Footwear: A Brief History of Time
In the modern skate-footwear landscape, despite somewhat of a revival in remastered 90’s classics such as the DC Legacy 98 Slim, the paradigm has shifted towards lightweight, durable uppers and thinner but equally abrasion resistant midsoles – however with the sheer number of innovations put forth by industry leaders such as Adidas, Vans, New Balance Numeric, Nike SB and more, it’s difficult to get to grips with exactly what’s in your best interests from a podiatric and functional perspective. Beyond experiencing all of these unique - and sometimes not-so unique - technologies (as I, writing this have managed to do over the years) and incurring the significant outlay that comes with it, how are you supposed to choose? Aesthetics alone can only go so far – as the infamously rigid and uncomfortable Koston Hyperfeel XT proves – so you’ve got to know and understand exactly what’s going on underneath the hood of the car before you buy it, and avoid subsequently ending up with a £50+ dud. Trust me when I say, that’s a dark place you (and your wallet) do not want to visit.
With any luck, this piece will help clue you up about the heritage of certain design aspects we see today, and your decision when looking for a pair of freshies, because we understand that online shopping can be a bit of a mine-field when it comes to footwear; you can’t try anything on, you can’t feel them or do that new-shoe waddle (the ultimate way to get a feel for a shoe, as we all know). So we’ll run through and highlight some of the key innovations throughout modern skate-shoe history that shape the face of the market today.
From the seas to the sidewalk
We begin, at the beginning of it all – the first age of skateboarding – the 50’s. The first time the ape stood tall, so to speak. Springing forth from the waves, surfers first mounted roller-skate wheels to planks of wood as a means to “surfing the sidewalk” – and made waves of its own, unintentionally birthing skateboarding unto the world as we see it today. As I’m sure you could imagine, there was no need for shoes back then; perhaps coming down to surfers simply emulating their main pastime, but as rapidly as the skateboarding movement grew, the need for genuine footwear matched it step for step.
Fast forward to Anaheim, 1965. The first ever televised skateboarding Championship, having gained significant traction throughout the preceding 5 or 10 years – the contest was mainly comprised of flatland freestyle skating and downhill races, with most of the skaters donning the Ked’s, or the now- legendary Converse Chuck Taylor’s, which at the time was a basketball shoe. Given the specs at the time, that remain mostly intact to this day mind you, the marriage was ideal. But why? What can we draw from the Converse of yesteryear and today to figure out why?
Converse have always used a Vulcanised rubber outsole, which was perfect for traction during the 60’s as Grip Tape hadn’t been invented yet. Initially designed to provide the likes of Chuck himself with prime (for its time, remember) traction on slippery basketball courts for quick and stable turns, skaters translated that feature into a language they understood and so to keep these pioneers from flying off their boards bombing hills or spinning out in freestyle, the tacky outsole and sole were a crucial development for skaters then, and now. Today, Vulcanised rubber outsoles are an almost monolithic pillar in the conception of any shoe, thanks to its durability, flexibility and lightness – the latter of which we’ll touch on later.
Noticing the popularity, Randolph Rubber Co. tried to throw their hat into the mix with their own boat-style shoe, which resulted in the creation of the Randy 720, Made with a ‘Tuff Toe ‘n Heel’ – effectively a strong rubber outsole with improved durability in comparison the Keds. Sadly, the innovation didn’t do enough to keep the company going, but it did pave the way for another little Californian shoe company to give it a go for themselves in 1966, and you might’ve heard of them before: VANS.
On a purely tech level, there aren’t many sports/ Lifestyles (an argument for another day) that have developed as rapidly as skateboarding has in the last few decades. That’s a big claim, I know, but think about this. If we draw a comparison to football over the same time period, so between 1950 and today, the main rule changes or developments that’s stick out are the elimination of the back-pass rule, the introduction of Goal line technology, followed by VAR in 2019. Beyond those changes, football as a sport maintains the same rules as it always had during its lifespan. Now you could argue all day about perfect rules, and the dramatically larger pool of possibilities inherent to skating, however before one key moment in the late 70’s, none of those possibilities existed in anyone’s mind.
The invention of the Ollie by Alan Gelfand moved the goalposts, so to speak. The skate shoe industry changed forever – and so came the second age of skateboarding.
Why is the ollie so Important to footwear? Good question - In order to pull off an Ollie, the leading foot slides up the Grip tape as you pop, causing a sharp, sudden burst of friction between the two, which will eventually wear away at the integrity of the shoe, causing holes to form around your little toe. To compensate, many shoe companies have adapted by adding extra thick or durable materials to the toe box and other high-wear areas, such as the Vans Chima Pro 2 or the Lizzie Armanto Slip on Pro.
Not only do such measures extend the lifetime of your shoe, but they also help protect your feet from abrasions, and in the case of rubberised toe caps, increase friction and help with controlling your flip tricks. So consider what you're going to be needing from your shoe, and what you intend to put them through - If you're just starting out, you might be best served going for a shoe with a little more ollie resistance, as you'll no doubt be practicing a lot!
Expansion and rebellion
The Ollie redefined what was considered a ‘necessary’ feature of a skate shoe, and what materials were needed to cater for them, in time when you didn’t get looks of wonder and admiration for being a skater like you do today, but instead quite the opposite; you were seen as more of a delinquent maverick than a trendy trailblazer.
