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  • Tech billionaires wear them,

  • babies wear them,

  • even the US vice president is a fan.

  • Sneakers. Trainers. The tennis shoe.

  • Whatever you want to call them, they're everywhere -

  • maybe even on your own feet right now.

  • Tens of billions of pairs are manufactured every year.

  • The biggest athletic shoe companies make more in revenue

  • than the GDP of some countries.

  • So how did a piece of rubber, leather and canvas

  • become such big business?

  • Let's go back to the late 19th Century.

  • New sports like croquet and tennis required new footwear

  • to protect the grass lawns they were played on.

  • Not long after, sneaker brands started to appear.

  • Converse's most famous shoe, the All-Star, made its debut in 1917.

  • Two of the biggest names in the sneaker game, Adidas and Puma,

  • were each founded by a German brother.

  • Adi and Rudolf Dassler

  • got together in the 1920s

  • to make athletic shoes.

  • The Dassler brothers capitalised on something that's common sense today.

  • If you want people to buy your shoes, get someone famous to wear them.

  • That person was US Olympian Jesse Owens.

  • But Owens, a black athlete,

  • was set to compete at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin

  • at a time when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis

  • were firmly in control of Germany.

  • The Dassler brothers who, along with many German industrialists,

  • had joined the Nazi party, took a risk in approaching Owens.

  • The risk paid off when Owens went on to win four gold medals.

  • It was an incredible coup -

  • a black man upstaging Hitler's racist ideology on the world stage.

  • And he was wearing Dassler shoes.

  • After the war, the brothers split, each to form their own company -

  • Adi set up Adidas and Rudi, Puma.

  • In fact, Adidas is an amalgamation

  • of its founder's first and second names, Adi and Dassler.

  • His brother Rudi tried the same trick, and called his brand 'Ruda'

  • before realising that it didn't roll off the tongue.

  • But the story of sneakers is not just about

  • finding the right name for your product.

  • It's also about marketing.

  • Nike sold huge numbers of shoes during the jogging boom of the 1970s.

  • But when they wanted to move beyond running,

  • they needed something extra special.

  • And they found it in basketball legend Michael Jordan,

  • making him the biggest athletic spokesperson of all time.

  • The Nike-Jordan partnership was a huge success

  • generating more than $100 million in sales in its first 12 months,

  • rising to an incredible $3.6 billion,

  • or around £2.6 billion, in revenue in 2020.

  • Nike was also adept at spotting other opportunities.

  • Did you know they paid just $35, or roughly £284, in today's money

  • for their famous Swoosh logo?

  • And that the famous Nike sloganJust Do it

  • was inspired by the last words, “Let's Do it”,

  • of murderer Gary Gilmore prior to his 1977 execution?

  • It's not just athletes - and death row inmates -

  • who inspire us to wear sneakers.

  • In the mid-80s, hip-hop group Run-DMC signed a landmark deal with Adidas

  • paving the way for many more lucractive partnerships

  • between shoe makers and artists.

  • Today, Kanye West and Rihanna each have their own line of sneakers.

  • And they're worth big bucks.

  • West's collaboration with Adidas, the Yeezy sneaker line,

  • was valued at over £1.2 billion in 2019 .

  • But what does our appetite for all these shoes mean for the world?

  • Environmentally they are something of a disaster.

  • A single shoe can contain 65 different parts,

  • and hundreds of different processing steps.

  • As you can imagine, our shoes stick around in landfills

  • long after we've thrown them away.

  • A rubber sole might take 80 years to biodegrade.

  • Plastics and synthetics take hundreds more.

  • Several sneaker companies are experimenting

  • with recycled materials and more sustainable production methods.

  • But the legacy of our love affair with sneakers

  • will be with us for many, many years to come.

Tech billionaires wear them,

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The surprising history of sneakers | BBC Ideas

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    Summer posted on 2021/06/10
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