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​Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for OkayAfrica.
Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for OkayAfrica.

How Black Sitcoms Built Sneaker Culture From the Ground Up

We’re taking a look at the root of sneaker culture’s development: our favorite Black sitcoms.

The ‘90s era was by far one of the most iconic in recent times. With many of its trends still being recycled regularly, this period fostered a sense of style and creativity that can not be imitated. The unmatched swagger was extremely present in Black television sitcoms, a vibrant medium that catalyzed the spread of the most impactful ‘90s trends. With sneakers specifically, this period produced one-of-a-kind TV characters rocking the newest and coolest shoes. Actually, with the help of some choice archives and vintage videos, we can trace how ‘90s sitcoms helped to build the foundation of today’s sneaker culture.

Black sitcoms in the '90s presented a sense of comfort and familiarity that people could identify with — and also aspire to. Shows like Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Martin all had distinct characteristics that solidified them as classics in households worldwide. The dynamic fashion depicted in them helped pave the way for sneaker culture to flourish and bloom into a massive cultural force.

It would be unfathomable to analyze the birth of sneaker culture without immediately acknowledging Michael Jordan and his immense contributions. Jordan and Nike launched the first Air Jordan shoe in 1985, and with that introduction, a timeless classic was born.

The Air Jordan 1 High Shattered Backboard Origin Story, Game-Worn Signed Sneaker Nike, 1985 Size 13.5 High-Top on display during a press preview July 24, 2020 at Christie's New York.The Air Jordan 1 High Shattered Backboard Origin Story, Game-Worn Signed Sneaker Nike, 1985 Size 13.5 High-Top on display during a press preview July 24, 2020 at Christie's New York.Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP.

The release of the Air Jordan 1 jump-started the hype of stylish individuals incorporating basketball shoes into their everyday outfits. Jordan wore them on and off the court, boosting their marketability and displaying their versatility. As more colorways and silhouettes appeared on the market, Jordan’s became the hottest shoe at the time, allowing stars of ‘90s sitcoms to add more stylish elements to their characters.

The biggest example of a ‘90s sneakerhead is the legend himself, Will Smith. His character on the 1990 television sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, had one of the most extensive sneaker collections seen at the time. Smith was an avid lover of Jordan’s, often flaunting different silhouettes and colors while uniquely styling them. The most notable example was Smith’s styling of the Fire Red Jordan 5’s — wearing them nonchalantly without laces.

Will Smith wears laceless Jordan 5's in an episode of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.' Will Smith wears laceless Jordan 5's in an episode of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.' Screenshot from 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'

The laceless Jordan 5’s became a trend started by Smith, and the culture was catching on quickly. Smith’s standout style was a large component of his character, and many of his iconic pieces have been recreated for resale. In the early 2010s, Jordan released a few sneakers inspired by the show, thus introducing a whole new generation to the world of the Fresh Prince.

Credit: Air Jordan 5 Retro 'Bel Air'/ GoatCredit: Air Jordan 5 Retro 'Bel Air'/ Goat.

Photo credit: Air Jordan 5 Retro NRG 'Fresh Prince'/ Goat.

The shoes that Smith wore during the show were an integral part of his character, and he knew he was setting the precedent for what was to come in fashion. In an episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping Series, Smith reveals that he, “wanted [sneakers] before they were out,” and that he, “wanted people to see them on Fresh Prince,” making him one of the catalysts in the already booming popularity of Jordans. Although the show ended in 1996, the fashions of the show have remained in style since, and Smith is still one of the biggest trailblazers in the evolution of sneaker culture.

Air Jordan 5 'Fresh Prince' Unboxing AND JUMP TEST!

Bel-Air’s resident footwear enthusiast wasn’t the only sneakerhead on television during that era. We also saw a pretty impressive collection from some of the students on the sitcom, A Different Word. Airing from the late ‘80s till the early ‘90s and featuring a variety of characters with eccentric personalities, the fictional HBCU, Hillman College, had some of the best-dressed students on television at the time. Kadeem Hardison, who portrayed the iconic spectacled student, Dwayne Wayne, was also a huge figurehead in pushing ‘90s sneaker culture.

Apart from his infamous flip-up glasses, Wayne was consistently seen in varying Jordan silhouettes, wearing them with wacky eye-catching sweaters and jackets. His character even had a sample pair of Military Black Jordan 4’s that wouldn't be released to the public until Spring 2022.

For the 35th anniversary of A Different World, Hardison sat down with TVOne to discuss how he navigated the style of his character, Dwayne Wayne. In the interview, he shared how Jordan and Nike were his favorite brands, and he made a concerted push to represent Dwayne as such. Although he was out of his comfort zone with some of the wacky components of Dwayne’s outfits, he was the main driver when it came to what his character wore on his feet.

Photo credit: TVOne.Photo credit: TVOne.

As a self-proclaimed sneaker enthusiast, Hardison made sure that his love for footwear spilled over into his character, telling the wardrobe team to let him handle the sneakers. “I was pretty much just concerned with what I was wearing on my feet,” Hardison shares. Additionally, with the number of viewers that the show was bringing in at the time, Hardison considered his onscreen sneaker cameos to be “free commercials,” an observation that underlines the influence his character had on the growth and proliferation of sneaker culture.

Photo credit: Credit: TVOne.Photo credit: Credit: TVOne.

Another Black sitcom star of that era, Martin Lawrence, deserves major praise for being a catalyst for the growth of sneaker culture in the ‘90s. His 1992 sitcom, Martin, was a comedic explosion in the best way possible. During moments on the show when Lawrence’s hilarious antics weren’t center stage, his sneaker choices took over the spotlight.

Martin Lawrence wearing Jordan 10\u2019s.Martin Lawrence wearing Jordan 10’s.Photo credit: Kicks Addict.

Lawrence’s obvious appreciation for Jordans and Nikes shined through his character, with Martin rarely being caught without an exclusive pair. He effortlessly rocked various Jordan silhouettes, inspiring audiences to follow his stylistic lead.

Martin Lawrence wearing Jordan 12\u2019sMartin Lawrence wearing Jordan 12’sScreenshot from 'Martin.'

Similar to Will Smith, the fashion impact of Martin did not go unnoticed, and there have been sneaker releases that paid homage to the early ‘90s sitcom. In 2018, some photos of a possible Air Jordan Martin Pack surfaced on the internet, and we’re still crossing our fingers for the official release of the Jordan 10’s.

Credit: SneakerBar Detroit.Credit: SneakerBar Detroit.

The show also inspired the release of the 2019 Nike Lebron 16’s, appropriately named “Martin.” The colors and patterns on the shoe are very clearly inspired by the show’s vibrant aesthetic and several of the sitcom’s most popular sayings appear on the back of the shoe.

Ultimately, the growth of sneaker culture can be largely attributed to the unique style of these beloved sitcom characters. The iconic fashion ensembles of that unforgettable era paved the way for the masses to foster an appreciation for various brands, designs, and silhouettes. While we’ve only barely scratched the surface of the impact these iconic TV personalities had on the sneaker industry, there’s no doubt that their influence will be felt for decades to come.