It was the Union Jack flag that got me. The little United Kingdom flag, situated next to the word “Reebok” on a pair of shoes I hadn’t thought about in almost three decades, took me back to eighth grade. I thought of the polished floors in my junior high school hallways, metal lockers slamming shut, and the folded sheets of notepaper, the adrenaline-inducing secret notes we passed between classes.
“You want those shoes?” I asked my daughter, looking at the pair she had found online. In some ways, their simple design and off-white coloring looked as dated to me as mom jeans, as obsolete as a tape player, and as intrinsically enmeshed with my adolescent fashion preferences as big bangs and shoulder pads. But in another sense, they looked as wonderful as the day I first saw them.
Reebok’s Club Champion (known as the Club C) hit the market in 1985. The shoe was designed for tennis, specifically marketed for “the club player who needs a durable performance tennis shoe.” I don’t think I’d even held a tennis racket when I wore them with my pastel blue pants or button-fly Guess jeans. But the brand had made a big splash in the U.S. market only a few years before, with leather running shoes and ones designed for a new fad sweeping California and Florida called “aerobics.” Teenagers, even those of us who had no hope of being a club champion, wanted these sneakers.
Seeing the Club C this spring was a bit like running into an old friend. “So, what have you been up to since junior high?” I wanted to ask. It turns out, because the sneakers were folded into the Classics Unit, created in 1993 for what are known as heritage models, they never really disappeared. Dan Sarro, head of media relations for Reebok, said the Club C is always in the company’s line, available in different channels. The difference now is that, “we’re marketing it,” he said.
And it’s not just Reebok marketing the trends of Gen-X’s adolescence. Take a walk through any mall, and you may feel a strange sense that time has contracted. Pastel pinks, yellows and blues have bloomed in window displays. Painter pants, high-waisted jeans, windbreakers, overalls and, to the horror of some, acid-washed denim are back. My hair dresser nearly dropped her shears when I told her my teenager and her friends wore ponytails in scrunchies.
Why is this happening? And, why now?
Kelly Hibler, who manages the Reebok Classics unit, said, “With all the noise that comes at kid, I think there is something comforting and that feels good about buying something that you know your parents knew.”
But to say that the younger generation is deliberately focused on the fashion of the ’80s or ’90s misses the subtlety of their unique approach, according to Erin Mintun, the Classic unit’s senior design director.
“This generation is about sampling,” she said. The way they assemble a look — pulling a collegiate sweatshirt from their dad’s closet and mixing it with something from the 2000s — is more “about nostalgia than a decade approach,” she said.
How this generation’s interest in nostalgic fashion developed is a bit harder to pinpoint. My daughter saw the shoes on the Urban Outfitters website. Mintun pointed out that marketers need to focus on what consumers want and how they are finding it. Apps like Depop have created a marketplace for sampling, offering ’90s and Y2K, and vintage clothing, for example, that young people buy and sell. “It’s more the way they are thinking versus the way it’s marketed to them,” she said.
A heightened interest in sneakers may also come from this generation’s lifestyle. In a freelance economy, she said, “you are moving around.” Even in Paris, where French women would never be seen in such shoes five years ago, “Go there now, and they are all wearing cute little court sneakers,” she said.
Jacques Slade, a leading YouTuber in the sneaker niche, said the Club C has been having a bit of a resurgence in the last two years. The trend may have started with “sneakerheads” or collectors, and then it trickled through to the rest of the world. Once a celebrity or the cool kid in high school starts to wear it, “then other kids get on board,” he said. Other shoes from the ’80s and ’90s are having a resurgence, he said, noting the Adidas Continental 80, the Puma RS Computer shoe, and Nike’s near-endless line of Air Jordan Retro.
Talking about all these trends from the past made me wonder whether I had a box full of fashion treasures somewhere. If I could pull out a pair of vintage Reebok, would I redeem myself in the skeptical eyes of my daughter? Very little in my closet today meets her standard of cool. It would be too good to be true to think that I might possess a heritage sneaker of great authenticity last worn around the time Taylor Swift was born.
I asked the folks at Reebok if my old shoes would be exactly like the ones they are selling now. The company keeps an archive, a collection containing models of each shoe they’ve created, along with oral histories and marketing materials that went along with their release. The speckled pattern on the outersole of my originals was hand-hammered to grip the court, Mintun said. Today, it’s done with a computer.
As for their intended use — tennis — could they still be worn on the court?
Hibler, who has spent three decades in the sneaker business, said yes. Would it be a great idea? Probably not. “Through modern construction, there are better tennis shoes now.”
But my daughter, just like me, isn’t thinking of these shoes for performance. And the fact that she discovered the shoes at this point in her adolescence is surprisingly touching. Because we know that the teenage brain is surging with dopamine and making memories and connections in a way that, 30 years later, will send a pang of wistfulness at the sight of a tiny Union Jack flag. Maybe it’s no coincidence that sneakers, the shoes of youth, have become wrapped up in this time of emerging identity as an individual and within a group.
Needless to say, I got her the shoes.
She even said I could borrow them.
Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff is a freelance writer and playwright. She lives in New Jersey.