In recent years, it has become common for art galleries and museums to show fashion exhibitions as part of their annual programs. Usually it’s fashion’s “high end” that gets all the attention: think couture; adventurous, avant-garde design; and glamorous celebrity fashion.
For its latest exhibition, the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) is taking a different tack and turning its attention to something a little more everyday: sneakers.
The Rise of Sneaker Culture is an exhibition that looks at a cultural phenomenon in which dedicated “sneakerheads” pay thousands of dollars for rare and limited-edition models from makers such as Adidas, Reebok, Nike or Puma, and fashionistas fork out similar amounts for blingy designer versions by the likes of Lanvin and Prada.
The exhibition, part of AGWA’s wider Sneakerheads program, debuted at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and was curated by shoe historian Elizabeth Semmelhack. The exhibition begins in the mid-19th century, when the first rubberized sports shoe was produced. It then winds its way around the first Converse designs (1920s), early Nike classics, the ubiquitous Adidas triple-stripe Superstar, and onto the massively popular Air Jordans of the 1980s before looking at the celebrity collaborations and designer “statement sneakers” of today.
For local collector and sneakerhead Lee Ingram, it’s the exhibition of his dreams. The Curtin University graphic design lecturer is AGWA’s Sneakerhead-in-residence for the duration of the Sneakerheads season.
One hundred shoes from his 800-plus collection – most of which are by ASICS – have been crafted into a giant chandelier-like hanging installation. Ingram will also run panel discussions and coordinate a pop-up, sneaker shop with fellow Perth aficionado Matt Thomas’s well-known shoe destination Highs and Lows (from May 13).
“I started out collecting only Adidas sneakers for years, but one day I broke my own rule and bought a couple of pairs of Nikes and it all went crazily out of proportion from there,” Ingram chuckles.
“Initially, I thought ASICS were pretty much the ugliest shoes in existence. I already had about 300 pairs of shoes before I bought a pair of ASICS; it was like, ‘no way will I ever collect those’. Then in the mid-2000s they started releasing lifestyle pairs that were much more subdued than their usual over-the-top metallic style.”
The first purchase, though, was accidental. A pair of ASICS was mistakenly listed on eBay as Nike. They were $8 and, Ingram says, “ridiculously comfortable”. Several years later, ASICS started booming in popularity. A pair of shoes he’d previously spent $50 on was suddenly going for $2000 online.
At last count, Ingram had 830 pairs of shoes. He has a dedicated sneaker room with back-to-back shelving. Boxes touch the ceiling and are stacked under stairwells. Some shoes have never been worn. Others are in high rotation. There’s a Nike wall and an ASICS wall. Within that system, shoes are colour-coded.
‘’I can tell you where any pair is, draw you a map of the room, to the point where my wife will jokingly move a pair around just to mess with my head,” he says, laughing.
He also has multiples of certain designs: backups for when the first pair eventually wears out. How did the obsession start? According to Ingram, as a Mohawk-sporting young punk it was just too hard to keep unlacing those 16-hole Doc Martens at the end of a big night out.
‘’I was always interested in differentiating myself through my shoes, even back then,” he says.
“As a graphic designer I have brand appreciation, and I understand the messages behind brands. I remember an Adidas ad with a song that said, ‘Adidas will make you a star’. I was the crappest football player at the time and I got it in my head that if I bought these boots, I’d be OK at playing. That didn’t work out so well, but it certainly kickstarted something.”
The Rise of Sneaker Culture opens at The Art Gallery of Western Australia on May 13 and runs till September 4. The full Sneakerheads program is available online.