As The Rise of Sneaker Culture came to a close at Brooklyn Museum, I sat down with exhibition curator Elizabeth Semmelhack to discuss the project’s genesis, the “aura” of originality, and the concept of the new American Dream. As Senior Curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, Semmelhack is a noted shoe historian, but as she reveals, there are specific challenges when curating the first exhibition on the comprehensive history of sneakers.
In this three-part interview, Semmelhack reveals what sparked her initial idea for the exhibition, the issues involved in obtaining key shoes, and her ongoing effort to uncover the long and thorny history of a deeply passionate subculture.
Lindsey O’Connor: What initiated your interest in sneaker culture and ultimately inspired you to pursue it as a topic for an exhibition?
Elizabeth Semmelhack: I’ve been working on the history of the high heel since 2000, and increasingly over my tenure at the Bata Shoe Museum, I began to notice when I went to social events or even met people professionally, people assumed that because I worked with footwear, my work was focused on women and the museum was somehow expressly for women. I thought this was peculiar, given that we do not construct gender in our society by having women wear shoes and men going barefoot. I thought an exhibition on sneakers would perhaps challenge the notion that only women are interested in footwear and offer the opportunity to not only look at sneakers but also sneaker culture and the construction of masculinity.
The actual original spark for the idea of the exhibition occurred when I was working with a graduate student, Mayan Rajendran, who had come to the museum to look at moccasins because he was doing a paper on Visvim sneakers. He wanted to look at traditional moccasin construction. We spent the afternoon looking at our moccasin collection, and as he was getting ready to leave he asked if he could see the sneaker collection. One of the things that had not been a collecting focus for the museum up to this point was sneakers. We certainly had a few historic pieces, but nothing that reflected the remarkable importance of sneakers in society. After having talked to him, I thought about the possibilities of doing an exhibition, spoke with Ms. Bata, she was enthusiastic, and so once I was given the green light, I started making calls. First I reached out to members of Run—DMC. Erik Blam, Darryl McDaniels’s manager, immediately said yes. I then contacted Christian Louboutin and also got a positive response. Next it was Converse, and then Adidas, Nike, Puma, Reebok . . . the list goes on and on. Everyone was enthusiastic, so I felt that the idea would work. I next turned to Dion Walcott and Lee Joseph at Toronto Loves Kicks. They introduced me to Dee Wells at Obsessive Sneaker Disorder and Chad Jones. Before long the list of contacts grew and grew, and I began to pull the sneakers together to do the exhibition. When it became a traveling exhibition, the number of objects increased and the AFA did an amazing job coordinating all of the loans. All in all, the traveling exhibition has loans from over 38 lenders.
LO: How did you go about choosing which objects would be in the exhibition? What was your criterion?
ES: The answer will be multi-dimensional. Number one, I wanted to make sure that the sneakers in the exhibition would be the ones that sneakerheads and sneaker experts expected to see; the ones that were icons of sneaker culture and pivotal to the history of sneakers. In addition, I wanted to make sure that the exhibition was able to offer sneakers that were so rare that even sneakerheads might never have had the chance to see them in real life. And thirdly, I wanted to make sure that this exhibition would also speak to the casual visitor. I hoped to show just how intertwined sneakers are with history, so that the exhibition would be of interest to people who might not realize that sneakers are so interesting.
All of these things were in my mind, so in order to make sure that the exhibition hit all of the important moments, I turned to a number of people who had been involved in sneaker culture for a very long time. The original list of the highlights that needed to be included in the exhibition was generated by asking people if they could have an ideal exhibition, what would be included in that? The original group included Dee Wells, Mayan Rajendran, Dion Walcott, and Lee Joseph. These guys became advisors, so that I had back-up for what would ultimately be in the exhibition. This list grew bigger for the traveling exhibition, to include collectors such as Chad Jones and Thad Jayaseelan. There is, however, a huge difference between one’s ideal list and the reality of what one can get their hands on. One of the challenges with curating any exhibition is that curation is an exercise in restriction. You have a limited amount of space and you have a limited number of artifacts that people are willing to lend. Ultimately, this exhibition, particularly the traveling version of the exhibition, is the work of multiple people, most importantly the AFA, who have been able to hunt down and add to the exhibition as many of these iconic shoes as possible.
LO: Are there any shoes that you were initially pursuing that ended up not making the cut for the exhibition for whatever reason?
ES: Well, I really do feel quite strongly that the exhibition does need a Nike Air Max 90. I had the Air Max 90 in the original exhibition here at the Bata Shoe Museum, but the example in the Nike Archives is too fragile to travel, and I haven’t been able to find another one. Certainly a retro would be available, but one of the goals for this exhibition was to always use an original if possible. I wanted to make sure we had the originals for every model possible. So in the traveling exhibition version, we have the original Converse All Star from 1917, the original Keds Champions from 1916, the original Air Jordan I from 1985, the original Reebok Pump from 1989, etc. Some of these shoes, the Chuck Taylor for example, have gone on to be staples of fashion within our society, but I didn’t want to just pick the most recent Converse All-Star, I wanted to have the original. However, finding the originals was a challenge.
LO: Would you say that the aura of the original sneaker is in any way linked to our perception of the aura of originality in visual art?
ES: Yeah, I think that’s one of the interesting things about attempting to take an object that’s mass produced and is worn by so many people and bring it into an art museum setting, where the focus often is on the unique object, the rare object. I do think that having the original version speaks to traditional museum practice; however, it was not simply having the original object that was important to me. It was allowing the original object to be seen so people could understand. I believe that this is the subtext of this exhibition, that so much of sneaker culture today is actually connected to footwear that debuted decades or, in some instances, a century, ago.