Toronto Exhibit Explores NFT Sneakers in the Metaverse

The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto is set to launch its latest exhibit this week. Entitled Future Now: virtual sneakers with cutting edge kicks, the show will explore the frontiers of footwear through the 21st century and beyond, examining everything from groundbreaking designs, new aesthetics, advances in accessibility and durability, to fully digital footwear that exist exclusively in the metaverse. This is a fascinating and far-reaching exhibition that covers innovations in 3D printing, recovered ocean plastics, virtual reality, and blockchain-backed NFTs.

Designed by design collective Arc+Co and curated by Bata director and senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack (who also wrote the popular 2019 sneaker book Collaboration), “Future Now” opens in Toronto on May 26 and will launch alongside Semmelhack’s new book future now to accompany the show. Ahead of the exhibit and book release, Complex Canada sat down with Semmelhack to talk about the history of sneakers, NFT sneakers, and how the past and future of shoes go hand in hand.

It’s a good time to look at sneakers in this way because rather than strictly functional, we tend to think of sneakers as aesthetic objects, as artistic objects.
And also that sneakers have become collector’s items. If you think about the trajectory of shoes having an athletic function to having that function but being part of a wardrobe or expressing an identity, to sneakers that aren’t even worn. It’s something that really connects to NFTs and digital sneakers. You can use them on your avatar in the metaverse, but a lot of people collect them as digital assets.

We have sneakers as NFT, as assets, and also sneakers as cosmetic items in video games. I have a pair of Jordans in NBA2K, the same pair I have in real life, that I paid real money for. How are these things related?
It doesn’t surprise me that we see such sneaker forays into the realm of the Metaverse. There’s a blur between real life and the metaverse. You dress up your avatar, but what’s fascinating is that you try to dress up that avatar in the same clothes you own in real life. If you think about the fall of Jordan fortniteor shoes you see in mad or 2K, it’s incredibly similar. It’s interesting that we’re bringing these things into the metaverse, a place that doesn’t require a 1:1 match to our world. But fashion is anything but frivolous.

Image via Publicist

What do you see on the horizon for sneakers in the digital space?
Really, what shoes can be in the metaverse is really where there’s a huge opportunity to imagine things that aren’t there. In the Metaverse, you don’t need shoes to do anything for you. Think about what can happen if we keep pushing fashion forward in the metaverse. Sky is the limit.

Someone using VR boots
Image via Publicist

When you look at innovations in sneakers, there are some things that look like novelties, like self-lacing Air Mags. But there are also innovations that are really more about accessibility, aren’t there? Like the Go FlyEase?
Yeah, absolutely. Consider greater inclusion. The Go FlyEase certainly does.

Nike Go Flyease sneakers
Image via Kailee Mandel

So what is the relationship between those advances that are just novelty and those that are more about accessibility or have a purpose?
It’s an interesting question. For example, I have the Yeezy Foam Rnnr in the innovation section. But part of their innovation isn’t just their looks, or the fact that they’re a singular foam-based structure. It’s the fact that it’s made from seaweed, which very clearly overlaps with durability. Innovation is therefore often driven by these other issues which are also explored in the exhibition and the book. Or, for example, with 3D printing, you build something rather than cutting something out to reveal it, which reduces waste.

But is it something like using 3D printing to reduce waste, or is it more of a side effect of implementing these processes?
It’s a complicated answer. I think sometimes the problem, or the nut you want to crack, might be sustainability, which can lead to innovation so groundbreaking that it transforms the business. Knitting is a perfect example. One of the problems with making leather shoes is that you have to take a cowhide, which is basically the equivalent of a piece of rolled dough, and then you take a cookie cutter, a sole, to cut out the pieces needed to make the shoe. Like when you bake cookies, you have lots and lots of bits left over – but you can’t take those bits and massage them together to make another batch. You have an incredible amount of waste. With knitting, you have the yarn, you cut the yarn, there is no waste. But knitting wasn’t introduced just to reduce waste. It was about creating something mobile and breathable that can adapt to different sizes of feet.

BSM Scry Boots
Image via Publicist

It seems like if you’re a shoemaker, there may be an incentive to do something more socially responsible. But surely reducing waste must also be good for their bottom line.
Yeah, 100 percent. Absolutely. They don’t have to deal with waste. There are innovations that stem from a concern for social responsibility, but also the bottom line.

Sneaker culture is pretty much all about history – where the shoes came from, what they mean, etc. Your show is looking to the future. How does the future relate to the past in terms of sneakers, for you?
When an artist goes to work on an Air Force One, it’s not a blank canvas. The Air Force One already brings a huge amount of social meaning and history. So it’s true that those who are rooted in sneaker culture are very invested in history. They have a deep understanding and understand the references invoked in a new colorway or collaboration. But throughout the history of sneakers, we are always embracing new technologies. The pump. The air bubble. So I think sneakerheads are as interested in the story as they are in the next step. An exhibition like this is about understanding how the future is shaped, and I hope it will be interesting because history is being made as we speak.

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