COLUMN: The American-made Air Jordan and the need to fight inequity, at home and abroad

By Emma Claire Sohn

As a design major I consistently am guilty of judging people by the products they use, particularly the shoes they wear. I’m ready to admit this is an overused stigma, but let’s face it, you can tell a lot about a person based on what footwear they favor.

This concept is the foundation of the fashion industry, which markets their wares by emphasizing to achieving individuality while simultaneously encouraging individuals to adhere to a collectively accepted style.

Nike hit these ideas on the head when they took a chance in 1985, hiring a then relatively unknown basketball player, Michael Jordan, to endorse their shoes. The Air Jordan created a distinct sect of the social stratification of urban America based on the monetary value of shoes and produced a new source of crime in the urban landscape. Shoes have become a financial breaking point for many families – it is not uncommon for a family to deny themselves essential amenities in order to provide for the pricey fashion requirements of their child.

In response, Stephon Marbury, a guard for the New York Knicks, recently released his own take on Nike’s infamous shoe. His Starbury Ones will be sold for a meager $14.98 a pair at Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear. But the case of Steve and Barry’s Starbury line brings a recurring moral question into the spotlight.

In a statement released by Steve and Barry’s, Stephon Marbury said, “Kids shouldn’t have to feel the pressure to spend so much to feel good about the way they look. I’m blessed to be in a position to do something about it, to help change the world.”

Stephon Marbury cites his goal as “changing the world,” yet ignores the larger implications of his endorsement. While Marbury may be alleviating concerns in urban America, he is simultaneously increasing demand to production facilities in China, the epicenter of production for his line, which already “employs” underage workers in conditions which are illegal within the U.S.. Ironically, Marbury is aiming to aid the under priveledged youth of America at the cost of the same demographic abroad – a demographic more concerned with survival than “the way they look”.

Perhaps the reason Marbury seems to be ignoring the work conditions involved in his shoe production is that almost every other major shoe company has failed in this area as well. The modern shoe industry has not experienced pioneers like American Apparel, a clothing company able to pay their employees substantial wages while producing all aspects of their clothing line out of their Los Angeles location, whose increasing success is spurring their peers to reduce dependence on foreign labor.

Any sense of moral obligation aside, will the shoes be able to fool market savvy teens? Doubtful. Even if Starbury does ameliorate the urban footwear epidemic, other signifiers of wealth have emerged on the scene since the days of Marbury’s youth. With the introduction of iPods, there is new cause for product envy in a group whose previous interest was basketball shoes.

Marbury has failed to consider the global implications of his Starbury One basketball shoes. The outsourcing of labor to China and Africa is the only way Steve and Barry’s can afford to put these shoes on the market at his set price, using the same methods of production that has earned Nike its place as a twenty billion dollar company today.

While Stephon Marbury should be commended for his efforts to reduce crime domestically and deviate from Nike’s profitable precedent, the time has come to consider our shoe market in a global perspective. Marbury himself could alleviate multiple ailments on a transnational level by refusing to use foreign labor, a move that would not only benefit the American job market, but would set a standard for reducing dependence on unjust means of manufacturing worldwide.