Adidas shoes showed poor judgment, but racism? Nah

The JS Roundhouse Mids by Adidas Originals and Jeremy Scott will be available in August. (Photo courtesy of Adidas)
The JS Roundhouse Mids by Adidas Originals and Jeremy Scott will be available in August. (Photo courtesy of Adidas)
Posted: June 22, 2012

Putting shackles on a pair of sneakers — no matter how fly they are — is not a good look. Let alone a good idea.

That's the moral of the story for Adidas, the German sportswear manufacturer that introduced this very shoe to the public and unwittingly unleashed a stampede of criticism in an Internet minute.

The company responsible for old-school hip-hop's uniform — the iconic three-striped track suit and shell-top running shoes — pulled its hideous purple, orange, and gray basketball sneaks from its fall lineup Tuesday after images of the shoe went viral the day before on social media and Twitter. The offensive main attraction: ankle cuffs complete with chain links. One look at the shoe was enough to conjure visions of chattel slavery, or what some believe is its modern-day equivalent: prison. These atrocities in epic proportions have worked to kill the spirit, drive, and dreams of America's black men.

If there were ever a lesson in bad taste, the JS Roundhouse Mids — a name that's a nod to prison chic? — was it. On Monday, the blogosphere blew up. Jesse Jackson said that if Adidas released the shoe, he would boycott the brand's stores across the 50 states.

"It is a symbol too strong, too powerful, and too negative to be trivialized," Jackson said. "I'm astonished Adidas would be this insensitive and allow this to happen."

The whole thing makes me wonder who was sitting in the boardroom when this decision was made. Seriously?

At least that was my immediate reaction.

When I read more about the shoe, I thought this was just fashion inspiration gone awry. In today's style climate, these shackles would probably look cool with skinny jeans and a cropped Members Only jacket — think edgy rocker with a dash of color. Adidas said the shoe "is nothing more than the designer Jeremy Scott's outrageous and unique take on fashion and has nothing to do with slavery," and I believe it.

Scott, a white, avant-garde fashion designer known for dressing Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Lil Wayne, said he modeled the shoe after American Greetings' 1980s plush, purple My Pet Monster doll. A quick look confirmed that Scott and Adidas were guilty of tackiness — even ignorance. But racism? Not so much.

James Peterson, director of Africana studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University, put it perfectly.

"White people have the privilege of not acknowledging black history — that's how you get dumb moves like this," he said. "But if you really want to talk about sneakers, let's talk about how much black people are spending on sneakers every single week. Those are the real chains right there. Let's deal with them."

Sure, you can make this poor marketing decision about race, but isn't it possible to find a hidden context in all art — if you want to? You could say this shoe was a metaphor for black men being shackled to capitalism by sneaker companies. You could look at the My Pet Monster doll and say it resembles an angry black man. But I just think this is a man who saw an opportunity to make something that was weird, out-of-the-box, and possibly a collector's item. So he went with it. After all, he works with spacesuit-wearing Kanye West, and he dresses Lady Gaga, a woman who chose to wear a meat suit in public. It's more likely he's pulling inspiration from pop culture's return to '80s punk than a need to trivialize the African American male experience.

"This design did not come from an evil place," said Clara Henry, director of Philadelphia University's fashion-design program, who is familiar with Scott's work. "It did not come from a place that hurt others. There was whimsy, a lightness to it. I think people need to stop trying to make something out of everything."

And if we're talking about historical connections, then you can't deny that he might have been inspired by fashion's S&M culture.

Incorporating physical restraints, or its likeness, in fashion dates back to the 1970s, when the photographer Helmut Newton styled controversial shoots incorporating chains, cuffs, and whips that sexualized women, Henry said.

"Women were in these submissive positions," she said. "They were shackled."

Today, you'll see chains and keys as accessories on high-heeled pumps. Even the Herve Leger banded dress, worn by America's most fit and fashionable, could be considered bondage wear.

It can't be denied that fashion — really, any artistic endeavor — can find some wacky inspiration, but sometimes, that's all it is.

Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, "Mirror Image," at philly.com/mirrorimage.

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