Smart Shoes

Adventures in the brave new world of sneaker fashion

Nike Air zoom Pegasus add a quiet elegance to the mix.


For every type of clothing, there have been breakthroughs. Take women in pants, for example. Wearing them was a crime until wearing them became a way of life. Bras, too, have had their “Hello?!” moments, as in “See you later, whalebone!” and “Bye bye, bullet cups.”


Yes, change happens, but change can take decades, and, when we are in the middle of a major awakening, we can lose track of why it mattered, how it happened. Getting from bloomers to dungarees took over 150 years, and those living through the end of it could be heard muttering, “Um, why haven’t pants been a thing for us before?” Now we’re in the midst of another fashion breakthrough. The quiet transformation going on right now involves the shoe.


“I guess I could use a new pair of sneakers,” the woman with Parkinson’s disease whispers. “But I don’t want those thick, grandpa kind. They’ll make me look . . . like I can’t walk.”


I nodded. She had accepted my invitation to go on this sneaker shopping adventure, so there must have been a part of her that believed an athletic shoe might help. And who knew? Maybe it would. Parkinson’s is merciless, progressive. She has to push every muscle every day just to slow the disease down. For her, moving from one part of the kitchen to another requires focus, balance, timed breathing, reps, and—sometimes—a water bottle. Why not take a chance on footwear designed for those who focus and sweat and push themselves across hardwood floors or pound the asphalt? Get her into a gym shoe. What could go wrong?


“The nurses’ aides liked the pair of sneakers you got me three years ago,” she remarks, as she pushes her walker across the floor of the Nike shoe department. “The nurses especially liked the hot pink laces. Don’t forget to check out all the laces.”


Vans UltraRange Rapidweld (for those not looking for statement kicks)


My mother, I discovered on this outing, is a sneakerhead lite. She is not on any email list for new Air Jordan release dates, and there are limits on what she will shell out. She would never pop for a Salomon Ultra Pro or Hoka One One trainer—she isn’t running double digit miles or blazing mountain trails. But our little treks to the Nike, Adidas, and Converse outlet stores prove to me she is a big believer in a sneaker lifestyle, and I suspect it has to do with the changes I had been missing, the breakthroughs.


The sneaker is no longer just a gym shoe, an out-of-doors slipper. It has moved into dress-up territory. Take the Nike Air Huarache City Low, a new edition of an original design by shoe icon Tinker Hatfield. Hatfield is credited with creating the first cross-trainer, and good for him. But, as clever as he is, he did not design shoes for women. He did not insist that a sneaker be deliciously presented in praline, with subtle black and white accents and straps that can be removed. This push is new. “Those will work with my caramel and white capris,” my mother says when she sees them. Absolutely. Then there is the Air Zoom Pegasus sitting on a shelf, unassuming in its own little world of quiet violet and aubergine. “Look at that weave,” she says when I present it. “These purples go with browns and grays and blue jeans and pinks. And it’s on sale.” One of us is going home with these.


ASICS Gel-Fit Sana (with concessions for style)


It was the Pegasus, actually, that woke me up, that convinced me to explore more. “How adorable would you look in the Adidas X Alexander Wang?” I suggest. “It looks expensive,” she says. Exactly. It looks like somebody cares about style. There is the Converse collaboration with J. W. Alexander, a black high top with a white midsole and sleek praline—yes, praline—rounded tread. Gucci and Balenciaga and Jimmy Choo are in the game too, showing off with loud sneaker campaigns full of jewels and see-me colors, but loud or statement shoes aren’t what interest me. It is the quiet advances. It is my mother and her Nike Pegasus, the gentle platform from Puma, a sophisticated shoe from Van’s that intrigue me. A few of ASICS’ new releases are also making concessions for style, and ASICS is a company with a fan base. It does not need to make concessions.


I look at these shoes, and now I understand: the high heel will go the way of the buttonhook. Not now, maybe not for another decade or two, but they will, eventually, be replaced by the beauty and intrigue and adventure offered by a different kind of shoe, a shoe that used to be called a “sneaker,” but nobody remembers why. We will simply call it a shoe because that is what most of us will wear.


My mother is already busy promoting this change. She bought four pairs on our last trip, and, she reports, all the nurses love them.   


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