The psychology behind our sneaker obsession is fascinating as they are an extension of ourselves, an expression of who we are as individuals.
Human beings weren’t designed to wear shoes. Our early-human ancestors roamed the grasslands of Africa (and China) barefoot. Human beings certainly weren’t designed to wear high-heeled shoes. Why, then, do so many women (and quite a few men) wear them? Is it the artificially increased height that turns heads? No, it’s the way in which heels change the mechanics of a woman’s gait.
In the words of psychologist Paul Morris, to whom TRT World reached out to for comments, high heels “may exaggerate the sex-specific aspects of the female walk”.
Morris calls high heels a “supernormal stimulus”, an item that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved. Buttock implants and augmented breasts are other examples of supernormal stimuli.
High-heeled shoes are popular. But, not surprisingly, they are far from the most popular type of footwear on the planet. That title goes to the sneaker. Although the oldest shoes discovered date back about 8,000 years, cushioned shoes only came into existence three centuries ago; in other words, sneakers are a rather new invention.
Next year marks the 100th birthday of the Converse Chuck Taylor “All Star”, the first signature sneaker. Many readers probably own at least one pair of sneakers. Some own two, maybe even three. The average American, we’re told, owns six pairs.
George Sullivan once owned 300 pairs. That’s before he decided to give them away to charity. Sullivan is no ordinary man. He’s the CEO and Founder of The Sole Supplier, Europe's largest sneaker platform.
Sullivan tells TRT World that The Sole Supplier started as a passion project from his parents’ spare bedroom. In the decade or so since, the company has grown to become one of the world’s “largest dedicated footwear and lifestyle” companies. “The Sole Supplier,” according to Sullivan, “is now a major strategic partner to some of the world's largest fashion brands, powered by a team of 50 at the London creative hub in Shoreditch.”
What got Sullivan interested in sneakers? Sullivan believes that all our outfits start “from the bottom up”. In other words, your footwear sets the foundation, literally and metaphorically. Clothing choices, including footwear choices, say a lot about “someone’s personality,” he says. Sullivan is right. Studies show that shoes tend to accurately reflect the personality of the wearer. If others judge our personalities by what we wear, then it’s only natural that we, the wearers, should attach significant importance to our “foundational” choices.
Does Sullivan have a particular favourite type of sneaker? He does. It’s the Nike Air Force 1, a beautiful sneaker designed by Bruce Kilgore and introduced 40 years ago this year. In fact, Sullivan loves the Air Force 1 so much that “this is 90 percent of what I buy now”.
At 5 foot 9, it gives him “an extra bit of height, plus it’s the most comfy and diverse pair for a range of outfits”. Like the world in general, The Air Force 1 has come a long way since 1982. In January this year, Sotheby’s placed a pair of the Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 by Virgil Abloh up for auction. They sold for $70,000. Today, as Sullivan knows only too well, sneakers are much more than just a type of footwear. They are an extension of ourselves. They are an expression of who we are as individuals. If people tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, then they also wear their personalities on their feet.
In 2019, according to MarketWatch, the global sneaker market was valued at a little over $73 million; by the end of 2026, it is projected to be worth close to $120 million. For decades, sneakers have been growing in popularity. The question, though, is why?
Speaking to TRT World, behavioural psychologist Dr. Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion and founder of psychology.fashion, says sneakers are so popular “because they are comfortable and practical”.
Furthermore, they tend to be “more reasonably priced than other footwear, and they are wearable for many people who require accessible clothing (e.g., wheelchair users)”.
Dr. Mair then mentions celebrity endorsements, a phenomenon that has made sneakers even more desirable. Ever since the days of Michael Jordan propelling Nike to fame, and RUN-DMC promoting Adidas, the celebrity-sneaker endorsement has become a regular occurrence. In this age, where celebrities carry more clout than politicians, what they say counts more than ever. More specifically, what they wear counts more than ever.
“The rise in popularity of hip-hop and skateboarding has also added to the popularity of sneakers,” argues Dr. Mair. “They enable the wearer to project their identity as a fan of a particular music genre or musician (to others who are familiar with this music or musician).”
Sneakers, she added, “are also androgynous,” meaning “everyone can enjoy them, not restricted by gendered sizing”. Dr. Mair emphasises the importance of colour in our sneaker choices. And for good reason. Jenny Ross, head of concept design and strategy for lifestyle footwear at New Balance, told the NY Times that between “70 percent and 90 percent of the subconscious decisions on a product are made on colour alone in a few seconds”.
Colours, she added, have the power to “excite or calm us,” even “raise our blood pressure”. The influence exerted by colour is extremely powerful. Intoxicating and all-consuming.
Dr. Mair also speaks about the importance of branding. What message does a sneaker send? When branding “aligns with our values, and or collaborates with a celebrity we admire,” then, not surprisingly, “we are more likely to buy from that brand as a way of expressing our own values and interests.” Importantly, “once an item becomes popular and is so universally wearable, it becomes more than a trend. It becomes part of who we are.”
Which brings us onto Adidas Yeezy sneakers, the brainchild of Adidas and Kanye West, arguably the most famous musician on the planet. West, though, is much more than a musician. He’s an artist, a designer, a man who has helped design some of the most popular sneakers in recent history.
Although his designs are popular, very popular, they have received a considerable degree of backlash, with more than a few people calling Yeezys ugly. Other authors have argued that West’s designs prove that we live in an age where branding, rather than actual aesthetical value, reigns supreme. An argument that ties in with Dr. Mair’s assertions.
For people willing to spend hundreds – and sometimes, hundreds of thousands – of dollars on sneakers, Dr. Mair compares their desires to “buying an NFT”, where “the value is in the token, not the product”. In other words, purchasing an incredibly expensive pair of sneakers often has nothing to do with how the product actually looks. Instead, the value is tied to something more intrinsic, esoteric, even speculative.
“In this case,” adds Dr. Mair, “the value is set only by market demand.” Dr. Mair finishes with a rather interesting comment: consumers often buy celebrity-endorsed products “to identify with the celebrity's look and lifestyle and in some cases, to feel that they are included in the celebrity's social group.” But, she stresses, “in reality, they are not.”
Future of Sneakers
The world of sneakers is an ever-evolving one. A decade from now, what will this world look like? According to Sullivan, “there will be a lot more options for people to have their own bespoke aspect of each sneaker.” He’s right. After all, Nike already offers customisations to clothing and footwear. The “explosion of the third-party customisation scene,” adds Sullivan, “from t-shirts referencing sneakers, to silver pendants of shoes, to tailor made Air Force 1s” are all signs of things to come.
Speaking of things to come, what about the Metaverse, a mysterious world I have discussed before. As Sullivan notes, rather accurately, “people will be wearing their own shoes within the growing Metaverse, trading them and ultimately, showing who they are in the digital world.”
Although this is a somewhat “scary prospect,” Sullivan is simply the messenger, a man who is “looking at the crystal ball” and predicting where the world of sneakers is headed. However, he stresses, passionately, “nothing will ever take away from the conscious real-world experience – you are unable to complete the triangle of health, wealth and love in the metaverse (for now).”
We must “remember the things that got us here today —real-world experiences!” In truth, no one knows where we are headed. But, wherever the world takes us, be it the physical one or the digital one, it always helps to have a great pair of sneakers.