Having worked in denim for a long time, I get sent a lot of ‘You’ll love this!’ photos of dubious denim items: high heels, weird-ass bags, denim painted nails, armchairs, crockery, the list goes on. But up until the last couple of years, the denim shoe has been kinda on my #denimduds list. Denim footwear is very hard to get right; it can easily look trashy, cheesy or a bit ‘Mom’ (sorry moms) and the denim sneaker is one of those items that you think is gonna look rad because it matches your jeans but it rarely does.

3 x 1 Air Force 1’s

However, recent months have birthed more amazing denim kicks than the last 100 years combined: we’ve had the ongoing Levi’s x New Balance collaborations, the Denham x Nike Air Max 90’s, and who could forget the 3×1 Nike Air Force 1’s, above, first debuted in 2019? The surge of denim collaborations has led to an onslaught of either homemade or one-of-one customised denim shoes that fuse sneaker culture’s collectibility with denim’s ultra-customisable nature. Here, we track the emergence of the denim sneaker through a few of our favourite releases and how they have helped to unleash this unique footwear trend that is gaining momentum into 2021.

3Sixteen Indigo Converse

It all started with a vat of indigo dye and a humble pair of Converse about a decade ago. As natural indigo dying became popular, companies like Buaisou and 3Sixteen were experimenting with indigo dips on chucks. A retailer who was likely the first on this craft and saw its scalable appeal in 2011 was Tenue De Nimes, who experimented with indigo dyed cons and even Redwing boots through events and limited drops. They just released their latest batch with Vans this fall, dyed by Amsterdam indigo aficionado, Celia of @blueprintamsterdam, below. This denim-centric approach to customisation opened the door ajar for other brands such as Needles with their Asymmetric Sneaker, no.one’s mud cloth limited drop or Buaisou’s recent overdyed Dr Woo x Converse beauties (below)

Tenue De Nimes x Vans October 2020
Converse x Dr Woo, dyed by Buaisou, September 2020

But as we all know, the Japanese are known for pushing innovation in design, especially if its denim related. Enter Gaku Tsuyoshi from FDMTL and his ten year collaboration Era and Slip on Vans in 2015. Gaku being the king of modern day sashiko, it’s only apt that he was the first to combine a technique synonymous with archival Japanese clothing repair onto a shoe; a stroke of genius that has spearheaded so many sneakers we have seen emerging this year.

But how did we get from a mass-produced release to some of the creativity emerging today? Well, much like in jeanswear, it’s through the power of the individual and the openness to experiment. Many of you will have seen some of these early FDMTL sneakers worn-in, abraded and bleached, and as customers started proudly sharing their achievements online, things started getting really interesting.

FDMTL x Vans Japan’s first collection, 2015

2018 saw the biggest brand in denim, Levi’s Strauss join this denim shoe party and re-release their infamous 2008 Jordans with a new 2018 update. Despite having toyed with denim shoes in the past, what was most interesting about this drop was that it unleashed the concept of customisation (already trending hard in apparel) to the masses. Sure, there were plenty of @shoesurgeon-esq platforms out there creating one-of-one footwear concepts, but the beauty of releasing a denim sneaker was it opened customisation up to anyone bold enough to take bleach, paint or sandpaper to their covetable new purchase. Everything that’s beautiful about denim suddenly transferred to footwear and ignited the creativity of the consumer around the world. The release was so popular that it sold out in record time and has enjoyed multiple variations since.

Levi’s Air Jordan 4, 2018
Levi’s customised Air Jordan 4’s, by @juworkingonprojects
Custom Air Jordan 6 by DJ Sneakerhead

Following the Levi’s Jordan success, 2019 saw the release of Scott Morrison’s brand, 3×1 with his Nike Air Force 1’s (pictured at the top of this article) and Jason Denham with the Nike Air Max trio back in August of this year, pictured below, as well as two Levi’s x New Balance collaboration sneakers.

