Shoe designer Jeremy Scott has caught a lot of flack in the last week for the above-left pair of sneakers, called "the Handcuffs" and created for Adidas. Although it's become clear that Scott didn't intend to draw on racial themes — the influence behind the sneakers was actually a children's toy called My Pet Monster — Adidas quickly canceled the shoes and issued an apology: "The design of the JS Roundhouse Mid is nothing more than the designer Jeremy Scott’s outrageous and unique take on fashion and has nothing to do with slavery. We apologize if people are offended by the design and we are withdrawing our plans to make them available in the marketplace.”
Scott's shackle shoes reminded me of something, but it wasn't My Pet Monster, and it wasn't anything Scott had done before. It was two pieces by Hank Willis Thomas called "Basketball in Chains" and "Branded Head," which can be seen above, next to the shoes. An American artist whose work deals extensively with the intersection of American consumerism, capitalism, and black culture, Thomas recently finished a DuBois Fellowship at Harvard and a fellowship at Columbia College Chicago, and he has work in the collections of the Whitney, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.
It shouldn't be too difficult to figure out what's going on in these works: Thomas is highlighting the elemental way in which Nike's and the NBA's advertising iconography (which both pays tribute to and tones down the styles of streetball) has worked its way into culture. When I asked Thomas over the phone about the shoes, he said he's gotten a number of similar queries via tweets and emails since they became a topic of conversation. "I don’t think that Jeremy Scott is a bad dude because he designed them," he told me. "I think it was socially irresponsible in a country that imprisons more people than any other country in the world to make a product with shackles that would influence any portion of the youth population. I don’t know in whose mind that actually makes sense; I don’t know that it’s his hating-black-people message as much as an ignorance to the realities of the social structure and the impact that that can have on impressionable minds."
Although Thomas called it "incredibly ignorant" that Adidas would even consider releasing the shoes without trying to create a dialogue around them, he did say he was "really surprised and relieved by the company's response to the critical feedback" after they quickly canceled the Handcuffs.
"The one thing I’m trying to stress is that we should be able to be critical of things that are stupid or offensive without demonizing the person," Thomas said. "I think there is a big difference between the way a corporation should be held responsible and the individual artist. It’s just so incredibly ignorant that I can’t believe it even got to production — where they’d consider releasing the shoes without at least trying to spark a critical dialogue about what they were doing."
Both supporters and critics of the shoes seem to agree that Scott isn't racist. He's on record as a hip-hop fan; along with designers Raf Simons and Rick Owens, Scott has become a sort of artistic hero for young rappers like A$AP Rocky. And Scott himself certainly aspires to and inhabits the lifestyle of an artist, even if, at the end of the day, it's Adidas signing his paycheck. Which all makes it quite ironic that he's created what could be a hip-hop influenced statement of his own without intending to. Scott's creation is something that, in the hands of Thomas, could have used the history of slavery and the context of overflowing prisons to indict the product culture. Scott had those tools, but he didn't use them. Instead, he just made another pair of sneakers.