When I noticed that every third person under ten had a pair of shoes with blinking lights embedded in the heels, I decided, better judgment home in bed, that I needed a pair. At worst, I saw them as a conversation starter, at best a fashion statement, entering a party with footwear that required activating. I was a decade too late on both counts.
Ron, the former professional football player who’s always asking about my “arch maintenance” when I shop at his store, explained that the technology, a series of blinking lights embedded between a clear rubber sole and the insole, pressure-activated and powered by lithium batteries, now belonged exclusively to youth footwear. Popularized by L.A. Gear in the late 1980s (although never worn by their then-spokesman Michael Jackson), the lights were developed as a safety measure for nighttime joggers, keeping the motion of their stride visible to passing cars or pedestrians. However, the battery housing, directly beneath the heel, added extra weight to the shoe and frequently cracked open under the relentless pounding devoted runners place on their feet. L.A. Gear soon replaced the lights with reflective strips laid flush on the body of the shoe, similar to those now attached to all varieties of outdoor gear. This solved both problems and marked the company’s exit from the illuminated-foot business.
Enter Skechers, founded by the former head of L.A. Gear. The company has made blinkers a tent pole of its children’s line—S-Lights by Skechers. Kids don’t place nearly as much strain on the soles of their feet and are often on the lookout for their shoes to be something more than what your mom reminds you to remove from the den. Lights now come in red, blue, orange, green, and white, both in the sole and outlining the company’s jagged “S” logo on the shoe’s side. A new line called “Movie Shoes” uses red lights to create an animation of a cheerleader cartwheeling and an inline skater skating, which extend along the length of the heel. Prices range from $14.95 to $39.95, with lights guaranteed to last six months. When I asked about them breaking, a worried-looking clerk assured me that this has “never happened.” To prove her point she fiercely banged a white velcro sneaker with green lights against the shelf. The lights came on, then shut themselves off, as regularly as if activated by a switch. The banging, which scared the dickens out of me, fazed no one else in the store—not the dozens of kids or even the clerk balanced on a nearby ladder, holding a precarious tower of shoeboxes. It seemed a little like working at a rifle range.
Ironically, shoe companies and parent groups like to emphasize the original purpose of the lights—wearer safety—even if their real demographic just wants to look cool at recess. One website reports that having your kid in blinking footwear keeps them visible at all times, both to oncoming traffic and in a crowded mall. Uh huh.
Even though my feet will never fit them, I’d still think it a shame for something as pointlessly fun as shoe lights to become yet another reason for parents to warn kids about the shadowy dangers of our big bad world. My hope is that, should they cause discussion, it’s of a gentler, more domestic sort. Jake Foley, nine, from Riga, Michigan, told me that he used to have a pair of Sketcher slip-ons that blinked red and blue. His dad made him take them off when he came into the house because he’s a firefighter and has enough of sirens at work. When I asked Jake how he felt about that, he shrugged. “I thought they were cool,” he said. “But I outgrew them pretty quickly.”
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