The Denham x Nike co-lab generated hype in both the active and denim world, again, opening up the sneaker audience to the unique attributes of denim. Sneaker Freaker asked Jason Denham if he knew how to save the kicks from indigo bleed:

“Honestly, I don’t. We always say that the more you wear them, the better they will get. It’s like a pair of DENHAM jeans. I’m excited to see posts of these shoes in six months, a year, and even after two years of wearing. I bet they will look amazing”

Denham Nike Air Max 90, September 2020

Buying a rare shoe that you actually want to wear-in is a relatively new concept in the collectible sneaker world and this attitude has fuelled many of the newest releases of 2020. One look at the Nike SB Travis Scott or Community Garden and it’s clear to see the influence of the individual on tomorrow’s design. Even Nike’s in-house team have unleashed the power in customisation with their @team_team_team_team_team_team account; a platform for experimentation that focusses on treating the sneaker as a blank canvas for experimentalism. 

Nike x Sacai, indigo dyed by one of the @team_team_team_team_team_team creatives
Denham Air Max 1, September 2020

Despite being in the works for 1.5 years and being manufactured on some scale, the Denham Nike Air Max 1 design leans into the artisanal craftsmanship of Japanese sashiko, as also championed by FDMTL. Tapping this age-old, hand embroidered technique was perfectly timed in 2020 for several reasons: a renewed focus on the environmental impact of apparel, increasingly cautious purchasing from consumers and the explosion of decorative repair as people have more time on their hands to explore craft. Platforms such as instagram and depop are fuelling both the knowledge of hand repair and the direct to consumer audiences to empower the bedroom maker.

We have championed one such maker, Jaffa Saba in a previous interview last year but his amazing one of a kind, upcycled Kapital Nike ‘Bone Swoosh’ shoes in 2019 (video below) or his earlier Nike Air Force 1’s were no doubt a huge influence in the creative apparel space, inspiring both denim and footwear designers the world over. His fresh take on craft has gained him accolades from the apparel press and led him to work with True Religion, Swarovski and Converse, amongst others.

 

As 2020 has progressed, a slew of creatives have taken the denim sneaker concept to new, elevated heights tapping overdyes, decorative repair and upcycling to transform the humble shoe. This emerging segment in the market has captured peoples imaginations and engagement, proving that today’s currency stretches way beyond sales figures into the world of the artisan. One-of-one designs, bespoke repair and creative exploration is at the heart of this community of crafters.

Re-purposed Pumas from @sandwich_sandwhat, based out of Indonesia
Customised Nike Air Max with chain stitched swoosh by @saishiko, Indonisia
@sashikodenim x @petersonstoop rework the Air Force 1

This concept was taken to the next level last week when @sashikodenim dropped images of his collaboration with @petersonstoop, transforming a pair of AF1’s into something of heirloom quality. Pey, the man behind Sashiko Denim added his signiture decorative stitch to both the swoosh and the tongue, whilst Jelske Peterson and Jarah Stoop re-soled the shoe with veg-tan leather. We spoke to Pey about the project:

“The increasing popularity of repair art makes me very happy and shows that we, as consumers, have started re-evaluating product quality and are gaining interest in the artisan crafts. My motto ‘Repair don’t replace’ has never been more relevant. Just like the power of well balanced co-creations: great things happen when artists work together and inspire each other to create an even better version of repair art” -Pey

What we most love about this movement is the recent explosion of creativity it has unleashed in the individual. Young, up and coming designers such as Jaffa Saba or craftspeople such as Sashiko Denim, Peterson Stoop and Saishiko have given consumers a glimpse into what’s possible with a needle and thread and an open mind. And in turn, we’ve watched smaller brands and individuals then go on to inspire the bigger brand’s latest release.  Sneaker design in 2020 has taken on a more denim-centric attitude where the creativity doesn’t end on the shop floor, but in the owner’s care. We can’t wait to see how this movement unfolds into 2021.