Further accentuated by the exploits of Rodney Mullen (Skateboarding’s equivalent to Jesus) skateboarding arguably experienced it’s most innovative era during the 80’s. For footwear however, the progressions weren’t quite as free flowing. As the ollie became increasingly central to most skaters skillsets, durability became a crucial part of footwear choice for skaters of all levels – along with this came the advent of high impact skating, which demanded higher cut shoes, with strong ankle support, such as the Vans Half Cab and Etnies Natas Kaupas Pro which surfaced towards the end of the decade. This was all set to the backdrop of the rise in prominence of the Air Jordan 1, as (at the time) it was a widely available shoe, with a toe box and sidewall that made ollies and flick tricks an absolute doozey, with leather materials able to withstand session after session after session - Its skateability and performance inspired brands such as Airwalk to develop similar models in the years following. Unbeknownst to the skaters of the time, this was the beginning of a wave of skate shoe that swept across and dominated the 1990s.
The 1990’s and Early 2000’s
A decade in which everything (except clothes) slimmed down significantly – wheel durometer, board size and footwear included.
The popularity of low top footwear sharply rose to prominence during the 90’s, as flip tricks began to define most skaters arsenal of tricks – demanding a more refined, control oriented build of footwear. Hindsight is always 20/20; nowadays, could you imagine tech skating in a pair of bulky high tops? As staples throughout the 80’s, Airwalk, and Vans were already big names on the scene, but the meta of the time gave rise to modern day juggernauts Etnies and DC, as well as popular use of classic Adidas silhouettes such as the Gazelle and Superstar, as well as the similarly low profile Puma Suede.
- Smooth leather / suede uppers
- Grippy cupsole
Having just emerged from a period predominately owned by canvas footwear, the realisation that durable, supple materials were preferred, in order to feed the rapid expansion of the sport. However, when you're out looking for a new pair of shoes, ALWAYS look out for what materials they're made from, so you can match the function and purpose correctly, and avoid any premature blowouts.
Foreshadowed by the small developments in skate-shoe technology in the late 90’s, the skate shoes of the early 2000’s era were shamelessly obnoxious – so obnoxious that they’re mostly responsible for propelling the contemporary chunk-fuelled fashion movement we see on the streets today. Stemming from running and basketball shoe models of the time, skate shoe companies stacked their shoe with copious amounts of padding on the tongue, air bubbles, and heavy duty ollie guards, as seen infamously in the now iconic Stevie Williams DC pro model, Osiris D3 and Globe CT-IV. The tech certainly made a huge impact aesthetically, but it’s success was short lived, with most skaters quickly coming to the realisation that these ‘upgrades’ weren’t that helpful for actually skating. Too heavy, too bulky and diabolically bad boardfeel were all contributors to the relatively swift downfall of one of skate-footwear’s most wacky, yet iconic eras.
What is Boardfeel? Boardfeel is, quite like the name suggests, how much of your board you can get a read on through the barrier of your insole and midsole – early 2000’s skate shoes such as the Osiris D3 had put so much space between the sole of your foot and the board, that your ability to control it was hampered significantly. It's always worth considering how thick the outsoles are when purchasing a shoe, as this isn't always mentioned in descriptions, and yet is tremendously important!
The mid-2000’s heralded the beginning of, depending on who you ask, the greatest age skateboarding, and perhaps even urban footwear as a whole, has ever seen. The exterior tech of days gone by quickly began to shift to the interior instead, in particular, the soles. Following the intervention of global heavyweights Nike SB, Adidas, New Balance and Converse - and the subsequent creation of skate-specific divisions within them, Footwear experienced its most rapid progression in subtle technologies which eventually proved that yes, tech really did have a place in skateboard-footwear all along.
The year is 2009, Nike SB and Stefan Janoski unveiled a new, stripped back skate shoe that would go on to form the basis for not only hundreds of iterations and colourways, but hundreds of skate shoes period. Given almost total creative control, Stefan Janoski would create a shoe that revolutionised what skaters wanted to get out of a shoe all over again, from durability and comfort to board-feel and responsiveness – deviating massively from the previously chunky and hardwearing DVS, DC’s & Orsiris models that dominated the scene in the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s – but what made the Janoski so special?
Vulcanised Vs Cupsole
The distinction between these two often warring factions, boils down primarily to protection, flexibility, and grip. Vulcanised soles are the preferred choice in a shoe worn by a skater who is looking for comfortable, low impact usage, with their primary desire centred around wanting the best amount of friction between the board, and themselves. Shoes ith a Vulcanised or “Vulc” construction tend to be far easier to ‘break in’ and require less adjustment to get used to on your feet as the rubber is a great deal softer and more pliable.
Conversely with Cuplsoles, often found of the harder wearing shoes of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, are built with impact support and durability in mind. If not always the most comfortable shoe around the cupsole construction or “Cup” will be the midsole of choice for your high impact rail or stair skater, to help stave off the onset of heelbruise and many other foot-related issues.
Deprived of boardfeel for so many years, skaters craved shoes with thinner midsoles and lighter materials with cushioned insoles – happily trading extreme durability and less comfort for extreme comfort and reduced durability. To compensate for this, for a brief whirlwind period, the toe cap, previously pioneered by Converse, took over the industry with Adidas’ Matchcourt, Nike SB’s Cory Kennedy All court, the New Balance Pro court and many others, providing a grippy durably alternative to the traditional construction of modern day footwear.
Some have argued that this time period was the death of the true core skate brand domination of the footwear market, due to their significantly weaker financial capacity, however green shoots have begun to sprout once more, as brands rich in heritage such as Etnies, DC, Emerica, and Fallen Footwear have found ways to catch up to the ever changing market, which will only serve to push the competition harder, and lead to increasingly innovative and functional footwear for you, and for me, the average consumer.
Footwear, like the times, has gone through so many different phases, and changed an awful lot – the good, the bad, the worse and the ugly. However, each mistake is just as important as each success, and with every iteration, lessons are learned, progressions are made and you get to focus on what you love doing, rather than what's on your feet.