From the Publisher
"What brilliant fun and insight this book provides—a friendly, provocative sketch of the neo-imperial sneaker and how its powers of fantasy conquered hearts and minds, then the world." —William Greider, author of One World, Ready or Not
"While Tom Vanderbilt is always funny, iconoclastic, and penetrating, The Sneaker Book is no laughing matter. In this harrowing sprint around the global track of corporate capital, Vanderbilt reveals a world of exploitation, greed, and insanity Charles Dickens himself could not have dreamed up." —Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Yo’ Mama’s Dis Funktional!
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 Gaudf 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. -- SalonJuly 30, 1998