Perhaps no trend of the last five years has detonated with the same force as that of sneakers, a fashion subculture whose once-secret dialect has now been fully translated to the dominant tongue of the mass market. But while sneaker madness was a surprise to some, truly new ideas are few and far between. Fashion’s fast-moving fads are more like concentric circles, fusing and floating apart over time as luxury houses and mall staples alike mimic and regurgitate formerly niche aesthetics with complex histories.
The pop renaissance of sneakers in particular has shed light on a number of brands that have reemerged from obscured memory into a burning spotlight—the result of cycles of 1990s retromania and the concurrent ascent of athleisure as the global uniform of the 21st century. Snowboarding retailer Northwave is one of these; a name known to few yet already almost five decades in the making, its history is a mirror to broader cultural shifts that aligned to produce the categories we now call sportswear and streetwear.
'The pop renaissance of sneakers in particular has shed light on a number of brands that have reemerged from obscured memory into a burning spotlight—the result of cycles of 1990s retromania and the concurrent ascent of athleisure as the global uniform of the 21st century.'
Northwave’s signature sneaker, the 1991 Espresso, combines a supersized sole (coined the Big Boy) with slick, two-tone uppers in nubuck and leather. Its outlandish proportions encapsulate a quintessentially ’90s aesthetic, the recent revival of which has cleared out shelves at both ends of the retail spectrum, from Balenciaga’s 2017 Triple S to Fila’s divisive Disruptor II, a retro of the 1996 Disruptor I, in 2018. This renaissance harkens to styles like Buffalo platforms, Candies, and Skechers—once popular with club and rave kids alongside teen icons including Britney Spears and the Spice Girls—while also deriving from performance-driven silhouettes developed for winter sports; take, for example, the Moon Boot, first imagined for après-ski by Italian equipment manufacturer Tecnica Group in the early ’70s and since refurbished with opulent collaborations from Jimmy Choo to Chanel.
Formerly known as Calzaturificio Piva, Northwave’s genitor company was founded in 1972 in Montebelluna, a small city in Veneto, Italy, world famous for its storied shoe district. Though Calzaturificio Piva likewise began with manufacturing ski boots, by the early ’80s, a new (and, at the time, contentious) snow sport was emerging. Snowboarding, a rebel faction formed in opposition to the presiding aloofness of skiing, offered both a distinctly irreverent mindset and a different set of technical requirements for gear.
Come 1989, Calzaturificio Piva had already become the world’s leading manufacturer of snowboarding boots, especially popular in the United States, at that time the epicenter of the movement’s growing popularity. Like the parallel emergence of skateboarding, snowboarding would soon transform from an outsider activity devised for and by insubordinate youth—and informed by the attitudes of punk and Hip Hop—to an action sport complete with corporate cosigns. But the midst of this metamorphosis offered a uniquely fertile moment for lifestyle brands that would capture the zeitgeist’s progressive and defiant politics, while cementing a cohesive aesthetic that would come to define the times. That same year, Calzaturificio Piva changed its name to the more internationally resonant Northwave and the Espresso was conceived.
Throughout the ’90s, the Espresso took on iterations including Chilli, Beach, and Sabot, as well as exclusive colorways and materials like its signature eco-fur lining. When the shoe relaunched in 2014, it fittingly landed first in Japan, ground zero for an experimental fashion market that infused the conditions for its birth. This time, the Espresso returns via a license with Slam Jam, complete with a creative treatment devised to celebrate the whimsical spirit of Northwave’s early print advertisements. Fresh imagery—in collaboration London-based Milo Black for the current S/S21 look book, as well as Spanish photographer Enanei in previous seasons—offers dynamic snaps of playful young sitters cast as a range of characters and utilizes a fisheye effect to humorously exaggerate the shoe’s already outsized shape. As the Espresso celebrates its thirtieth birthday, our world is all but unrecognizable, globalization and the internet have turned culture and creativity inside out, and yet companies and consumers remain fixated on the ’90s—the eternal “mood board” for autonomy and authenticity. Not every cataclysmic moment stands the test of time, but the spell this era has maintained suggests something was lost along the way—an essence we hope dress might somehow incarnate once again.