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Learn from an Expert How Sneakers Intersect with Culture

In honor of #NationalSneakerDay, we talked to Bata Shoe Museum curator Elizabeth Semmelhack about rare shoes and her new book.
Reading time 5 minutes
Photos courtesy of Rizzoli

Scrub Instagram for the hashtag #SneakerCulture and you’ll find yourself deep within the vortex where sneaker aficionados like, tap, share, and re-gram each other’s coveted shoe game grails. The sneaker industry reigns supreme when it comes to footwear, but get your hands on a collaboration and you’re on a whole other level. Enter Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum. She’s been studying the artistry of sneakers and shoes for as long as she can remember and in November, she’s about to release a tome dedicated to the culture of collaborations. More than eighty collaborations feature in its pages, including Virgil Abloh (ten styles!), KAWS, Pharrell Williams, Jeremy Scott, Eminem, Missy Elliott, Dr. Woo, and Fear of God—there's truly something for every kind of sneakerhead. Here, Semmelhack takes us through her process and explains why she has the greatest job in the world.

Before we get into this, how does one become a shoe historian? What leads one to this career – meaning – how did you get here?

I started out in art history with a focus on Edo-period Japanese prints and the intersections of gender, fashion, and economics. While working on Japanese prints, which were a central popular culture art form produced en masse in the eighteenth century, I began to realize that I was not interested in unique works of art. Instead, I was interested in things that were mass-produced. More particularly, I was interested in things that are mass-produced because they are also mass-consumed and that by studying widely consumed material culture, the pulse of a moment could be interrogated. Footwear, like Japanese prints, also has a long history of meeting the desires of a moment. I am very interested in the ways in which our collective, rather than individual, needs are met through material culture. When the opportunity arose to become the curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, I jumped at the chance. I am now the Creative Director and Senior Curator of the museum and I continue to research the intersections between gender, fashion, and economics.

 

The book is dedicated to the great sneaker collaborations that have reimagined the shoe. Is there one collaboration that you feel is the most groundbreaking or trailblazing to the industry?

There are quite a few but I think that the 1933 B.F. Goodrich x Jack Purcell collaboration deserves a lot of credit for where we are now. The company turned to Purcell for input into the design of a racket sport sneaker and then made sure to capitalize on his celebrity by promoting his participation.

Do you consider shoes wearable art?

I think that artistry and artistic expression can be found in almost everything humans make, including footwear, and there are many examples from throughout history that I, subjectively, find exquisite. However, the more burning question for me is what, exactly, is art? It seems to be a highly hierarchical way of categorizing things.

 

Putting this book together must have been a highlight. Looking back on the process, what do you make of it?

It was amazing to be able to interview so many creative people for this book. Everyone I spoke to was profoundly generous with their time and insights, and you can see these qualities in the work they produce.

As the Creative Director and Senior Curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, what does your job entail?

One of the things that surprised me the most when I started working at the Bata Shoe Museum was just how wide-ranging the interest in footwear was. This means that every single day is different. Of course, there are regular activities such as researching footwear, working on exhibitions, and acquiring new artifacts, but there are also many, many things that come out of the blue. Requests to help in police investigations or give my two cents about archeological findings were not things that I had imagined I might be able to help with when I first took the job.

Is there one ‘holy grail’ shoe collaborations that you feel exists? If so, what is it? Why?
No, there isn’t only one “holy grail” but there are many rare collaborations. I had wanted to include an early 2000s Nike x Junya Watanabe but couldn’t find one for the book. However, a pair was just donated to the museum, so perhaps I can include it in a reprint.

Avid collector and renowned blogger Jacques Slade wrote the foreword. Why was this important to the overall mission of the book?

Jacques has such a deep knowledge of sneakers and has seen so many collabs that I thought he would be the perfect person to write the foreword. He did not disappoint! His insights are a perfect way to start the book. I was so honored that he accepted.

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