Onitsuka Tiger Stripes are not three parallel lines (or five!) that have dominated athletic shoes of certain European origins. Theirs are, in fact, not entirely linear: a pair of curved lines that splits from a joined stroke emerging from the heel criss-crosses two straight, nearly parallel lines that stretches downwards from the lace guard, all ending in the mid sole. To date, the stripes are unlike anything seen on sneakers. They’re unique and, although not consistent with those on the big cat in its name, are as organic as any you might find in nature. To us, the composition with a nod to asymmetry also recalls the sensuous lines of ikebana.
There is, however, a less poetic backstory to the birth of the Stripes. As Onitsuka Tiger tells it, the Stripes were one of five final selections picked from a 1966 design competition that saw more than 200 entries. The aesthetic appeal of the five designs were not enough, they were subjected to tests by athletes and experts from Kyoto University to determine their performance worthiness. The Stripes that we’re now familiar with won. Onitsuka Tiger said that the “encompassing concept, integrating the design’s vertical stripes into the lacing, brought more stability to the surface material and significantly improved the shoe’s fit and durability – factors that turned out to have a direct impact on athletic performance.”
The newly selected Onitsuka Tiger Stripes did not make an immediate entrance into the marketplace until 1968 at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico, where the whole Japanese contingent entered the stadium in the newly minted Mexico Delegation shoe. Japan, interestingly, had hosted the previous Games, and it is understandable that they would want to make a dramatic entrance as sort of a follow-through. The Stripes made a conspicuous debut on the world stage, and the Mexico sneakers would become one of the most popular shoes to first appear at an Olympic event.
The Onitsuka Tiger Stripes 50th Anniversary exhibition at Peddar on Scotts. Photo: Galerie Gombak
It’s been 50 years since the Stripes were picked to sweep down the outside quarter of Onitsuka Tiger shoes. While they have not enjoyed marketing zeal to the extent of, say, the Swoosh, they’re still very much part of the identity of these Japanese sneakers that have stood on their own in a sea of European and American brands. For the golden celebrations here in Singapore, Onitsuka Tiger has teamed up with footwear retailer Pedder on Scotts for a special commemoration, M66: Of Different Stripes, where 50 Singapore-based “creatives” interpret the Mexico 66 (once known as the Limber trainers)—in a pairing called the ‘All White Kicks’ Collab—to celebrate the birth of the Stripes.
Fifty may not be a grand number, but given Singapore’s lean creative population, it is large enough to cast a spotlight on the state of creativity on our island. Try as we did, it was hard to suss out an interpretation that could have us excited. These were the works of a motley group, comprising fashion designers, illustrators, stylists, and media types, and their contributions were very much a reflection of the type of work they already do. There was no discernible stretch of the creative muscle.
However, one shoe did truly stand high on its heel: a completely morphed version worthy of an anime hero by the designer Vik Lim. Here’s a pair that literally towered above every other contributor’s shoe; a transmogrified urban-gladiator-sandal-turn-power-sneaker. Mr Lim, who is presently the research and innovation manager at Williams-Sonoma Group, has created a sort of shield at the top-front of the Mexico 66 without obscuring the key identifier of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers: the Stripes.
Designer Vik Lim’s striking reinterpretation of the Mexico 66. Photo: Onitsuka Tiger
Extending the leather of the upper from the front—atop the lacing (thus using the laces as fastening)—with an external tongue, he’s made a low-cut sneaker into a near-boot, offering a message that speaks with the same enthusiasm as stickers in place of text in digital messaging. This cut-and-stitch approach essentially explores one question: What can I do as a creative person that isn’t what is expected of us all? At the opening of the exhibition, Mr Lim was overheard telling an appreciative guest, “This is minimal work with maximum impact. I didn’t want to do anything to the shoe itself since it’s a classic sneaker.”
So he built upon it instead, perhaps to deliberately stay clear of the paint, draw, or embellish approach that others were expected to do. True to his dressmaking background, the added upper was first drafted on paper before the design was traced onto the leather to be cut. This is to ensure precise fit and the right proportion that will not diminish the actual shoe. Each piece was then assembled by hand, and it was perceptible that the execution bore the flair of a seasoned cobbler.
There are essentially two versions, but for the exhibition, Mr Lim took one from each to form an asymmetric pair. They are distinguished by the kid leather tongues—one, a sort of trapezoid with rounded edges and the other, fringed as in the kiltie of golf shoes—and the height of the ankle straps. From afar, they reminded us of the leather tabi—Japanese socks that are worn with traditional clogs or slippers—from the late Momoyama (Peach Hill) period (mid-16th century), when the military elite of the shogunate rallied for an alternative beauty of rustic simplicity. Interestingly, there was a sock-like sneaker that Onitsuka Tiger issued in 1953 called ‘Marathon Tabi’, but this is visually unrelated.
That Mr Lim had infused his design with a discernible Japanese aesthetic is hardly surprising. Having trained in the ateliers of Hiroko Koshino from 1988 to 1989, and won the first prize of the Asia Collection Makuhari Grand Prix in 1998, Mr Lim’s affinity to Japanese visual elegance is understandable. His designs for the Kimono Kollab of recent years were testament to his penchant for bringing modern sensibility to old-world craft. And his overlay for the Mexico 66 continues to pay homage to the brand’s Japanese roots, while not playing down his love for decidedly hand-spun and low-tech approach to design.
The tongues and and straps of the overlays of Vik Lim X Onitsul Tiger Mexico 66 at the Pedder on Scotts exhibition. Photo: Galerie Gombak
The result is a re-imagined Mexico 66 that would not be out of place with the collections of Rick Owens, Craig Green, or the old master, Yohji Yamamoto, and is clearly not for the skinny-jeans brigade. It is also in keeping with the spirit of sneaker designs today: classic, old-school, and not rigidly structured. Yet, there are those who sneer at his shoe’s lack of bombast, and at its too-drastic reworking of the base silhouette.
This, to us, is reminiscent of the re-workings of iconic shoe designs attempted by other brands that, interestingly, did not incur the dismay of sneaker fanatics. In the fall season of 2008, for instance, Comme des Garçons released a pair of sneakers in collaboration with Nike that took aficionados by surprise. It was a take on the Nike Dunk High (an NBA court staple), but no one had guessed that it was. With an enveloping leather upper held together by a zip where laces should be, they looked like work boots or, if you’re more imaginative, galoshes! The basketball-shoe birth identity was nearly obliterated. Although no longer available, it remains much sort-after among collectors.
If creativity, as it’s often said, is bringing something new to an existing form, then Vik Lim X Onitsuka Tiger’s Mexico 66 is creativity persuasively expressed. While others succumb to indolence by filling blank spaces between the shoe’s toe box, stripes, and the criss-cross heel counter with scribbles, splashes, and even stickers (Daiso?), here is a designer who perceived the world differently in order to uncover unexpected shapes and to link ostensibly disparate elements in an eye-opening way. This, perhaps, is no different to what founder of the brand Kihachiro Onitsuka saw one summer evening in 1951, when he ate a bowl of salad with octopus, and realised he could mimic the creature’s concave suckers on the sole of shoes. Who knew the fated-to-be-sushi tako could inspire?
The Onitsuka Tiger Stripes 50th Anniversary exhibition, M66: Of Different Stripes, is on at Peddar on Scotts till 14 August 2016.