1. Introduction

IN this essay my aim is to discuss the biography of the Jack Purcell sneaker. There is no way that the story can be told without considering one of the places within which this sneaker is sold, the mall, and the processes that leads to its search and acquisition, browsing. Malls can be likened to the ‘new heritage sites’ in that they try to offer everything from food to culture. They aim to satisfy simulation rather than reality (See Hall and Bombardella, 2005).

There are various items that when bought they can be altered to suit the needs of the user. Sneakers are one of them. And in a sneaker head’s world of customization, there looms a new lease of life that can be given to both new and old sneakers. In that world, a pair of sneakers can be turned into a unique pair of kicks through customization. Embuing them with unique aesthetics, thus removing them from the assembly of sameness.

  1. Locating Jack Purcell the sneaker

Besides the need for us as a consumer society to amass material things in an attempt to make our lives bearable, never mind whether some of the commodity objects we end up buying are a need or a want, today there are two sites within which we can have a glimpse of what is available to quench our appetite to shop. Our shopping can be done through the Internet or the mall. The difference between the two sites lies in exertion. The benefit of the availability of the Internet is that we can visit merchants from all over the world whilst wrapped-up in the comfort of our home. On the other hand, the search for an item at the mall solicits some physical movement from us, adventurously running a risk of looking for shops of interest which may be far and fewer in-between. The former option only demands that our fingers swipe-away on the screens of our tablets while, siting at home or anywhere in the world, our eyes devour the pixels that mimics the goods of interests.

It used to be the city with its skyscrapers that beckoned a movement away from the couch and out of our comfort zone to explore what was available out there. Shops were far and few in between and, unless word of mouth made the rounds as to where you could find some cool stuff, one could spin this way and that way in town looking for essentials, even if you knew exactly what you were looking for, you got caught in a dazed haze. It was a physical feat. Then the ‘Mall’ found its way into our lives. Somehow, the distance between the furniture shop and the greengrocer warped shorter.

But unlike a shop around a particular corner in town, the Mall offered better options as we could now have a better array of what was on offer by just going next door or zigzagging to the other stores on the other side of the mall’s ailes and passageways. What on-line shopping has done on the other hand, is that it has incredibly reduced the size of the isle and the distance to the next shop to a carefree tap-click! By so doing giving the consumer the power to compare the commodities to be consumed before one physically comes into contact with them. One can think of it as a representation of a sneak preview of the commodity before it worms its way into one’s life.

Hall and Bombardella’s (2005) discussion on spaces such as the Lost City, Cape Town Grand West, Gold Reef City and Montecassino is quite vital here. Though the two authors discuss the simulated nature of these new heritage places which are part of what Worden (1996) terms experiential heritage. Malls have also come to be seen as spaces where time can be passed. Malls try to offer a bit of everything. Menlyn Mall, in Tshwane is a good example of this characterization. It has one of the main features of ‘new heritage’ in that it is located far from the city and it does not concern itself with historical accuracy. Malls can be linked to the rise of the middle class as Worden (1996) intimates in his discussion of Victoria and Albert Waterfront[1].Malls maybe seen as a bourgeoning space of trade albeit of high rent in the servicing of the middle class. But they are not the only spaces that serves this function.

In West African markets context, the shopping scenario is far more different as Mathia Diawara’s discussion reflects on this competitive space. He argues that West African market resist any links to international trades, avoiding association with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; and international corporations, as these entities are seen as a new forms of colonization. The markets prefer to use old methods of bartering wherein ordinary people can be afforded the opportunity to consume international products. As a result, power is given back to the consumer (1998). Perhaps they could not be off the mark to avoid corporatocracy that is brought on by corporations, banks and governments’ agencies in their attempts to globalize the world while pushing other citizens towards poverty (See John Perkins, 2004)[2].

I recently bought a pair of Jack Purcell’s sneakers at Menlyn Mall after many years of wishing to own a pair. In the events leading me to actually walking into that store, I consulted everybody’s friend – the Internet[3]. I grew up seeing cool guys manyora wearing these sneakers long before the ease with which ‘surfing the Internet to look and compare cool stuff’ became common parlance. A bit of historical digging reveal that they have actually been around a while longer[4]. Sneakers, according to Danielle Viljoen (2017), started out as beach wear called ‘plimsolls’ sometime in the 1830s. Viljoen observes that sneakers became popular from 1984 onwards following Michael Jordan’s Jordan sneaker endorsement by Nike. Subtly, Viljoen concludes that sneakers today are more of a status symbol.

