The Sneaker Boom of the 1980s

Brands exploded on the scene in the 80s, gained loyal customers, and then it was over

It amazes me how similar everyone is nowadays.

Coast to coast, state to state, wherever you look, people are wearing the same shoes.

And when I say everyone — I mean EVERYONE.

Growing up, the sneaker game was a Black thang. Sure, you may have had one or two white guys with A…One…Single…Solitary nice pair of Jordans or something, but by and large it was Black men and women consuming, styling and profiling in new sneakers.

Now, go to any mall in America and you’ll see young white boys and girls clamoring for the newest/latest shoe.

But they, like us, are generally only buying two brands: Nike or Adidas. The only variety comes in exactly which Nike or which Adidas and even in those brands only a few are deemed worthy.

That, of course, wasn’t always the case. So we’re going to take you back…back when people still would strive to match their clothes with their shoes…back when the People set trends that Rappers followed…back in time when people still watched music videos.

Back in Time…to the 80s, and what a glorious time it was for sneakers.

If you’re not a student of basketball and didn’t grow up in the 80s, you probably don’t remember Dominique Wilkins.

‘Nique was a phenomenal player for the Atlanta Hawks back when the Hawks were contenders. He was known for his vicious dunks…and he was known for the shoes he endorsed — Brooks.

Now, before we go deep into this article, I’m going to be straight up — I ain’t rock a large majority of these brands and I only longed for a few. So I never had any Brooks…never…ever.

But lots of people did. When I say lots, I mean enough people bought Brooks for them to have a section in Montgomery Wards or Sears.

You see, young reader, the chain stores that you may have grown up on, Champs, Foot Locker, The Athlete’s Foot, those places didn’t exist in the early to mid-80s, and if they did, they weren’t widespread enough for people to be shopping there frequently.

Here in Denver, we had Dave Cooks which was your regular sporting goods store but that’s not where we shopped all the time. We shopped in department stores.

Let’s continue on.

We’re talking 1985–1986 here. The average person may have rocked any old type of shoe. If you weren’t into Hip-Hop, it was of no importance.

Soon shoe endorsements starting becoming a part of the conversation. Yes, it had existed before, hell, the Pumas that we coveted were Clydes. But that was before we were functioning, cognizant human beings.

This was happening as we were entering our formative years.

Thus, fans of Dominique began rocking Brooks. Fans of Magic or (gasp) Bird began rocking Cons. But, unlike the Brooks, people who weren’t fans of Magic or Bird also were up on the Converse Weapons.

They started out with those awful yellow and purple, Laker colors and the guilty by association black and white for the Celtics.

People hungry for color, whether they liked the Lakers or Celtics, didn’t care.

Personally, I never even considered The Weapons until they introduced the blue and white that the Pistons wore…well, Isiah Thomas wore. You have to understand, like I mentioned here, having sneakers in multiple colors was rare. This was a godsend. As much as I considered those blue and white Weapons though…naw.

I almost did break and buy another shoe though, something outside of my typical B-Boy range. I almost bought a pair of Pony.

They were complete and total knockoffs of the Air Jordans…and I ain’t care. I wanted them on the strength of that grey pair. I wanted them on the strength of that blue and grey pair. I really wanted those.

And that’s not what really sold me. What really sold me was Spud Webb.

Yeah, that 5'8" brotha won the dunk contest. But that was almost secondary. What stood out more to me was his shoes.

Bruh, thems low tops.

While the Pony City Wing may have bit the shit out of the Jordan, what they did first, well first since the Chuck Taylor, Pony gave us a low top basketball shoe.

They were low top, they were colorful, and they were hard to find. And I wanted them jawns BADLY.

But that was 85–86.

Like we mentioned here, 1987 was the year.

Air Max Day is behind us.

People took the moment to giddily purchase the Return of the Max as well as the newest member to the Air family, the Nike Air Vapormax, which, reportedly sold out that first day.

Nike’s in a place where they could put spit in a shoe and people would buy it.

Not so in 1987.

They were still feeling the tremors of possibly losing their cash cow, Michael Jordan. Contrary to current myth and selective memory, the Air Jordan I sold extremely well. We’re talking sold out well…in 1985. That’s amazing. The Air Jordan I had a waiting list. Newspapers and magazines were writing about it. Don’t be mislead.

