Sneakers Unboxed

From the Exhibition: Introduction

4 May 2022

Most people wear sneakers on a daily basis – as casual footwear, as performance sportswear, as style statement or perhaps not worn at all, but purchased to keep as a rare collectible. Few objects are as universal or as diverse, which is one reason why the sneaker has become the undisputed cultural symbol of our times bridging culture, design, fashion, music and technology.

With a global market that has been valued at nearly 80 billion dollars and is predicted to reach 120 billion by 2026, the sneaker industry is the most innovative and fast-paced in the footwear sector. With thousands of new sneaker models in endless colourways released every year, design innovation is key. Designers and inventors continue to push the boundaries, and the speed and scale of this industry means that design innovations get implemented quickly and on a large scale. Yet the journey from design concept to production and launch is a complicated process that could take several years.

The history of sneakers begins in the world of sports, where design to improve athletic performance was at the forefront. But over the last forty years youth cultures across the globe have increasingly influenced the shape and speed of the industry. Many iconic sneakers originally designed for specific athletic activities were adopted by young people who transformed sneakers into style icons that have become an important vehicle to express one’s identity.

The story of the sneaker is a reflection of cultural, societal and technological change. From the power of sneakers to reinforce a sense of belonging and style, to their ability to improve athletic performance, this exhibition traces the history, journey and future of the sneaker from sportswear staple to cultural icon and fashion statement. And it highlights the design stories and people behind some of the most culturally and technologically significant sneakers ever made.

State of Play

The sneaker industry is vast. It has grown exponentially over the last two decades and shows no sign of slowing down. In 2021, for example, about 1.2 billion sneakers were sold worldwide which is almost double the amount of sneakers sold in 2012.

Much of the industry’s expansion is based on a unique combination of consumer demand and strategic marketing by competing brands. However, there are instances where a sneaker model has risen to prominence mainly thanks to its cultural value. One example of this is the Nike Air Force 1, which is credited with being the sneaker model released in the greatest number of different versions.

Sneaker resale has become an industry in its own right, with online platforms such as StockX achieving record prices and releasing certain models on their platform only. The largest profits are driven by a thirst for exclusivity in a market worth an estimated $10 billion (€9.2 billion).


In its 5-year history, StockX has facilitated the trading of millions of sneakers. The data gathered and analysed from these transactions builds a picture of the growth and changing trends of the secondary sneaker market.