All fiction writers will tell you they had an “I can’t believe this!” moment, when life unexpectedly imitates their carefully crafted art. One of my recent favorites was in the 2021 novel, happy hourin which the protagonist Frannie becomes a recluse at home and drinks too much – this dreamed up by author Jacquie Byron long before we heard the term ‘lockdown’, or understood how well it pairs with ‘chardonnay’.
Yet, honestly, my own experience is ridiculous. With co-writer Andrew Lamb, I’ve written a romantic comedy about climate change that’s set at Paris Fashion Week. Yes, you read that right. Without saying too much, the objective of In Deep Chic is to celebrate everything we love about Paris while questioning a global culture of overconsumption that has spun out of control.
When you’re writing drama, you’re always looking for “the one who gets away with it,” and in the case of fashion, that’s what we put on our feet. It’s no news that fast fashion has a heinous environmental and ethical impact. But have you thought about how quickly sneakers have gone from functional “fugly” shoes worn by the likes of Bill Gates to “super hot”, worn by everyone under the sun? And what does that do to a warming world?
Sneakers are today’s “It” element. Made mostly from synthetic components, they also contribute disproportionately to climate change, even before they end up in massive landfills in places like Dandora on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, or Kpone in Accra, Ghana. There, that non-biodegradable slice of ethylene-vinyl acetate that makes for a comfortable, shock-absorbing midsole can hang around for 1,000 years and leach toxins into the earth. Sportswear giants tell us they’re salvaging old sneakers and smashing them into inflatable surfaces for playgrounds – but how many of them can the world possibly accommodate? Overall, with a few laudable exceptions like Allbirds and Veja, sneakers are sneaky carbon polluters.
Which brings me back to my background in romantic comedy and impersonation of life. Our plot revolves around a battered old sneaker that was dug up from a landfill and ‘returned to sender’ to become the most talked about shoe in Paris. So imagine our surprise last month, when images of a battered sneaker that looks like it was unearthed from a landfill became the most talked about shoe on Instagram.
When Andrew and I first saw Balenciaga’s deliberately distressed Paris Sneaker, we were speechless. Okay, that’s not true – I started several sentences with “WTF…” Like, indeed, hundreds of thousands of others who took to social media to vent over a “must have” item. “which many considered poverty fetishizing, at no less than $2,250 a pair. The Paris Sneaker debate generated an estimated media impact of $5 million in just 48 hours. You couldn’t invent. Yet there we were, having come, well, pretty close to that.
Balenciaga’s disruptive creative director Demna Gvasalia is good at grabbing attention, as the Paris Sneaker melee shows. What if he instead got the fashion world talking about the future of footwear, the use of natural or recycled materials that, at the end of a long life, might completely decompose? Harnessing its creative energy not to make fake poverty fashionable but to determine what billions of people should put on their feet?