Of all the consumer products in today’s bustling marketplace, perhaps few can claim to have transcended humble roots to quite the extent of the oft-disparaged training shoe (‘sneaker’ in North America). No longer confined to the gym, today’s trainers offer around the clock comfort and performance, not to mention style, with a quite mesmerising array of choice available, from the classic Converse Chuck Taylor All Star to the alien-looking Nike Air Vapormax.
What’s more, trainers (much like cars) have amassed a sizeable enthusiast following (known as ‘sneakerheads’) to whom the pursuit of the latest or rarest pair is an all-consuming activity fed by a thriving resale market, dedicated live events and .
Even outside of the sneakerhead bubble, one’s choice of training shoe is now every bit as much a form of self-expression as one’s choice of car, particularly with young fashion-conscious buyers – surely testament to the creativity of footwear designers.
Interestingly, in the perpetual quest for inspiration, sportswear manufacturers have frequently turned to the world of motoring. Adidas have teamed up with Porsche Design on multiple occasions (with output varying from the classically elegant Typ 64 to the wacky ) along with tyre manufacturers Continental and Goodyear, while rival Puma turned to BMW’s Designworks to pen its futuristic X-CAT DISC (taking inspiration from Chris Bangle’s GINA concept). Even the great Pininfarina once dipped a toe into the footwear market, back in 2001.
Perhaps unfortunately however, fewer ideas seem to have passed in the opposite direction, Nissan’s 2005 Adidas concept being one of few notable (pun intended) examples along with the Nike ONE 2022 designed for Gran Turismo 4. Might the car industry be able to learn a few things from sneakers? Let’s take a look...
One noticeable aspect of the sports footwear market is the myriad colour and material options available, from classic leather and suede through mesh, plastics and rubber to high-tech knitted fabrics (, for example).
Furthermore, shoe ‘colourways’, as distinctive combinations are known to aficionados, often go on to be outright iconic in their own right. Market leader Nike seems to be a particular master of this – see its Air Max ‘Neon 95’, ‘Silver Bullet’ or Air Jordan ‘Chicago’.
By contrast, car manufacturer’s conservatism in this area well established. The odd flash of carbon-fibre aside, new materials and finishes are often hidden away and whilst iconic paint colours certainly exist (Rosso Corsa, British Racing Green, etc.) manufacturers have been unable (or unwilling) to utilise combinations of colour and material in anything like the same way that the sports firms do – though Peugeot’s recent string of brilliantly executed concepts certainly shows the potential here.
Even the integration of the manufacturer’s logo is seen as an opportunity for shoe designers to get creative. Again, Nike excels here, with its ‘swoosh’ often integrated into the most unlikely parts of a shoe (sole tread, laces, etc.) as well as appearing at unconventional angles, or else backwards, and in every possible size and hue.
How about embossing a car’s model name into a sill or bumper, rather than spelling it out with the same little chrome letters everyone else uses? A manufacturer’s logo in a contrast colour or unconventional position, integrated into a light maybe, or perhaps a glass area? Minor details sure, but maybe one small way to impress younger buyers accustomed to critiquing the latest Nike, Adidas or New Balance release.
Also striking is footwear designers’ willingness to not only adopt new technologies, but to display them front and centre aesthetically too. Nike’s mega-successful Air Max dynasty is the apparent originator of this, with its transparent ‘airbags’ intended to cushion against motion impacts and reduce weight. The visible air unit, apparently , has since become an instantly recognisable hallmark of the brand’s running shoes.
Not to be outdone, rival Adidas has fought back with cushioning technologies of its own, including the aesthetically challenged Springblade, the popular Boost foam (made from foam capsules moulded together during manufacturing) and even a beautiful 3D-printed sole unit (which features on ).
Conversely, it seems somewhat of a shame that at least some of the technology under the surface of modern cars isn’t displayed more prominently, or at least hinted at.
Might translucent panels to display some internal structure or mechanical/electrical components be interesting? How could 3D-printed components change a car’s appearance, or a new impact absorbing material be made into a feature? Even an EV charging port could be a visual focus point, maybe...
But, as undaunted as the footwear industry is to embrace the future, the past is never forgotten either, for alongside new and otherworldly-looking creations, classic silhouettes make up much of its output with retro re-issues and re-workings often generating large amounts of hype among consumers.
Though the car industry has parallels here (the MINI brand being an obvious one), the common automotive perception that retro design constitutes a ‘dead end’ or signals a dearth of new ideas, whilst no doubt accurate in certain cases, is to a large extent dispelled by the footwear industry.
Rarely are older silhouettes left to gather dust, but continuously reinvigorated with not only fresh colour and material combinations, but the latest in visible technology too, leading to a fascinating cross-pollination of the old and new which often results in some of the industry’s most popular, appealing and inventive output.
Adidas Originals’ best-selling Nomad (NMD) range (a modern shoe with a retro twist) is certainly one example, but there’s far more.
Fancy old-school aesthetics combined with the very latest visible technology? Take a look at the Nike Air Max LD Zero and Air Vapormax Plus, or else Adidas’ Iniki Runner and Stan Smith Boost Primeknit. Want a modern shoe featuring retro materials and colourways? New Balance’s 247 Luxe should be right up your street. A classic reworked with modern touches? Try the translucent Converse All Star by Off White.
Obviously all this is much easier to do if you don’t have ever-changing emissions and safety legislation to comply with. However, far from consigning over a century of automotive design evolution to the dustbin, the advent of EVs and the freedom from historical packaging restraints is likely to bring perhaps the best opportunity yet for car designers to be playful with their heritage.
Could we see car manufacturers establish their own ‘originals’ lines to compliment unashamedly forward-looking output? Might future roads – as today’s trainer shops – contain an eclectic mix of the futuristic and the classic, or else some of the most interesting vehicle designs emerge from the juxtaposition of the old and the new, as with footwear?
It’s an interesting thought if nothing else, one of many to emerge from the fascinating and varied world of sneakers, a subculture worthy of any creative’s attention.
So, designers, next time you’re short on ideas, try looking at your feet!