Originally, the Jack Purcell sneaker took its name from a Canadian badminton national champion of 1929 and 1930 who decided to design a shoe that would support his playing prowess by teaming up with B.F Goodrich, a Canadian tire making company, in 1935. This was the birth of the Purcell [5]. One can appreciate that the birth of this sneaker generally resonates with the concept of the creation of a comfort shoe for sporting activity. Take the All Star Converse sneaker for example. All Star Converse, although founded by Marquis Mills Converse in 1908, started to make basketball shoes Converse All Star in 1917. Chuck Taylor, besides a high school career in Basketball and an irresistible charm that made everybody like him, happened to like Converse All Star and in 1921 he apparently talked his way into a job with Converse All Star as an ambassador and sales’ person (see Foreman 2014). Chuck had an extensive knowledge of basketball, this enabled him to fine-tuned the performance of the shoe in the court. He also possessed, what again brings Gladwell’s thought provoking work, Tipping Point, to mind here, a knack for networking, which would have made him a ‘Maven’. His influence in seeing the success of the shoe saw Converse All Star rename the shoe after him in 1932 (Foreman 2014).  The shoes’ sales will see a dip in the late sixties when its ambassador passed on due to competition in the emergence of high-performance sneakers such as Nike and Adidas. Converse All Star bought the rights to Jack Purcell silhouette from BF Goodrich Company of Canada in the 1970s[6]. The shoe would resurface in the 80s and 90s appropriated in fashion by consumers who did not care about the history behind the brand (Ibid).

  1. Jack Purcell the commodity

Ayashisa Amateki – a television program that looks at sneaker culture and which according to its creator take its name from a slang coinage popularized by Mercy Pakela in the 1980s with her song of the same name[7]. The program showcased the love and preoccupation that people have with sneakers, a term that has gloabbly come to be known as Sneaker Culture. Menzi Mthethwa, the show’s creator, describes the Ayashisa Amateki series as a platform for communicating with young people using sneaker culture as a vehicle os self expression[8]. Sneaker customization was one element that featured in the program wherein designers got to change the look and feel of ordinary sneakers into individualized shoes for the customer. It is this customization that Mthethwa sees as the future of the sneaker the world over. He asserts that people will buy a pair of inexpensive sneakers and have an artist customize them so that they would transcend their ordinariness and ultimately become valuable.

A pair of leather Jack Purcell
Figure 1. A pair of leather Jack Purcell; image source httpwww.gomexacademy.com

This transcendence of the ordinary state of a sneaker through customization that Mthethwa alludes to, brings into mind Igor Kopytoff (1986), whose discussion of commoditization of objects is thought provoking in terms of the nature of commoditized objects and the shifting value inherent in them. In a discussion that stems from traditional cultural bartering of objects such as brass and yams, Kopytoff defines a ‘commodity’ as an item with use value that also has an exchange value and that it has a shifting nature in that we can see its value oscillating between the two extremes of being worthy of being purchased, and sometimes, being worthless (1986: 64).

With regards to what I have been preoccupied with in the present writing one can safely assume that a pair of sneakers, well in my case – some Purcell, when displayed in a shop can be seen as having inherent value however when bought and worn over time this value depreciates. In another scenario a prospective buyer might not see the pair of shoes valuable to be worthy of spending their hard-earned money on.  But we must remember what Mthethwa have said just now with regards to customization being the future of sneakers. If I were to customize my pair of Purcell with, say one of the renditions of Gerard Sekoto’s paintings or have a living contemporary artist paint over them with whatever design they may conjure – but identifiable as the work of this artist, I will be individualizing them for my own use thus removing them from their ordinariness and towards what Kopytoff (1986) and Appadurai (1986) terms singularity, wherein my pair of sneakers would have attained something akin to uniqueness[9]. But this process would have also pushed my sneakers towards something more, they would now be wearable artworks and supposedly expensive – depending where you stands in cultural value judgement, they would not only be commoditized but singularized. They would be – unique.

Figure 2. Store Display Image Source - sfdsneakerstore.blogspot, Jack Purcell Display
Figure 2. Store Display Image Source – sfdsneakerstore.blogspot, Jack Purcell Display

The biography of my Jack Purcell will not only start and end with the history of the badminton sportsman but would also have me visiting the mall, pay an affordable price for them; however, pushing them out of the ordinary galaxy of ‘tekkies’ into highly priced ‘kicks’, I will have to singularize them. Thus, if Mthethwa’s prediction is anything to go by here, we could soon see highly priced sneakers doing the rounds adorning ordinary people’s feet. Perhaps occasionally worn because of their new ‘inherited value’, having been pushed towards being identified as highly priced cultural objects and as Kopytoff notes – culture resists commoditization. And what about the possibility of these sneaks nimbly doing frequents rests on our museum’s gallery plinths here in the south as elsewhere?      