This is why when Phil Knight and the gang thought they were going to lose Jordan to Nike traitors, Rob Strasser and Peter Moore’s upstart, Van Grack, they pulled out all the stops, threw Tinker Hatfield on the job, and the rest was history.

But in early 1987, that hadn’t happened yet. The Spike Lee/Mars Blackmon Jordan commercial that would make the Jordan legendary was a year away.

So Nike was sinking their money behind a series of Tinker Hatfield creations.

In this writer’s opinion, this is when Nike came of age. Let’s look at the 1987–88 Nike Roster:

Air Max, Air Trainer, Air Safari, Jordan II, Delta Force, Air Force, Air Pegasus, Air Revolution, Air Force Low (loved those), Air Alpha Force, Air Tech Challenge, Air Trainer SC, Air Play (had em in Red & Blue), etc…etc…

(If you’re unfamiliar with some of those names, go to your Googles, many of them have been rehashed)

Any one of those could be found on a foot, whether the person was Black, White, Mexican, or Japanese — Nike was a universal shoe. This was the beginning of that and it remains true today.

But they weren’t the only game in town…


It’s important to recognize that the mentality of the average mid to late 80s B-Boy and B-Girl was all about being different.

That’s the only way to understand and explain how so many different brands became popular. Everyone was trying to one up the next person by wearing a shoe or a brand that no one else had ever seen or heard of…so long as it was “fresh.” Thus, while people were wearing Benneton, my crew wore Everlast. They were wearing Lotto, we got with Le Coq Sportif.

The variety was staggering. We’re talking Italian brands that I’m sure were shocked at their sudden popularity, brands that originally focused on women’s aerobics, and brands that recognized the boom in sneakers and started a brand to capitalize on the growth.

Fila, Ellesse, & Lotto are three Italian brands that suddenly became popular in the mid-80s. If it was said that someone broke the scene among those three it would have to be Fila. Fila in 86 was like the Kanye’s of now. Hard to find, incredibly popular, Fila was one of the first alternative B-Boy shoes.

Not sure how Ellesse got popping, I’m sure it had to do with Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s work with the label. He brought out all of those bright colors — the candy apple reds, the canary yellows — the type of colors that made us gravitate to a brand.

Lotto…now Lotto is another story. Here’s one claim:

Kids came to me for the newest of the new. I created brands. There was the brand Lotto — nobody had ever heard of it, but I went out and bought a product from them, I pushed the brand. I was only one store, but people came from all over to buy this brand. Teddy Held

Keep that name Teddy Held in mind.

We wore the “snake-skin” Lottos, the big logo Lottos, and the city map Lottos. But Lottos’ claim to fame was, as their ads said, they were “Six shoes in one!” What that means is, many of their shoes came with a pack of interchangeable double diamonds. You could swap out the double diamonds to match whatever color you had on. People still speak fondly of that feature 30+ years later. That should tell you the affect that it had.

Reebok, Avia, & L.A. Gear made their big push with a focus on women. After Paul Fireman bought a stake in British founded Reebok and brought it stateside, the aerobics craze was taking place. Fireman recognized that women were working out in running shoes and decided to make a shoe that fit their needs. That shoe was the Freestyle and it’s sales catapulted Reebok past Puma, Adidas, and it even took a bite out of Nike.

You may never have heard of Jerry Stubblefield but, like Nike founder, Phil Knight, he was a student of Bill Bowerman. A few years younger than Knight, Stubblefield was inspired by what his fellow classmate was able to do with Nike. In 1980 he started a company, Avia, which focused on women’s aerobic shoes like Reebok. By the mid-80s sales were around $22 million.

L.A. Gear…totally different story. Robert Greenberg started L.A. Gear in 1985 with a canvas women’s workout shoe. Very simple, plain. More fashioned orientated than performance. But sales took off, to the tune of $11 million that first year. Over the next three years, Greenberg expanded the brand…80 different styles type expanding.

People were rocking various Reebok styles, we loved the soft leather. We rocked the Pro Workout, The S600, and the CXT Mid (the florescent). We wore the Rugged Walker boots in the winter…it was nice seeing sistas in ‘em.

