Celebrity Fashion In Our Opinion Men's Fashion Profiles

How Kanye West Turned the Sneaker Game Upside Down

By Cameron Rubner

Michael Jordan wearing the Air Jordan 1 in 2009

For a long time in sneaker history, shoes attached to an athlete’s name dominated the market. In the year 1985, a basketball player from North Carolina named Michael Jordan revolutionized the sneaker game forever when he debuted a shoe simply called the “Air Jordan 1.” The silhouette was timeless, sleek, and beautiful. Because of Jordan’s play on the court and his larger than life image off the court, every kid watching basketball in the mid-80s’ too late ’90s wanted a pair of Air Jordans. Michael is heavily responsible for starting the trend of basketball players with shoe endorsements, and also starting the trend of basketball player’s shoes becoming a must-have for sneakerheads.

Fast forward 24 years, it’s 2009 and Rapper Kanye West is about to release his first collaboration sneaker with Nike. The sneaker is named the “Air Yeezy 1,” obviously an homage to his airness himself, Michael Jordan. The shoe was bulky, flashy, and tainted with the late 2000s swag aura. It’s the exact opposite of the shoe that Michael had endorsed 24 years earlier, but almost just as important in terms of its impact on the sneaker game.

Kanye wearing the Air Yeezy 1 in 2009

Now Kanye isn’t the first rapper to have his own shoe. Actually he was far from it, in 1986 Run DMC famously teamed up with Adidas to release their spin on the iconic Superstar silhouette. Countless of other rappers have had their own shoe, but none of them caused the frenzy that Kanye did in 2009. Kanye fans and hypebeasts posted for hours, some for days just to be among the first people to cop a pair. The shoe retailed for $215 and sold out instantly because the people buying the shoe knew it wasn’t just a sneaker, but an investment. Today a brand new pair of Air Yeezy 1’s will run about $2,500. 

Fast forward three years. Its 2012 and Kanye is about to release his second signature sneaker with Nike, the “Air Yeezy 2,” the hype is even bigger. By this time Kanye is one of the biggest trendsetters in all of fashion. When the first images leaked of his new sneakers, fans were already planning their campout and marking their calendars for release. The Red October colorway sold out in 11 minutes after a surprise drop on Nike.com. At this time in the sneaker game, athlete’s shoes were still the must-haves, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and especially Michael Jordan’s sneakers were still flying off the shelf. 

Adidas yeezy 350 turtle dove

This would continue until 2015, the year Kanye debuted his new sneaker, except this time he traded in the Nike Swoosh for three stripes with Adidas. Kanye’s falling out with Nike was highly publicized, he had said repeatedly he left Nike because they were limiting him as a creator, only allowing him to design two silhouettes from 2009 to 2014. The Adidas Yeezy’s symbolized a greater shift in sneaker culture. 

Pharrell’s Adidas: Human Race

Basketball players no longer created the shoes that everyone wanted. Lebron’s and KD’s were sitting on the shelf, and music artists had inserted themselves into that role. After Kanye revitalized Adidas with his Yeezy line, long time producer and rapper, Pharrell Williams saw his Adidas collaboration become the most sought after shoe, with the release of the Pharrell “Human Races.” Before you knew it, Drake was creating his own Jordan’s. While artist Tyler, The Creator, had already been putting his own spin on Old Skools with Vans, in 2016 it was announced that he had reached an agreement to start designing shoes with Converse, a subsidiary of Nike. In 2017 British Grime Rap artist, Skepta designed a colorway for the Airmax 97 that sold out almost immediately. Kendrick Lamar promoted his 2017 album “DAMN” by releasing three signature colorways of the Nike Cortez. 

Kendrick Lamar promotional Nike Cortez

Let’s jump to today in 2019. People aren’t waiting for the new Lebron or Kobe sneaker to drop. They’re waiting for the new Travis Scott, Air Jordan collaboration, or the new Yeezy drop. But some artists saw this trend taking shape, back in 2014 on an episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping, Wale said, “I just think the shoe companies need to re-spec the entertainment business outside of sports. Rick Ross can sell more Reeboks than Nerlens Noel… Drake can move more Jordans than someone on team Jordan… That’s just the way it is now.” When Kanye said, “Yeezy Yeezy Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman” on his 2016 track Heat, he was right, Kanye had completely disrupted the sneaker game and put musicians into the driver’s seat in determining what was going to be hot and what was not.


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