  1. Conclusion

In this brief essay I have set out to deal with the biography of my ‘Jack Purcell’ pair of sneakers. However, aspects surrounding the shoe as a commodity needed some fun-fact considerations. Initially I specified the sites, both physically and virtually where one can interact with a prospective commodity in a general sense, and I led us to consider my pair of sneakers. I have reflected on our contemporary society’s shopping realities, the physical shop and the online store. I have touched on how objects are commoditized. I alluded to sneaker customization as a feature of elevating sneakers to singularity. It stands to reason, that the spaces within which items can be bought could be meant for middle class with regards to malls, but that the objects bought there can be individualized and turned into something even surpassing what is on offer in the mall. Perhaps as a customized singularized object, the shoe can finds its way to the mall with a sense of prestige and an inflated biography; a sort of a consumer feet-back.


31 December

© mmutle arthur kgokong

Updated 18 April 2023

Author’s note: I hope by now you have found the pun or at least made the connections …this work was produced as part of an array of articles written during my intellectual gymnastics (put simply, my studies) at the University of Pretoria in 2018. With an exception of a few ironed-out shortcoming creases here and there, it is closest as possible to the original work submitted. 

Sources Consulted 

Appadurai, A. 2006. The Thing Itself. Public Vulture. 18 (1), 15 – 21

Diawara, M. 1998. In Search of Africa. London and Cambridge (Mass): Haravard University Press, 134 – 162.

Foreman, K. 2014. Converse shoes: In the all star game. BBC, 21 October. Available: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140606-art-on-canvas-converse-shoes

Gladwell, M. 2000. The Tipping Point. Abacus, London

Hall, M & Bombardella, P. 2005 “Las Vegas in Africa” Journal of Social Anthropology. 5,5-25

Kopytoff, I. 1986. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization is a process” in Appadurai, A. (ed) The Social Life of Things. Cambrdige, New York, Melborne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press. 64-91

Perkins, J. 2004. Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, California.

‘The Story Behind the Converse Jack Purcell’. Available: http://blog.size.co.uk/2014/08/21/story-behind-converse-jack-purcell/

Viljoen, D. 2017. A brief History of Sneakers (And the most Classic Shapes) Marie Claire, 10 August. Available: https://www.marieclaire.co.za/fashion/sneakers-ultimate-investment  

Worden, N. 1996. “Contested Heritage at the Cape Town Waterfront”. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 2(1&2), 59-75


[1] Some of the conclusion that Nigel Worden (1996) makes in his discussion of the construction of Cape Town’s Victoria and Albert Waterfront, as it sidelined heritage in its true sense, is that it brought about (sic)competition between new entrepreneurs and other city traders, planners, developers and conservationists, community activists and commercial speculators

[2] John Perkins’ Confessions of An Economic Hitman deals with how international corporations falsely presents themselves as solutions to third world countries only  make them more dependent on the West.

[3] See Rob Shields at http://www.robshields.net

[4] See Malcolm Gladwell (2000) The Tipping Point  for an extended discussion of this phenomena

[5] See ‘The Story Behind the Converse Jack Purcell’. Available: http://blog.size.co.uk/2014/08/21/story-behind-converse-jack-purcell/ wherein the history of Jack Purcell is teased out.

[6]  See ‘The Story Behind the Converse Jack Purcell’. Available: http://blog.size.co.uk/2014/08/21/story-behind-converse-jack-purcell/

[7] I interviewed Menzi Mthethwa on 27 June 2018, at the Pretoria Art Museum. Ayashisa Amateki, though on a production break has run 8 episodes in its first season from 14 October 2014 – 02 December 2017 and second season from 11 February – 05 May 2016 which consisted of 13 episodes.

[8]Intraparadox, An Interview with Prince Menzi Mthethwa – Intraparadox (mmutleak.com)

[9] In The Thing Itself Appadurai approaches the phenomena from a totally different perspective by focusing on art. He arrives at the conclusion that while some objects can attained characteristics that can heighten their existence to the status of art due to their aesthetic value – to become singularized, it is easy for them to also lose their value and become  common.