Back in 2010, Mayan Rajendran, a graduate student in Ryerson’s fashion program, was doing an assignment on the Visvim FBT, a high-end Japanese sneaker. He asked his professor, Bata Shoe Museum senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, about what was in the museum’s sneaker collection. As it turned out, there was no sneaker collection.
“I was like ‘What can we do to change that?’” recalled Semmelhack. “We looked at each other and said: ‘sneaker exhibition.'”
Three years later, their vision has resulted in Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, which opens tonight at the Bata. The show is being billed as North America’s first museum-quality sneaker exhibition. It features everything from some of the first rubber-soled athletic shoes, made in the 19th century, to Jeremy Scott’s work for Adidas. There are also sketches from legendary Nike designers like Tinker and Tobie Hatfield. Semmelhack said she’s not so much interested in the shoes themselves as what they represent culturally.
“The core question for me always is ‘why?’” she said. “Why did sneakers only come around in he middle of the 19th century? Why did they become democratized during fascism? Why did they become a status symbol for the Me Generation? Why did the basketball shoe become an icon of urban culture in the ‘80s? These are the questions I want to unravel.”
The shoes will be accompanied by a series of sneaker-centric talks and film screenings, which are being programmed by local sneakerhead collective TO Loves Kicks. TLK’s Dion Walcott said Semmelhack consulted with the group extensively to make sure the Bata Museum was bringing in the right material.
“The pitch was, ‘If you’re going to bring in sneakers, how are you going to do it?’” said Walcott. “Initially, they were going to do more sneakers from the 1970s and back in the day, because that’s kind of where their current demographic is. But they wanted to also bring in new demographics, and that’s what we do. It was a natural marriage, where we could help them be authentic to what sneaker culture is, and then the museum has that historical presence.”
He adds that the exhibit isn’t just helping expose Toronto to sneaker culture; it’s helping establish Toronto as a centre in the largely U.S.-based sneaker scene.
“A lot of Americans don’t really realize what Toronto is about,” he said. “So for me, when I was talking to people there, I wasn’t just selling the exhibit, I was almost always by default selling Canada as a whole…They were like, ‘You have a museum exhibit about sneakers up there?’”
Semmelhack said that the sneaker, art, and fashion communities have all been incredibly supportive.
“Slowly but surely, I started getting loans from Germany and Hong Kong,” she said. “I contacted the archives at the various brands, all the archivists were incredibly helpful. Basically, it was an exhibition where no matter who I asked, they were happy to lend. That infectious passion for sneakers made this exhibition possible.”
She adds that the American Federation of the Arts has already contacted her about turning Out of the Box into a travelling show, once it wraps up its engagement at Bata.