10 Pop-Cultural Moments That Define the White Leather Sneaker
Some trends come and go in cycles, others never disappear in the first place. One of them is the white leather sneaker – the low-top. Deeply engrained in fashion, available for anything from 50€ or 500€ from every brand under the sun – most of them eyeing a piece of the big Stan Smith pie. Speaking of Three Stripes, adidas has been a key driver of the trend and is about to drop its “Home of Classics” collection with ten white models. In the light of this release and summer season already in full swing, we’re taking a close look at white sneakers. Why are they relevant and what has made them this big?
The Rise of White Leather Sneakers
In the past few decades, the white leather sneaker has been silently entering most office dress codes from Berlin to New York and even from Würzburg to Tallahassee. It comes in various shapes and forms: Besides Stan Smiths, there are white-on-white Nike AF1s, Converse Jack Purcells, adidas Shell Toes, Reebok Workouts and of course the ever-present Common Projects Achilles. They have all written their own chapters in this story.
Why is this trend even relevant? First of all, because white footwear creates a special look. It visually strips everything to the core. If there’s no color, there’s only shape. Pure white also makes them a projection screen for anyone who wears it, blurring the borders between categories like fashion and street culture, classic and hip hop, formal and athletic or luxury and sports. White leather sneakers can be anything for anyone – spotlessly clean and crisp, worn down and dirty, luxury and premium or gracefully dirty. But whatever angle you have on the white leather sneaker, it’s a shoe that was shaped by pop culture over the decades. It was immortalized by people and events. And we’ve picked ten of the best moments for this feature.
Title illustration by Lucy Bohr
1. The Introduction of the Robert Haillet (1965)
Who has invented the white leather sneaker? This one goes to adidas. Previous court shoes were great and iconic, but they weren’t leather shoes. Converse’s Chuck Taylor in basketball, or Jack Purcell in badminton, they were canvas shoes. It was Adi’s son Horst Dassler, who decided that tennis needed a sturdy and performance-oriented leather sneaker. The French player Robert Haillet’s signature shoe, first released in 1965, was just that. It provided a great backstop for movements and changed tennis shoes forever. And when he retired in 1971, adidas was looking for a new poster boy – which they found in Pasadena-born Stan Smith. Which means, the Stan Smith is originally the Robert Haillet.
2. Stan Smith (the shoe) returning after its sabbatical (2014)
The big impact of the Stan Smith from 2014 onwards wasn’t an accident but part of a smart strategy.
When the market was oversaturated and the demand for the iconic sneaker slowed down, adidas gave the shoe a well-deserved sabbatical. They took it off the shelve for about two years and prepared it for a big comeback in January 2014, true to the look and shape of the original.
And indeed, the shoe came back stronger than ever and Stan Smith (the person) would rightfully say: “Now it is worn for just about everything except tennis”.
3. Jay-Z’s Signature Reebok Shoe “S. Carter“ (2003)
At a time when sneakers were slowly rising from street culture into fashion, Reebok was setting its eyes on one of the most influential rappers of the time – Shawn Carter aka Jay Z. Known for his obsession with white-on-white AF1s and for his ability to push trends just by name-dropping brands or models, he’d already given fame to adidas with his song “The Blueprint”:
“Lampin’ in the Hamptons, the weekends man/The Stan Smith Adidas and the Campus,” Jay Z rapped in 2001.
In 2003, Jay-Z became the first non-athlete to receive a signature shoe from Reebok. The result was the S. Carter, sold primarily at Foot Locker locations. A week later, it was announced that they sold more than 10,000 pairs tagged at $100. It was the fastest selling Reebok shoe in the history of the brand. The sneaker itself wasn’t especially unique but a nod to the Gucci Tennis ’84.
