In a World of Grown-up Pain, Squid Game's Sneakers Are a Comfort Blanket
As Squid Game hurtles towards its final and most hellish act, the final 16 players line up in front of a fragile glass bridge. At each step is a twin set of glass panels: one solid, one tempered. They must correctly guess the safe option of the two, or face elimination. Which, in this macabre reimagining of playground games, means death. The players, understandably, are very nervous. They mop their brow. They murmur the staggering odds. They remove their shoes – and it is the first instance in which down-on-his-luck protagonist Seong Gi-hun (mesmerizingly played by Lee Jung-jae throughout) is without the standard-issue fare that looks remarkably similar to Vans' classic slip-on trainer.
Since Netflix released the South Korean survival drama some weeks ago, Squid Game has become the latest pop cultural wacker plate. It has kicked up a smog of memes, conversations, debates, and takes, many of which liken the late capitalist critique to a cross between Bong Joon-ho's Parasite and the bloodthirsty class massacre of 2000's Battle Royale. It is tipped to become Netflix's most-streamed TV series of all time. So expansive it is that Squid Game's tentacles have even reached our wardrobes; according to stats released by footwear Sole Supplier, Vans' white slip-ons have seen a 7,800 percent uptick in sales in recent days.
Squid Game’s lead Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun (left) and Vans Classic White Slip-Ons
Of course: Halloween. Many viral moments, both good and mad, make for amusingly obvious costumes (Miley Cyrus's dreadful MTV performance with sentient casa marzu Robin Thicke in 2013; Trump and Hillary in 2016 before it stopped being funny; and, of course, Patrick Bateman for any man who has ever worked in finance). But a 7,800 percent rise? There's no way all of those trainers are to be bought and sullied for one night only at the house party of a particularly brave friend. People are buying them because they like them.
Vans has always enjoyed an appeal that's inextricably tied to youth culture. Though founded in the California of 1966 with a vision to build deck shoes with thicker soles, the label found its niche as the skateboarding counter-culture label from the mid-Seventies onwards. Right place (Anaheim, a Californian town that embraced skateboarding from its inception), and right product (the Vans 95, the brand's debut lace-up canvas skate shoe which is still available today under the Era family, and is still considered as one of the best trainers for men). Fast forward several decades later, and Vans is still worn by teens. It is still worn by adults too, despite the fact that they've long left adolescence behind. And, though skateboarding has, quite rightly, been anointed a sport proper by recent Olympic committees, it is something still rooted in one's salad days – and it still manages to ensnare fully grown adults without giving cause for concern or embarrassment. Few menswear pieces stay with a man from Year 8 half-pipes to health and safety away days.