You could argue that the trend for trainers, sneakers, tennies, gym shoes, call them what you will, never really went away. Broadly speaking, you would be right. Ever since the 1980s, when trainers became the symbol for youth (both unaffected and disaffected), fashion has flirted with—and at times embraced—the idea of the athletic shoe as a totemic symbol of rebellion, anti-fashion and androgyny.
What began with grunge (thanks to the collaborations between Kate Moss, photographer Corinne Day and stylist Melanie Ward, featuring the model in trainers with practically everything) has actually come full circle. This season's pared-down sportswear, coupled with the trends for floral and white, means that trainers are once again a viable option. For this upcoming autumn/winter, there's even a chance they may (along with battered boots) become de rigueur. Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, for one, has heralded a new androgynous, "glamorous grunge"; the footwear corollary of which would most naturally be battered trainers.
But the point of the revival, which has been bubbling under for the last two years, is not really the "wearing" of trainers, whichmost of us do all the time; it's the wearing of trainers with intent, which is an entirely different matter. If you still aren't getting the picture, let's take a couple of "first ladies" as an example. Both used trainers to make a point. Exhibit A: First Lady Michelle Obama in her £365 pink-toed Lanvin trainers. OK, so she shouldn't have visited a food bank in them, but in the words of one observer, the FL was "rocking her sneakers" and illustrating that, hey, she's a regular, comfort-seeking female, just like the rest of us. Ditto Samantha Cameron, pictured bedraggled but glamorous on a walk near Chequers in her "Chuckies," or Converse trainers. Mrs. "sans hat" Cameron has, like "Dave," always made a point of appearing "down with the kids." In that sense, those Chuck Taylors were perfectly on message.
I won't drag you through a turgid technical history of the sneaker including waffles, bubbles, air cushioning, antipronation, supination, orthotics and barefoot technology. Instead, let's run through the fashion highlights, which go something like this: During the 1800s, plimsolls were developed by the Liverpool Rubber company in the form of canvas shoes with a rubber sole and a line resembling the plimsoll line on a boat. In the same way that the plimsoll line reflected the point at which a boat could sit comfortably in the water without effectively flooding, the line on the plimsoll illustrated the point at which the canvas would get wet if the foot was immersed. In the early 1900s, a U.S. company called Keds developed a shoe with a waffled rubber sole that allowed the wearer to move about fairly silently (hence "sneakers"). At around the same time, Converse began making their classic "All Stars." Between the '20s and the '50s, Adidas produced the first tennis shoe and Hollywood stars like James Dean popularized the whole jeans and sneakers look. Puma, set up by Rudi Dassler as the result of a feud with his brother Adi, (who created Adidas), was arguably the coolest brand at the time, having the illustrious honor in 1968 of being worn by 1966 World Cup soccer legend Eusebio and by Black Power runners, Thomas Smith and Lee Evans at the Mexico Olympics.
The '60s and '70s saw the birth of running and running-specific shoes (see Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman of Nike), whilst the '80s and '90s saw the emergence of all-star-athlete-associated shoes—Michael Jordan for Nike and Venus Williams for Reebok. The birth of aerobics during the early '80s (thanks, Jane Fonda) spawned the cult of the Freestyle—the white Reeboks worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, whilst the movie "Working Girl," starring Melanie Griffiths in white socks and sneakers, practically started a class war by poking fun at Manhattan's female blue-collar workers, all of whom wore the aforementioned footwear. The cult of sneaker or trainer really began during the '90s, when the post-grunge mood spawned simple, chic androgyny from designers like Helmut Lang (his stylist Melanie Ward claimed inspiration from London's Asian community, who wore trainers with their saris) and Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garçons, whose pared-back vibe suited the trainer ethos.
It was Miuccia Prada, though, who took the trainer to a whole new level when she created her iconic 2004 Linea Rossa America's Cup trainers. The sneakers, initially in black, silver or white became classics and suddenly made it acceptable for fashion designers to incorporate trainers into their shoe lines, with Gucci, Chanel and ultimately even Christian Louboutin getting in on the action. Inevitably, trainers have come through the "skater phase" with Vans; the "starry/rapper phase," see Pharrel Williams, Jay-Z and Christina Aguilera; the "nerd phase" with Onitsukas; the "total fashion phase," trainers with wedges and heels from Marc Jacobs, Converse and Prada, up to the present day, which is, rather ironically (but somewhat predictably, because—it's fashion) trending backward toward the retro or the pared down. Superga, for example, has just hired Alexa Chung to be their brand representative. It's a savvy move for a company that sells what are essentially simple plimsolls.
Like hemlines, the height or cushioning of trainers has gone up and down, depending upon the vagaries of fashion and, more importantly, the specifics of running and training technology. Just as the traditional basketball "high top" has begun to go "low top" thanks to Kobe Bryant, so the world of running has paid attention to the trend toward "barefoot," initiated by gold-medal-winning marathoner Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia in 1960 in the Rome Olympics, and popularized again with Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run" in 2009. Nike was predictably quick to release their Nike Free technology in response, offering a range of slimmed-down sneakers, which they say simulate the effects of barefoot running but cushion the impact. Whether you run in them or not, sneakers with their slimmer über-retro look are suddenly appearing everywhere—at Niketown New York on a recent pilgrimage, I found their NikeFree 3.0v2 (£70) women's running shoe practically sold out (I can attest that the shoes will comfortably see you through a three-mile run). Likewise, the even more niche (and possibly cooler) neon-colored Newton sneakers (www.newtonrunning.com) also focus on the concept of barefoot, whilst claiming to apply Sir Isaac Newton's law of motion. I love the sneakers, but their colors make them a challenge to wear with anything other than jeans. That's not stopping New Yorkers, who are to be seen sporting them all over town with every and any outfit. Does the New York Newton frenzy have anything to do with the fact that barefoot technology can apparently help you shave up to a minute off every mile you run? Nah. I think they're all just showing off.