And the Avia 820, 822, & 850, which actually were performance shoes, those were popular as well.

Avia produced some of the best basketball shoes of the mid to late 80s. Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler rocked Avia. They had the Cantilever Heel, ARC Technology, etc. (not that anyone cared about all of that). We cared about the style. The most popular of the bunch was the 825, low cut jawns, preferably the white with red and blue.

L.A. Gear….don’t know who the hell wore them. Enough people to make place them in the top three only five years into their existence. They were sho nuff popular.

All of those brands — we adopted and made into our own. And you know what I mean. Black folk throw something on and we make it flavorful. The most modern example, of course, are Vans. No one would have dare set foot inside of them outside of skaters until modern times.

Troop and British Knight…those brands weren’t adopted by us nor were they just marketed to the so-called urban community. They were made specifically for us…just not by us…and you know how that usually turns out? No?

Well, let me learn you.

Remember when I told you to keep that name Teddy Held in mind? Good. Teddy Held, his brother Harvey, and a man named William Kim set out to start a brand for the growing Hip-Hop consumer. The Held brothers were of the belief that they had the inside track on what would work and what wouldn’t work. They did own the famed South Bronx shoe store Jew Man’s (relax, they were Jewish).

The brand they created was Troop and for most of America, this is where they first saw the shoe:

For a short time period, Troop was on every Rapper — even an up and coming Rapper out of Oakland (more on him in a second).

Part of what made something exciting back then was the difficulty level in acquiring it. You weren’t rolling up in Foot Locker or The Athlete’s Foot and buying a pair of Troop.

As we talked about here, music videos spread the style gospel across the globe and we watched videos with eagle eyes. Couldn’t recognize a sneaker? Probably Troop.

In other instances, like print magazines, it was obvious.

I had this photo of Flav cut out and on my wall. The image is from the Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince Spin Magazine (Oct 1988) but by the time that magazine was on the news racks, Troop were on their way out.

Rumors spread that Troop was made by the KKK…no, seriously. And people believed it.

In the only interview that I can find, Teddy Held still sounds like the thirty some years that passed have done nothing to heal those old wounds. Ya boy gives off all types of Jerry Heller in Straight Outta Compton in the interview. I was just waiting for the words, “those people,” to fall out of his mouth.

Check him out:

It’s a very simple story. Like any normal brand, once it got too strong the business side of the inner city community tried to push it away.

I’m sorry, sir…what? He continues:

I don’t know what planet they are on, these people, but in those days things were different.

Held says the rumors were made and he was told that they could go away if he paid up. Not relenting to those threats and what Held believed was the natural three year shelf life for urban brands, Troop faded from existence. Held insists the company made $80M and that he got out before he lost money. Nonetheless, he got out of shoes.

Things went a little different for the other shoe maker from NYC that marketed directly to the “urban community.”

Jack Schwartz Shoes, the company, preceded their 80s offering, so they were no fly by night operation. But they recognized several things, the so-called Hip-Hop community wanted variety and the best way to get people into the brand is by having a Rapper wear it.

Shwartz founded British Knights on the strength of that knowledge offering up 3–4 styles a years, a wide palette of colors, stone-washed looks, quilted shoes, whatever it took to get Black folk into them shoes.

To spread their gospel, they had Kool Mo Dee alter “How You Like Me Now” into a British Knights commercial.

This strategy worked. We did start buying British Knights. But we were simply the bait. Schwartz understood that getting us to support the brand and make it cool would make white folks buy it. Here’s Schwartz:

The inner city is the key to many industries, but it is the lifeblood of the sneaker industry…. [T]hese days the only way to get a middle-class suburban high school kid to buy your product is to have an inner city kid wear it

If you’re wondering how that panned out, British Knights went from $8 in sells in 86 (a year after the brand was founded) to $136 million three years later.

That three year shelf-life that Held believed in, was more like five for British Knights. But again, they were no fly by night operation. Schwartz returned to the Rapper bag and not only sponsored a Rapper, he endorsed some of the Rapper’s shows.

Only thing is this Rapper who had grown to be the largest entertainer in the world was already on the decline. That Rapper was the once up and comer who use to rock Troop. That Rapper was Hammer.

