For the next four months, the Portland Art Museum will serve as the epicenter of futuristic footwear. Its latest exhibition, Future Now: Virtual Sneakers to Cutting-Edge Kicks, explores how designers have pushed the boundaries of what footwear can be. Created in partnership with Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, the exhibition highlights everything from out-of-this-world 3D-printed footwear from SCRY™ to the quintessential futuristic sneaker: the Nike MAG.

As the home of many footwear brands’ North American HQs — including Nike, adidas and On — Portland was the “perfect kickoff” for the exhibition, as noted by its curator and BSM director Elizabeth Semmelhack. Future Now was also the subject of a book authored by Semmelhack in 2022, leading to an exhibition hosted at the Bata Shoe Museum shortly after that, which has since been expanded for its journey across the United States.

Stepping into Future Now, visitors are first met with a special Portland-exclusive section dedicated to two decades of Nike’s Doernbecher Freestyle initiative — a program where patients of OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital bring their stories and personalities to life with special sneakers made in collaboration with the Swoosh. A journey through the evolution of footwear is later outlined with contemporary innovations spotlighted throughout. When Back to the Future: Part II introduced the world to the Nike MAG in 1989, it became the defining example of where innovation would take sneakers. It was later fully realized by the Swoosh with its 2016 version featuring a self-lacing system similar to that of Marty McFly’s pair in the film.

While the MAG’s inclusion at the exhibition offers a glimpse into the past, it is newer creations on display such as Takashi Murakami’s NFT-backed RTFKT x Nike Air Force 1 Low and SCRY™’s 3D-printed designs that capture the state of innovative footwear design today. The Metaverse, while failing to live up to its initial hype from the turn of the decade, still finds itself as a key element leveraged to redefine the relationship between sneakerheads and their shoes. As for 3D printing, technological breakthroughs continue to shine light on the untapped potential of its role in the sneaker space.

In celebration of the exhibition’s opening, we caught up with Semmelhack to discuss her career as a shoe historian, what went into the creation of Future Now, her thoughts on footwear’s future and more.

We’ve seen the definition of “futuristic footwear” evolve for many years now. How would you describe its shift in recent decades?

Our feet haven’t changed, but the capabilities of our production have. Take 3D printing for example — we can imagine new shapes and styles that were previously unheard of before. Brands and designers like SCRY™ and Mr. Bailey have explored experimental designs that are wearable and continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

What do you believe the future of footwear to be?

At the infancy of the footwear industry, people would visit shoemakers to have a last made of their own feet, collaborating with a designer to eventually walk out with a pair of bespoke shoes. Industrialization democratized the industry and brought an incredible level of availability to footwear, leading us to this position where we have to seek out not only designs that suit our needs, but a fit that suits us appropriately as well. However, developments in technology such as 3D printing will offer the opportunity to create something with the exact specifications we seek, as it has already begun to do.

How would branding be fused together with a shift to more bespoke footwear?

While we’re often told that fashion is about self-expression, I think it’s more about creating cultural connections and identities, which is accomplished with branding. In a world where bespoke designs are commonplace once again, it would likely still be branded. You would probably download the latest Nike design, fit it to your exact feet, and then have it made at home for you.

“Sneakerheads are historians of their own — I’ve never met a better museumgoer in my life.”

What has your experience been interacting with sneakerheads in a museum setting?

When I took my first exhibition, The Rise of Sneaker Culture, across the United States, I learned not only about sneakers, but how sneakerheads are historians of their own — I’ve never met a better museumgoer in my life. So many visitors take the time to read every label, discuss each shoe and synthesize what’s being presented by connecting it to their own experiences.

What’s the biggest challenge in putting together an exhibition like this?

Curating is always an exercise in restraint. You have a limited amount of time, space and resources for each item. You’re placed within established confines that force one to try to create the clearest pathway, and in the case of an exhibition, the clearest narrative for the visitor to follow. The beauty of turning Future Now into a larger traveling exhibition is that I could add to our work at the Bata Shoe Museum, as opposed to the constant practice of subtracting.

Sustainability plays a key role in Future Now. How can such a consumption-oriented industry address the subject?

As I emphasize in both the exhibition and the book, we make 20 billion pairs of shoes a year, which is enough for almost three new pairs for every person on the planet, every year. Our capabilities are incredible, but there’s a social value associated with shoes that complicates things, and leads to sustainability issues as we continue to cycle through pairs so often. Material developments are crucial in addressing this. Take mushroom leather for example. It’s something that, if brought to scale, could really change the world.

What can sneakerheads do to encourage progress in sustainability?

While I represent a museum and we take sneakers and preserve them, I still believe that it’s important to wear your shoes. Beyond this, being thoughtful about the materials used in the sneakers you buy and taking a moment to ponder “What am I consuming and why am I doing so?” before each purchase is also important. At the end of the day, there’s an undeniable social impact in what we wear each day, so there’s only so much we as individuals can do. Ultimately, it is the industry that needs to answer the bigger issues of sustainability.

What do you hope each visitor takes away from the exhibition?

I hope that guests leave with a great appreciation for the creatives represented and carry an open-mindedness for what a shoe can be.

‘Future Now: Virtual Sneakers to Cutting-Edge Kicks’ is on display now at the Portland Art Museum until August 11. The museum’s hours run from 10am-8pm on Thursdays and Fridays and 10am-6pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets can be purchased via the museum’s website.

Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Ave
Portland, OR 97205

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