“They’ve just got a bit of danger to them,” Moses* tells me about his new sneakers. They’re certainly aggressively styled: ensconced in ripples of thermoplastic with a bulging sci-fi midsole, his fresh pair of Nike Air Max Pluses — or as they’re commonly known, “TNs” — are a unique statement.
TNs made their debut in 1998, and were unlike any other shoe on the market. Lavish, technical and expensive, TNs struck a particular chord in Australian street culture. They became part of the unofficial uniform for lads. They didn’t come cheap, but their hefty price tag and unmistakable look were part of their appeal: Mahmood Fazal’s VICE article “Nike TNs: Australia’s Most Fuck You Shoe” argues that “[TNs] were an emblem of thuggish anarchy, a subtle air-raid to your peers that you were ‘doing well’ off the street.” Even today, wearing a pair carries a cultural cachet not unlike Doc Martens for skinheads or R.M. Williams for stupol hacks. TNs are a counter-cultural icon, niche but instantly recognisable, equally admired and derided by our generation.
Or at least, they used to be. Now, Foot Locker and Rebel Sports stores in suburbs across the country sell TNs alongside adidas Stan Smiths and New York Yankees caps. TNs of myriad colours and varieties grace the feet of everyone from finance majors to Lush employees. It might seem hyperbolic to say the shoe has been “gentrified”, but there’s a truth to it—why, in 2018, has the TN has entered mainstream culture?
It’s hard to shake the impression that many young Australians are choosing to rock TNs because they want to look tough and, like Moses, are co-opting fashion from a culture they perceive as “dangerous.” It’s undeniable that popular fashion values an aesthetic that originates from disadvantage: tracksuits and TNs were Western Sydney form, not North Shore form, and it’s always unsettling when middle-class Australians ape Westies’ fashion for kudos.
In the early 2000s, there was no significant ‘sneaker scene’ in Australia like there was in countries like the US or Japan. If North Shore kids have appropriated Western Sydney style, then footwear companies have capitalised on the idea that performing ‘criminality’ is cool to maximise profits. TNs could be the latest in a long list of corporate manoeuvres to make us buy things we don’t need, and it seems like middle-class Australians have bought into it. Once companies have control over the idea, they are able to create artificial scarcity to stimulate demand and ultimately establish TNs as a status symbol, worth far more than their market price. However, the once-harsh aesthetic and price tag no longer pack the same punch, now that the eminence and calibre of Nike’s TN’s profile has been challenged by the new: Adidas’ Yeezy line and haute couture brands like Gucci and Balenciaga’s forays into streetwear.
Moses justifies his footwear by telling me that globalisation plays an important role in how we perceive modes of fashion. Moses bought his TNs in the UK, where TNs are also popular but don’t conjure the same stigma they do in Australia. Fashion trends are becoming steadily more internationalised. Sydney is an increasingly multicultural, globally connected hub of ideas and values, as is the rest of Australia. Maybe it’s the fate of TNs for their Australian meaning to be lost in the face of a different, more global conception — or maybe it’s worth securing their place in history, along with the people who made them cool in the first place.
* Name has been changed