1. Introduction

IN this essay my aim is to discuss the Biography of the Jack Purcell sneakers. It will emerge that there is no way that the story can be told without considering the space within which the shoe has been bought and the processes that leads to its acquisition. What will also emerge during my exposition is the nature of the mall itself. Malls can be likened to the ‘new heritage sites’ in that they try to offer everything from food to culture. They are a combo, part of a world that aims to satisfy simulation rather than reality (See Hall and Bombardella, 2005). Part of the encounter here is the fact that a pair of sneakers bought today is that it can be turned into a unique pair through customization. I make a conclusion that this customization process which is part of the narrative of the biography of a pair sneakers elevates the sneaker into singularity, into uniqueness. Throughout the writing my own pair of sneakers resisted to be spoken of as the only pair in the sneaker world and as a result my exposition tends towards a generalized experience of sneakers.

  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 that we end up owning are a need or a want, there are two sites within which we can have a glimpse of what is available. Our shopping can be done through the Internet and the mall. The difference between the two sites with regards to shopping for commodities concerns physical exertion. The benefit of the availability of the Internet is that we can visit merchants from the comfort of our home whereas on the other hand the mall will solicit some movement from us. While the site visit is physically exerting as it involves a visit to the shops concretely the other option only demands that our fingers swipe on the screens of our tablets while our eyes devour the pixels sitting at home or elsewhere. To my knowledge Jack Purcell reached the Tipping Point a while back in the 90’s in Atteridgeville, but they were around a while longer than that[1].

It used to be the city with its skyscrapers that beckoned movement away from the couch and out of our comfort zone to explore what was available. Shops were far and in between and, unless word of mouth was out there, one could spin this way and that way looking for stuff, even if you knew exactly what you were looking for. It was a physical feat. Then the ‘Mall’ found its way into our lives.

But unlike a shop around a particular corner in town the Mall offered a better option as we may be able to 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 passageway. 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 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 consumed’ commodity before consumption take place.

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 as they try to offer a bit of everything and Menlyn Mall, in Tshwane is not an exception. 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[2].

Malls maybe seen as a bourgeoning space of trade albeit high rent and perhaps serving the middle class. In West African markets context the scenario is far more different as Mathia Diawara’s discussion shows, the West African market resist any links to international trades with regards to International Monetary Funds and World bank of international corporations for matter as these entities are seen as a new forms of colonization. They prefer to use old methods of bartering wherein ordinary people can be afforded the opportunity to consume international products. As a results 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 in their attempts to globalize the world while pushing other citizens towards poverty (See John Perkins, 2004)[3].

I recently bought a pair of Jack Purcell’s sneakers at Menlyn Mall after many years of wanting to own one. In the events leading me to actually walking into a store I consulted everybody’s friend – the Internet[4]. But prior to my preoccupation with Jack Purcell I saw cool guys wear these sneakers long before surfing the Internet to look for things and compare stuff became common parlance. To my knowledge Jack Purcell reached its Tipping Point a while back in the 90’s in Atteridgeville, but they were around a while longer[5].

Sneakers, according to Danielle Viljoen of Marie Claire, started out as beach wear called ‘plimsolls’ sometime in the 1830s. Viljoen (2017) 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 take 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 Company of Canada, a tire making company, in 1935. This was the birth of the sneaker[6]. One can appreciate that the birth of the sneaker generally resonates with the concept of the creation of a comfort shoe for sporting activity. Take the All Star 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 Basket Ball happened to like Converse All Star and in 1921 talked his way into a job with Converse All Star as an ambassador and sales person (see Foreman 2014). Apparently Chuck Taylor was so popular that it was difficult not to like him. He had an extensive knowledge of basketball, he fine-tuned the performance of the shoe in the court. He also possessed, what again brings Gladwell’s Tipping Point to mind here, a knack for networking, which would have made him a ‘Maven’. His influence in seeing the success of 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[7]. The shoe would resurfaced in the 80s and 90s appropriated in fashion by consumers who did not care about the history behind the brand (Foreman 2014).

  1. Jack Purcell the commodity

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

This transcendence of the ordinariness of a sneaker through customization that Mthethwa alludes to brings into mind 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.

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

In a discussion that stems from traditional cultural bartering of objects such as brass and yams Kopytoff (sic) 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 extreme 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, to be specific – some Jack Purcells, 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 earlier with regards to customization being the future of sneakers. If I were to customize my pair of Jack Purcell with, say one of renditions of Gerard Sekoto paintings or have a living contemporary artist paint over them I will be individualizing them for my own use thus removing them from their ordinariness towards what Kopytoff (1986) and Appadurai (1986) terms singularity wherein my pair of sneakers would have attained something akin to uniqueness[9]. But would have also pushed my sneakers to something more, they will now be wearable artworks and supposedly expensive, they are not only commoditized but singularized,  they are – 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 we could soon see highly priced sneakers doing the rounds adorning ordinary people’s feet. Perhaps occasionally worn because of their new ‘inherited value’, they are now pushed towards highly priced cultural objects and as Kopytoff notes – culture resists commoditization.       

  1. Conclusion

In this essay I have set out to deal with the biography of my ‘Jack Purcell’ pair of sneakers however what has emerged through the present writing is aspects surrounding the shoe that needed some considerations. Initially I specified the sites, both physically and virtually where one can interact with a prospective commodity in a general sense and led us to my pair of sneakers. I have shown how in our contemporary society’s shopping realities, the physical shop and the Internet site, as two aspects of shopping can be used to check what is available. I have touched on how objects are commoditized and alluded to sneaker customization as a possible the future 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 the objects bought there can be individualized and turned into something even surpassing what is on offer in the Mall. Against the background of my discussion a mall can be read or experienced as a space, site, albeit a new heritage sites where commodities such as sneakers can be sampled and bought physically. Perhaps as a customized singularized object the shoe can finds its way to the mall with a sense of prestige and inflated biography; a sort of a consumer feet-back.


31 December

© mmutle arthur kgokong

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 at the University of Pretoria in 2018. With an exception of a few ironed out shortcoming creases here and there it is closest 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] In his seminal work ‘The Tipping Point’ Malcolm Gladwell (2000) defines the Tipping Point of trend as when something that was completely unfashionably somehow crosses over and become fashionable and appropriated into the contemporary culture. Gladwell attributes such a spark in interest as spread through word of mouth by people whom he classifies as Connectors and Mavens, people who are knowledgeable and pass on information freely with the latter being more effective in spreading ideas (Gladwell 2000: 69)

[2] 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

[3] 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.

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

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

[6] 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.

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

[8] 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.

[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.