That didn’t turn out well. People were done with British Knights. So what did Schwartz do? No, he didn’t fold the company. Schwartz Shoes had been around since the 30s, they were survivors, they ain’t believe in the fold.

Nope, Schwartz founded a new brand, Lugz…and what did he do? He got him some Rappers. Remember this:

Schwartz was the exception to the rule.

The cracks were showing by the late 80s. Companies were suing companies for copyright infringement, in one (then) famous case, upstart Avia sued upstart L.A. Gear. When Avia began branching out beyond their original core, aerobic audience, they landed a hit with the 750, a tennis shoe that shoe increased sales six times over in just a year.

Like that bad contestant on the old show Price is Right who adds one dollar to the previous contestant’s bid, L.A. Gear played Mr. Me Too and copied the 750 calling it…I’m not making this up…the “Boy’s Thrasher.” Avia sued they ass and won. It was the first patent suit in sneaker history. Certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Most of the above brands were either bought out (Reebok bought out Avia, more recently, Nike bought out Converse), vanished back into obscurity (who even knows where to find Ellessee or Lotto?), or simply ceased to exist…all of that before the 90s even began.

The Mid 90s uniform — photo: Manuel Acevedo

I can’t speak for most of my generation, but I know that sneakers took a back seat to other types of shoe wear in the 90s. I wore wingtips and the like my freshman year in college (I was a House Head), followed by two years of sneakers, mostly Nike, then Timbs…for years. I rounded off the 90s in Kenneth Cole.

It would be decades before I got back into sneakers but when I finally did, the plethora of shoes that once existed in the market and on the feet of the people was no more. Sure some of those brands still exist, Fila, Ellesse, & Lotto ain’t go no where. Reebok is still around. You may even like some of their offerings…just don’t roll around the way in them expecting people to admire your unique choice of shoe. Them days are gone. Don’t nobody care about your variety show.

Towards the end of the 80s and up until the mid 90s you could tell where a person was from based on their shoes. The Ellesse may have been worn in other places, but people rocked the hell out of them in Philly. I ain’t know no one to wear the Tretorn, K-Swiss, and later New Balance, like D.C. If someone had Air Force 1s they were either from New York, Chicago, or D.C. People down in New Orleans wore Diadora. Atlanta had the Suede Champion 3 on 3s. Out in Cali and Cali influenced places, the Nike Cortez was the staple. Get me?

But now, in the 1–7, everyone wears everything…and when I say everything I mean Nike or Adidas. Sure some people wear Vans and you might catch people in Cons…but by and large it’s a two brand world. Under Armour? Do adults wear that? Do Black adults wear that? They do? Where because I haven’t…oh ok. Two brands.

One would think that since the advent of the internet and the supposed smaller world that the amount of things that people choose would expand as well. People would listen to a wider variety of music, they would watch shows from all over the world, they would wear brands from Japan to France.

Sorry. It hasn’t worked like that. People actually tend to make bunkers for themselves and surround themselves with more of whatever it is that they are into…which usually translates into the same thing that everyone else is bunkered up with. Sure, they may accent that with an eclectic thing here or there, but by and large the world is now marked with a sameness that is dulling and saddening.

And who benefits? Nike and Adidas of course. The boom of the 80s created an appetite and the Winner Takes All business of sneakers meant that the winner would fill that appetite. Nine out of the ten top selling shoes of 2016 were Nike or owned by Nike according to Matt Powell of the NPD Group. It’s also said that Nike now controls 96% of the basketball shoe market. You read that right. 96%. Meanwhile Adidas and Nike split the world’s larger sport, Futbol, all the while dictating the taste of the people and attracting the best talent — employee wise, and endorsement wise.

I just thought that it was important to point out that before there were sneakerheads, there were people who loved sneakers for reasons other than collecting. Sneakers were a vital part to an outfit, they were a mark of originality and demonstrated one’s ability to “hook up” a shoe — meaning how they complimented everything — with the shoe being the final piece.

Variety was the cornerstone of that mentality, being different was key. Now, to love sneakers is to love what everyone else loves, to possess it first, to sell or horde it. Just a different mentality. But would it have been possible for all those companies to continue to flourish? I’on’t know. All I know is I miss seeing originality.