• January 2012

The Art of the Sneaker Is Revealed in Nathan Gale's "Art & Sole"

By Michael Gibbs
Art Director, Be Inkandescent magazine
Owner, Michael Gibbs Illustration & Design

Sneakers have come a long way since the days of Keds (the first “sneaker,” introduced by U.S. Rubber in the late 1800s and mass-produced in 1917) and Converse All-Stars (aka “Chucks” when they were endorsed by basketball’s Chuck Taylor).

In the 50s, they evolved from athletic wear to fashion statement, aided by James Dean in the classic film, “Rebel Without a Cause.” Sales of sneakers soared through the 60s (relaxed school dress-codes), 70s (fitness and jogging crazes), and 80s (Michael Jordan and his famous Air Jordans).

And now, sneakers have become an art form. Influenced by hip-hop and skater cultures and picked up by sneaker manufactures, this intersection of sneaker culture and art has been chronicled by our January 2012 Artist of the Month, UK designer Nathan Gale, author of Art & Sole: Contemporary Sneaker Art & Design.

Why did Nathan feel compelled to write this book?

“In recent years the sneaker scene has exploded with limited editions and artist/designer collaborations,” Gale explains. “These specialist shoes are invariably produced as short runs, using innovative or luxury materials and often have bespoke packaging.”

In fact, Art & Sole is the first book to focus exclusively on contemporary, cutting-edge sneaker design. His goal was to explore and celebrate the creative side of sneaker culture, showing the best and most original rarities/collaborations and previewing the latest art and design.

If you think sneakers are pedestrian mashups of white canvas and rubber soles, you’re in for a surprise.

These shoes are at the leading edge of sneaker culture—not shoes that can be found in your average sports store. In addition, the book highlights how creative advances have been furthered by a growing number of artists who base their work on sneakers—from sculptures made from dissected shoes, to oil paintings on canvas, and even the customization of the shoes themselves.

Following is our Q&A with the well-heeled author.

Michael Gibbs: What first gave you the idea to write this book? Are you a skater or a hip-hop aficionado, or a sharp-eyed designer who noticed these things and had a desire to chronicle them? In other words, are you approaching this from a sneaker-wearer perspective, or a design perspective?

Nathan Gale: I suppose my main point of view was that of a designer—although of course I’ve always had an interest in sneakers, too. At the time I was formulating the idea for the “Art & Sole” book, I was actually working full time as the art director of a communication arts magazine called Creative Review —a role that gave me the opportunity to see a huge range of creative work from all around the globe. The original concept for the book was for it to be more of a general sneaker book. … But the more I researched the artistic side of the scene, the more it made sense to concentrate only on this more specialist area.

Michael Gibbs: I can imagine that it wasn’t easy to do all this research. The number of sneakers and and breadth of the artwork is pretty phenomenal. Tell us a little about how you managed to gather all this great information and art.

Nathan Gale: You are right. The research was really tough! The first thing I did when compiling the book was to trawl the Internet and then make a list of all the creative collaborations I wanted to feature—a list which ended up being pretty huge. I then went about trying to source everything on the list, by contacting either the manufacturer of the artist involved (or both if it was relevant). The main difficulty was getting info/images from people—most were very helpful and up for cooperating … but even then the whole process was really slow, and in general people required lots of chasing. Things were complicated further by the fact that a lot of the artists featured had actually collaborated with more than one brand. Not only that, I soon discovered that sneaker manufacturers (amazingly) don’t always keep official records on their collaborations—something that I’d wrongly assumed to be the case.

Michael Gibbs: You explain in the book that the creative side of the sneaker scene has made the artist and designer an obvious alliance. How did this collaboration come about?

Nathan Gale: Sneakers have always been a strong part of creative subcultures such as hip-hop and skateboarding (both of which have a rich history of customizing shoes), and I believe this is where the artist/designer alliance has come from. Much like the T-shirt, the sneaker quickly became a creative outlet that allowed people to state their individuality, and it was only a matter of time until the sneaker manufacturers picked up on this.

Michael Gibbs: In some cases, it seems like big business may be co-opting the vocabulary (visual, in this case) of a subculture to build credibility (and boost sales), or maybe it’s a more symbiotic, less exploitative collaboration. How do you view the collaboration in terms of the manufacturers’ perspective?

Nathan Gale: I think times are changing, and there’s no longer the feeling that (the majority) of big brands are simply borrowing from subculture (in fact it could even be argued that there is no such thing as subculture anymore). Most brands now are actually part of subculture, rather than simply referencing it. The age-old problem of “art” or “commerce” seems far less relevant for artists/designers at this moment in time. Of course, the brand/artist partnership is one that benefits both parties involved, and manufacturers certainly look to acquire credibility and yes, in the long term, to boost sales.

