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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cobblers Create Foot Icons

They used to be so smelly that the first thing you did when you got home was throw them into the closet. Now they are out of the closet and being shown as works of art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

What once were called sneakers now are part and parcel of an athletic aesthetic on display here, an exultation of the latest in the weird, wonderful world of high-performance footwear.

A swanky scuba boot? Done: a sleek mid-calf rubber number with the Gucci name emblazoned down the front. An update on that '70s standby the high-heeled sneaker? Done: by Prada this time, in metallic mesh with an open toe and a spike heel perfect for sprinting down the catwalk.

Then there is Nike's new "Ovidian," a convertible sneaker that can actually be worn inside out for those seeking to put a personal spin on their fashionable feet.

"Design is more and more about how you compose an identity in a global culture," said Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture, design and digital projects and the driving force behind the new sneaker design show. "Shoes are the quickest, easiest way to do that." The exhibit, "Design Afoot: Athletic Shoes 1995 to 2000," showcases the evolution of the trusty sneaker into a high-fashion icon. One thing is clear: We have come a long way from the simple canvas tennis shoe. An explosion of styles, featuring vibrant colors, new materials and designs that have footwear resembling everything from dinosaurs to spacecraft, has made athletic shoes the most eye-catching element of the modern youth uniform.

"Performance has become fashion," said Kevin Umeh, founder and chief executive officer of Element, a firm that researches trends among "Generation Y's" 13-to-26-year-olds. "A lot of it comes from club culture ? people are looking for shoes that look good, are easy to dance in and easy to hang out in."

Some see these complicated new shoes as the decadent last gasp of an industry seeking to revive its fortunes. Overall sales in the $13 billion athletic shoe industry have dipped since 1997 as interest in basketball sneakers has waned.

"The last radical change in athletic shoes started in the 1970s, and we haven't changed much since then," said Doug Clark, vice president of footwear product management at Timberland Co. "We've come to this critical point where you can't put any more junk in a shoe."

If more junk means more consumer interest, manufacturers are going to try. Lately they have been putting new products on store shelves featuring designs that have athletic shoes looking like exotic hothouse flowers. The San Francisco exhibit features the best f or most bizarre f ranging from industry giants like Nike and Adidas to smaller niche players like Soap, which makes shoes with special sole plates for "grinding," or sliding down banisters.

"We had to go out and hunt these down," Betsky said. "But in selecting the shoes we used the same criteria you would for any artifact: How is it composed and how does it change the way we think about our society?"

There is the Converse "HE:02 Basketball" shoe, a concoction of synthetic leather and nylon mesh equipped with special helium capsules to give that extra lift. There is Dolce & Gabbana's "Men's Python Sneaker" and "Women's Rhinestone Sneaker," which seek to bring the luxury of high-fashion materials to the gritty world of athletic shoes.

And there are offerings from edgy British shoemaker Acupuncture ranging from "Suki Saki," a sneaker embroidered with images of geisha girls, to shoes dubbed "Sneaker Pig," "Fatima Tuna" and "Lulu Longtime."

And then there is Nike's "Ovidian," a transformable fantasy that is actually three shoes in one. Inside is a slipperlike insert for padding around the house. The exterior shell features two surfaces, one a combination of suede and canvas, the other a more flashy sneakerlike nylon. Turn the shell inside out and presto: Your suede shoes have become snazzy sneakers.

"We've shown these to some test groups and the kids were just blown away. It is such a novel idea," said John Hoke III, a global creative director at Nike who worked on the "Ovidian" product.