Sneakers with a Statement: Hip-Hop Culture and the Elements of Sneaker Design


In terms of its influence on urban style, sneakers widely became the ultimate status symbol…

Sneakers are the most sought after fashion trend in the world. But why? What is it about “kicks” that make them so prominent amongst the youth? Well, most of its popularity can be attributed to the global phenomenon known as Hip-Hop culture. Beyond it being a culture that stems from the artistic expressions of inner-city youth, it has also become a multi-billion dollar industry that has influenced, or at least played a part in, almost every facet of society. In terms of its influence on urban style, sneakers widely became the ultimate status symbol, particularly because of the Adidas brand. They were the perfect shoes for b-boys due to their comfort and color variations. They became even more popular in 1986 due to the promotion of the brand by Run DMC when they stated:

“My Adidas/walked through concert doors/ and roamed all over coliseum floors/ I stepped on stage, at Live Aid/ All the people gave and the poor got paid/ And out of speakers I did speak/ I wore my sneakers but I’m not a sneak/ My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land/With a mic in hand I cold took command”

In the article, “Three Brothers with Three Stripes: RUN-DMC and Adidas,” it states:

“Enter Run, Jam-Master Jay and DMC. Their signature street style, a staunch mix of denim, Adidas tracksuit tops, Kangols, fedoras, heavy framed glasses, and of course Adidas Superstars (worn in true prison-style without laces) was a powerfully simple statement that recast the template.”

The relationship between Hip-Hop and shoe brands would eventually spark a sub-culture, known as the “Sneakerheads.”

The Superstars became a fashion statement that represented the streets and its direct influence from the prison system. Inmates in prison were not allowed to wear shoe laces due to the probability of using them for harmful purposes. As a result, when inmates returned to their respective communities, they continued to wear their sneakers without shoe laces. RUN DMC wanted to shy away from looking like superstars and more like the ordinary people the community would see on a daily basis. Their fashion statement would eventually gain the attention of executives at Adidas. The website Sneaker Freaker mentions “while performing the track ‘My Adidas’ to a packed crowd at Madison Square Garden in NYC, they asked the crowd to hold up their sneakers. Thousands of Adidas Superstar sneakers were raised in unison. An Adidas employee in the crowd informed the company and the subsequent million dollar deal marked a new era of corporate affiliation with hip hop music.” The relationship between Hip-Hop and shoe brands would eventually spark a sub-culture, known as the “Sneakerheads.”

The Elements of Design

Each element in a sneaker design can serve a purpose. For instance, lines can stress a word or phrase, the use of color can generate emotions, shapes can be used to attract attention, value (lightness or darkness) can be used for emphasis, size can attract attention, texture can create visual interest, and space can be used to define importance or group information. The use of color can be depicted by one particular shoe that would literally change the shoe game forever, Nike’s Air Jordan 1s.

The Black / Varsity Red model was banned by the NBA back in 1985 due to NBA color rules and this actually helped to create more publicity and interest for the shoes. In essence, the rebelliousness fell right in line with origins of Hip-Hop culture, which at times was a form of rebellion against the establishment. It became symbolic not only because of its color but also because of the man who wore them, a young, innovative athlete who overcame the odds. As a result, the Jordan Brand has been one of the top selling sneakers of all time.

Another shoe that utilized the elements of design to make specific statements was the Lebron 10s.  Austin Boykins states, With LeBron James facing a wide range of opinions from fans and naysayers in the recent year, the beauty and durability of a diamond is used within the shoe to tell the story in relation to LeBron’s on and off the court abilities and experiences.” See “The Inspiration Behind the Nike LeBron 10.”


Other shoes such as Nike’s Air Galaxy Foamposites, Nike Air Mag’s, or the recently released Yeezy Boosts by Adidas all encompass a wide range of unique styles, which can be explored when taking into consideration the elements of design.

Just for KICKS: What Do You Rep?

“Suede Timbs on my feet make my cypher complete” ~ Nas “The Word is Yours”

As I think about my childhood as a military brat, I remember the distinct differences between what was worn throughout the various regions of the United States. Whether it’s Converse’s Chuck Taylors in California, “Soulja” Reeboks in New Orleans, Timberlands and Clark Wallabees in New York, or New Balances and Nike Boots in Washington, DC, each city, state or region, seemed to have a shoe that represented where they were from.

What statements do these shoes make, and why were they chosen to represent where they are from? Fashion trends aren’t necessarily limited to just sneakers; however, it is evident that you can tell where somebody is from strictly by what they are wearing. So, what does your shoe selection say about you? What do you rep? 

Test your kick game knowledge by taking the quiz after the jump…


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

Learning Objective/Outcomes: Students will learn and identify the elements of design placed in a variety of sneakers and explore these elements by designing their own sneakers using printable templates.

Log in to view the full Lesson Plan.

View the Lesson Assignment

Back to NuSkool
Lesson tags: Art, Creative Writing, Eighth, Elements of Design, Fashion, Featured, Hip-Hop Culture, Music, Ninth, Pop Culture, Seventh, Sixth, Sneakers

Jeffrey Vinson

Jeffrey Vinson Jeffrey D. Vinson has been an educator for nearly a decade and is the head teacher at Roots Activity Learning Center, an African-centered private school in Washington, DC. His research and practice in Hip-Hop Integration is primarily based on the many contributions that the African Diaspora has made on western civilization. His aim is to provide students the necessary skills and experiences to handle the many challenges that they will face both inside and outside of classroom. Jeffrey empowers his students’ learning experiences by utilizing culturally responsive teaching through art, technology, and community development.