Sneaker culture and collecting might be more prominent than it’s ever been – these days, sneakers are one of the best asset classes one can invest in – but at the end of the day, they’re shoes; they’re meant to be worn. Just as it’s a shame to see watches or cars squirrelled away and never enjoyed by their owners, it’s a shame to see sneakers never make it onto people’s feet.
But there’s another reason why you should wear your sneakers: unlike shares or precious metals, sneakers degrade. Dramatically and quickly, too, as this now-viral video demonstrates.
Nick Bennett, a vintage Nike restorer and enthusiast, shared this video to TikTok of him restoring a pair of Nike Air Jordan 3 ‘White Cement’ basketball sneakers from 1994. The video shows how the polyurethane midsoles of the sneakers have completely degraded over the sneaker’s 27-year lifespan, as has the plastic ‘Nike Air’ back tabs at the sneaker’s heel. It’s enough to make a sneakerhead (or clean freak) cry.
Watch how the ravages of time have taken their toll on these rare sneakers below.
It’s fascinating to see Bennett painstakingly restore these rare retro sneakers; the meticulous prep work, Frankensteining bits from other shoes, painting, gluing… The end result speaks for itself. It’s also worth the hassle: real Air Jordan 3 ‘White Cements’ from 1994 are worth easy four figures, with a US size 8 pair currently selling on StockX for US$2,500.
Sadly, virtually all athletic shoes with a polyurethane foam midsole are likely to meet this fate over time. The phenomenon has a name: hydrolysis.
“Hydrolysis is the chemical breakdown of the PU [polyurethane] polymer and the resulting physical breakdown or crumbling of the PU sole by the attack of water (usually in vapour form), occurring over a period of several years (even when the shoes are in store!),” Safety Jogger explains.
“This process is accelerated by warmth and high humidity. It will, therefore, happen more quickly in tropical climates, but also in confined spaces (such as lockers) if the safety shoes are put away damp. In the most advanced state of hydrolysis, the PU sole will lose all its physical strength, thus cracking or crumbling.”
A shoebox full of crumbled vintage Adidas sneaker midsoles found in a Buenos Aires sneaker store. Image: The Guardian
Because of this, vintage sneakers that haven’t undergone significant hydrolysis or degradation are worth big money – but they’re incredibly rare, as the foam becomes so fragile. It’s also why the ‘retroing’ of some of these popular vintage sneakers has become such big business for Nike and others: it gives new customers the chance to get their hands on vintage-looking sneakers that they can actually wear, without fear of doing irreversible damage.
Not all sneakers will inevitably succumb to this sort of fate. Other common midsole materials, such as the vulcanised rubber found in Converse or Vans sneakers, is far more hardy and holds up better over time. Of course, leather-soled shoes can last for decades if maintained properly, too.
But it’s a timely reminder that sneakers, like all clothes, are ultimately ephemeral. Collect them if you like, but they’re meant to be worn. Better to have fun with them in the present rather than end up with a box filled with dust and broken dreams down the line…