4. The Introduction of the Common Projects “Achilles Low” (2004)
When Peter Poopat and Flavio Girolami became friends in New York’s fashion scene, they joined forces on a mission. That mission was to make a sneaker that bridged the gap between Nike and Gucci. Something with the casual appeal of a sneaker but the premium look and feel of a luxury Italian dress shoe. The result was the Achilles, first released in 2004. Famed for its minimal design and lack of branding, it retailed for $265 – a number that seemed steep but was actually a loss when materials and other costs were considered. The price was ramped up even further and so the Achilles became something like the iPhone of the footwear world.
5. The Introduction of the Air Force 1 Low (late 80s)
The Air Force 1 holds a special place in sneaker history. By popular demand and requests from three Baltimore retailers, Nike made the Air Force 1 the first ever model to be re-released after going out of production. The ”Color of the Month” program featured new city-specific colorways. It was such an immediate success, that it returned to more east coast stores with further regional exclusives in 1986. But while the rise of Bruce Kilgore’s immortal design is well documented, it’s not exactly clear when the lowtop version came out. Probably a while after the AF1 reissues in 1986. But one thing is certain. The lowtop version added to the ageless look of the design and gave it an even more premium look. Especially in white.
6. Prada Sport’s iconic SS01 Campaign (2001)
Prada’s recently revived Linea Rossa was first installed in 1997 after young designer Neil Barrett had suggested to CEO Patrizio Bertelli that the brand should launch a sportswear line. Bertelli listened to the designer und put him in the driver seat. The “Red Line” introduced the world to “metropolitan garments” with materials and shapes that assimilated the features of “technical mountain clothes” as the brand itself would put it. The look of the SS01 campaign shot by Phil Poynter immortalized this approach. Furthermore, it gave fame to the premium sports look that would much later be named “athleisure”. The white sneaker subsequently was found on the feet of editors and bloggers at fashion shows in Milan and New York, while the same shoes were also appearing on the runways before them.
7. A$AP Rocky Mentioning Stan Smith and Raf Simons (2015)
A$AP Rocky has been a fan of both the Stan Smith and Raf Simons. In addition, he was one of the first celebs to actually shine a light on the Belgian designer.
His song “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2 (LPFJ2)” was great name-dropping on both accounts: “Always been a stand-up guy, I’d rather stand out/Raf Simons, Stan Smith edition with my bands out”. Besides this line, A$AP frequently stepped out with Stan Smiths on his feet, well representing the white sneaker premium look.
8. Jane Fonda working out in Reeboks (1982)
In 1981, sales rep Angel Martinez presented the idea of an exercise shoe to Reebok CEO Paul Fireman. It was immediately rejected. Fireman had never heard of aerobics. Martinez then sketched it on a napkin and another executive ordered a prototype which was quickly loved by fitness instructors. This ultimately led to the Freestyle – the first female-oriented fitness sneaker. It was a game changer and the 32.000 sneakers that were ordered sold out in a matter of days. Reebok didn’t need an endorsement deal with the fitness guru Jane Fonda, who was partly responsible for the huge hype through her videos. Jane was already wearing the shoe for the simple fact that she liked it. All these forces combined turned Reebok in one of the most notorious “white sneaker brands” in the industry.
9. The adidas x Run DMC Endorsement Deal (1986)
When Run DMC was performing at Madison Square Garden in 1986 their road manager had invited adidas executive Angelo Anastasio to the show.
When it was time for the song “My Adidas,” Run held his sneakers in the air and the crowd immediately followed. Precisely at that moment, Anastasio realized the sheer power of hip-hop marketing.
This led straight to a 1-million-dollar endorsement deal with Run DMC – and the band representing, above all, white Shelltoes.
10. Raf Simon’s Love for the Stan Smith (2014)
Raf Simons’ collab with adidas that started in 2013 was no surprise given his love for the brand. When it was time for the Fall/Winter 2014 season, it quickly turned out that the Stan Smith was one of the favorites for everyone. And that’s also because of the subtle treatment of the classic shoe. Simply replacing the stripes with a simple “R” and executing with premium materials was all it took to create a pop culture icon. And a $400 price tag.