[Originally published in The Guardian]
Adidas has pulled Jeremy Scott’s controversial slave-shackle hi-tops – but not without revealing the true state of consumers
It took me a good few minutes to really look at, deconstruct and mentally digest the image of the purple, white and orange trainers that had been posted on Adidas’ Facebook page.
These weren’t just any regular hi-tops. These had been especially created by the designer Jeremy Scott, with an extra special detail on them: a bright orange plastic cuff, designed to look like a shackle, with a chain connecting the trainer and the cuff, on each ankle.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. A shackle immediately brings to mind slavery and prisons; neither is very glamorous. Not only is there the violent transatlantic slave trade (which still has ramifications in the present and is a deeply upsetting topic for many people) to bear in mind; there is also the issue of the global modern day slave trade, which, according to the latest figures, enslaves more people today than were enslaved during the entire 350-year history of the transatlantic slave trade.
There’s no doubt that Jeremy Scott, despite his assertions to the contrary, was making a statement about the enslavement of human beings. If he wasn’t, he would not have used a shackle-like ankle cuff – with all of its implications. There’s also no doubt that Adidas, which happily showed off the shoes online, had no issues with his idea. It seems odd that a group of presumably intelligent people would have green-lighted these trainers with no idea of the potential fallout.
Beyond the immediate knee-jerk responses, though, Scott appears to have designed a pair of trainers that actually carry a deep social statement about the enslaving nature of consumerism. At the same time, Adidas has revealed a great deal about how it views its customers.
Rather than simply getting upset, we could actually use these trainers as a teachable moment, especially for young people – their target market. Those shackles might spark a discussion about the character and psychology of consumerism today, and the relationship between brands and consumers.
We all know that brands seek to turn shoppers into so-called “brand evangelists”, who will display allegiance and loyalty, avidly show off their products and tell their friends and family about a company’s products. Now, we could discuss what Adidas is really saying when it encourages its buyers to wear a chained cuff on its ankles. Adidas has taken the idea of being a slave to fashion and made it palpable: now, it actually wants its customers to physically demonstrate their consumer-serfdom.
We could also use this moment to become more informed about how these products are made. Adidas has its own version of slaves working to make such goods – in the form of low-paid workers in sweatshops. Not only does Adidas want to make buyers its slaves, but it also seems content to work producers that way, too. And for the younger people who would buy these trainers, we could ask whether, in this economy, anyone needs to be more enslaved to material goods, psychologically or physically.