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23.08.2018

White shoes were always lame. Jeetendra wore them; Akshay Kumar wore them. School kids wore them on PT days. Washed up rappers from the ’90s, the not-cool ones. Middle-aged women on morning walks. But then something flipped like, say, three years ago. They came back. Everyone began wearing those white Adidas sneakers. Ironically they’re called Adidas “Originals” (and Superstars). It was a revival of the over-the-top fashion sensibilities of the ’80s and ’90s. Men with their undersized pants and ankle cleavage embraced them. Women wore them with dresses, an unfamiliar but surprisingly sharp new aesthetic. Socks, as my nose discovered the hard way, were a thing of the past.

Slowly, predictably, this shoe racism became widespread, as more companies began to push white sneakers on to consumers. Among the pile, I started noticing more and more of this one specific shoe, which had as its design a noughts-and-crosses layout but without the zeroes and X’s. Like a hashtag. Like the bastard son of the Reebok and Adidas logos. They looked striking. I did some asking around, and learnt that these are called Onitsuka Tigers. The design is the stripes of the tiger. I had to have them.

“Rs 6,999 only,” the guy at the Onitsuka Tiger store said to me. I spat out my tea (which I’d finished and digested seven hours earlier). He looked embarrassed at how embarrassed I looked. We didn’t make eye contact again. Onitsuka Tiger is a Japanese shoe company that’s been around for almost 70 years, and they opened their first proper store in Delhi last month at the Select Citywalk super-duper megamall in Saket.

I’d given up on the shoes — remember how our mums used to warn us against buying white shoes because of how dirty they get? It sounded stupid then — “get with the program, MOM!” — but now I find myself nodding along to that ancient maternal wisdom. Why would I spend a small fortune on white shoes that will become brown shoes after a week in the Delhi monsoon?
Maybe a T-shirt then, I thought to myself. I found a plain grey round-neck with the brand name written on it. But it looked smudged. As if the ink had spread (because some idiot at the shoe factory had rested his sweaty palm on the shirt right as it came out of the printer). So I checked the next one: same model but different size. This one was also smudged. And the next one too. The smudge is part of the style! For Rs. 3,000. For something that my washing machine can do just as well. A plain black collared T-shirt, with a little black ribbon running across the pocket, for Rs. 5,000. (Only.)

***

Let’s rein it back a bit though. Onitsuka Tiger is expensive — but the pricing is not obscene (all things considered). And I’m not shoe-illiterate, though I did get left behind because I wore the same exact pair of black Converse sneakers — “Chucks” — for 10 years straight, during which period the prices of everything went up exponentially.

Because shoes matter. Unless you’re trekking or playing a sport, they’re not about comfort (exhibit A: heels). They’re about making a statement. And that costs money.

There have always been sneaker-junkies, the kinds who hit every new store that opens up. And while the art world has always been infested by the most absurd fashion developments, the sneaker has even reached the yuppies and business kids now. Even those traditionally fashion-backward demographics seem to have embraced this new style. Tracing the specific reasons for the craze is a fool’s errand, but I do think it has something to do with music. A few years ago, motivational speaker and social media influencer Kanye West brought a lot of hype — as he does with most things — to an already quite rabid culture. And now they’re everywhere.

That’s how it works though, doesn’t it? Shoe trends, especially, catch on because of either sports or music. Sportspeople because they’re in the limelight so often, and because they represent elusive ideas of glory, hope, and victory. (Michael Jordan called it a day the second time a century ago, and yet Air Jordans still remain one of the most iconic shoes of all time.)
And music because musicians are really just very cool. Not anyone else in the arts or entertainment world, mind you: dancers don’t wear shoes unless they’re tapping or twirling. Actors wear whatever musicians were wearing five years ago. Authors can’t afford shoes. And no one cares about painters.

So the burden of mass coolness falls on (often unhinged) musicians. Their clothes, their styles, their ways become aspirational for the average person, who gets to, superficially at least, be more like someone she admires and looks up to. Of course this invariably leads to a brightening of the very worst traits of consumerism, as brands hop on to the bandwagon and sell overpriced products that all look the same to gullible young people. For now, that product happens to be sneakers. But, as long as we’ve moved on from the dark, dark days of those dangerous pointy shoes, I’m not complaining.

Getting there: Onitsuka Tiger, Select Citywalk, Saket, Rs 6,999 for a pair of white sneakers.

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