in East Asia. Such practices are indefensible,
but they have been chronicled extensively elsewhere, and Vanderbilt brings
no new analysis to the issue. His conclusions can be vague (e.g., "Sneakers
are the emblematic product of the late 20th century"), and his book is
padded lavishly with long chunks from articles by other authors. The
overall effect is a little disorienting, a lively book in which some of the
most interesting passages were written by other people. Then again, why
not? Maybe a product as postmodern as the athletic shoe can only be
described in a nonlinear way.

Dante Ramos

Dante Ramos is deputy editorial page editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

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