Michael Gibbs: These shoes generally consist of a designer altering an existing shoe; and often it’s a vintage shoe like a classic Reebok, or a Converse All-Star. Is that process ever reversing itself, a shoe manufacturer creating a shoe specifically for a designer, or an artist influencing the design of a shoe?

Nathan Gale: I think that’s the ultimate for most artists/designers out there—to actually influence the construction of the shoe as well as the appearance. It actually doesn’t happen very often, however—the closest most artists get to working with the construction of the shoe is by selecting unusual materials to work with (things like 3M, or paper, etc.). Designers with closer links to the world of fashion (such as Japan’s Hiroshi Fujiwara) have more input on the shoe design, and fashion designers do get to actually construct their own shoes; for an example just look at the Mihara Yasuhiro & Puma project featured in the book.

Michael Gibbs: Many of these sneakers are one-offs, or extremely small “editions.” It seems crazy to wear shoes this expensive. I’m guessing when (if) they’re worn, it’s not for a pickup game of basketball at the local gym, but rather a night at the opera (à la Woody Allen wearing sneakers to the ballet.) More likely, they’re bought by collectors. Is there a subculture of sneaker collectors?

Nathan Gale: Yes, here is a huge culture of collecting sneakers, and the collectors often exhibit fetishistic traits when it comes to their passion. In general there are two-schools of thought—those who collect and preserve their sneakers in absolute mint condition, and those who choose to wear their sneakers. Personally I would never dream of not wearing the shoes I own. …

Michael Gibbs: The range of art is pretty breathtaking, from street artists to MIT artists/professors; from Asian artists to European artists to American artists, from tattoo art to graffiti art to laser-etching. It seems to know no bounds. Did you find that to be the case? Were there any spots where sneaker art seemed to be particularly hot? And have you seen any new techniques, or artist/brand collaborations on the horizon?

Nathan Gale: That’s the great thing about sneaker collaborations—they’re in no way restricted to one particular artistic style. As far as I can see, there isn’t any set direction for techniques, or the scene in general—in fact things seem to be diversifying even further. In terms of collaborations … look out for a special edition set of “Art & Sole” sneakers in the New Year (see below for more info)!

Michael Gibbs: The second half of the book is devoted to art about sneakers, rather than art literally on sneakers. What are your observations about this art? Has this art ever been curated into one show? Any standout pieces in your mind? And are these pieces generally a result of marketing or other commercial purposes, or are they purely the products of the artists’ imagination and inspiration?

Nathan Gale: As far as I know, there has never been a general show about “sneaker art“—although it’s certainly a great idea! I curated a small show for the launch of “Art & Sole,” but in the back of my mind I’ve always been thinking about putting together something bigger. Most sneaker-art shows tend to be focused around one particular concept—the launch of a new shoe, or the celebration of a classic shoe for example. Some such exhibitions are simply the result of an artist being inspired by sneakers—such as Michael Lau’s “Mr. Shoe Sample Exhibition“—but most are instigated by the brands themselves. The “White Dunk” project from back in 2004 is probably a standout example of this for me; a diverse group of Japanese artists were invited by Nike CEO Mark Parker to respond to the classic (white) Nike Dunk basketball shoe. The resulting exhibition toured Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles.

Michael Gibbs: Regarding the shoes, do you have a favorite artist, or artist-brand collaboration? Do you own any?

Nathan Gale: I don’t really have a favorite artist as such, although I own shoes and art by the likes of Parra, Ben Drury, James Jarvis, Katsuya Terada, Futura, Hiroshi Fujiwara and (“Art & Sole” cover-artist) Dave White. In fact, I’ve recently set up an “Art & Sole” screen-print project in which I commission some of my favorite sneaker-related artists to produce artwork based on the theme of “Art & Sole.” First up was James Jarvis, followed by Kustaa Saksi, with the most recent in the series being created by Ben Drury. Check out the “Art & Sole” blog for more information.

Michael Gibbs: Are you continuing your search for more sneakers and more sneaker art? Any plans for a follow-up book, or a book on the art of something else?

Nathan Gale: There aren’t any plans for another book as yet, but we’re still researching and compiling content, most of which we upload to the “Art & Sole” blog. The book itself is also being re-released in a mini-edition on 1 March 2012. This smaller edition will be an exact replica of the original book, simply printed in a smaller format—with a lower cover price to match. To launch the mini-edition, we’re also currently working on an exciting project with Nike where we’re commissioning a group of artists to help create a set of special-edition books with accompanying sneakers. More information will be coming soon—simply check out the “Art & Sole” website for updates.

Click here to check out Gale’s blog: artandsoleblog.com/blog.

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