Lacing Up a Global Trend: Sneaker Soles Reflect

By Maria Cury, Kenza Moller
November 24, 2008

FLORIDA, U.S. and SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – It doesn’t take a mile-long walk in Angela Thompson’s shoes to learn who she is; simply looking at them will do. “It shows the story about my life,” said Thompson, a high school sophomore from Orlando, Fla. “Basically who I like, stuff like that.”

Thompson’s sneakers, a faded pair of black Converse low-tops, have more than the typical signs of wear and tear. Scribbled in black ink are the names of her boyfriend and favorite bands. As personalized as Thompson’s shoes may be, they also represent a fashion trend among teenagers: expressing the soul on the soles of one’s shoes.

This trend isn’t native to one country or continent; it is predominant in North America, Europe, and Latin America as well. In classrooms in the Dominican Republic, for example, many students sport scruffy stained sneakers, often covered with the graffiti of self-expression.

Although some teenagers make the footwear fashion statement on Airwalks, Vans, or DCs, and their choice of brand seems to transcend gender, race, or nationality, canvas All-Stars tend to be the most popular.

“I don’t write on any of my other shoes but my Converse,” said Gaby Salmon, a senior from Olympia High School in Fla. “It’s freedom of expression, man. I see them as my personal art pad. Sometimes I write quotes, I write names of fictional characters – it depends on my mood.”

While some use Sharpies to pen their favorite song lyrics, others buy expressive laces and tie them in unusual ways. “It’s a way of expressing my personality,” said Orian Portiansky, a high school senior from the Dominican Republic. Portiansky weaves together pink and black checkered laces on her DCs.

One of her classmates at the Community for Learning in Santo Domingo, Paloma Ortiz, colors her Converse’s laces in a rainbow of colors and scribbles on her sneakers during class. She invites her friends to use them as a drawing board too.

“It feels a lot more personal,” Ortiz said. She walks about in song lyrics, loving messages, and signatures – shoes that are more like art than sneakers.

Converse Inc., the manufacturer of the Chuck Taylor-endorsed basketball shoe since 1917, may have picked up on the trend. Converse now gives buyers a chance to customize their sneakers by selecting style and color combinations. Many, however, still feel inclined to do the personalizing themselves.

Artists like Drew Brophy, whose shoe artwork is featured on the YouTube video website, customize sneakers with pen and paint. But the Converse canvas also seems to showcase the art of dirt, dust, and daily use—even just a few hours out of the shoebox.

“You rarely see clean Converses,” Salmon said. “That’s my theory: they’re attracted to dirt. Whenever you see them they’re dirty or written on.”

Sometimes the shoe unwillingly ages through natural causes. “They were white, now they’re beige,” says Bisola Alugbin, a Fla. senior who plays the saxophone in her school marching band. “I actually wanted to keep them clean, but one day I didn’t have any shoes to wear, so I used them for marching. It kind of went downhill from there.”

In many cases teens prefer to break in their sneakers naturally. Others, however, hasten the “roughed up” image, as evident in Nylon Magazine TV’s short silent film “Converse: Brand New…Sigh!” The two-minute feature follows a girl’s struggle to dirty up her black low-tops — fast. Thompson, too, feels the need to purposefully make rubber meet cement — and other surfaces. “I go through water, puddles, through dirt and stuff,” she said. “It’s fun.”

Some parents, meanwhile, may view these stained shoes not just as dirty laundry, but also as a mode of expression.”I think it’s a healthy outlet for kids,” said Carla Meyrink, the mother of two Dominican teenagers. “Better that than tattoos.”

Despite the different methods used to obtain that personalized, broken-in look, many teens agree that, if their shoes look scruffy, they don’t chuck their Chucks.