Whenever I'm shopping for practical, functional sneakers for my imaginary children, I always think to myself, "Wouldn't these be better with some sort of poisonous substance in them? Maybe we could line them with some cushy asbestos or inject a teeny syringeful of arsenic. Just a little something to up the ante on the excitement of wearing stylish, dangerous footwear."
I can only imagine my parents were thinking the same thing when they caved to my endless pleas and purchased me my very own pair of LA Lights. They wouldn't even let me touch the glass thermometer and always seemed a bit concerned I may take to munching on the paint chips from our basement window, but they seemed happy enough to buy me a light-up sneaker chock-full of good old fashioned mercury. Granted, they may not have known of the risk at the time, but I have my suspicions. After all, they let me lick all of those recalled lead-painted Happy Meal toys, didn't they?
LA Gear was a popular brand of athletic shoes, boasting endorsements from the likes of Michael Jackson, Wayne Gretzky, Paula Abdul, Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Joe Montana. In the 80s and 90s LA Gear churned out signature style sneakers marketed to both the athletic and fashion conscious, capitalizing on their celebrity endorsements and placement in high-end department stores to boost their image and project an elite manner of sneaker snobbery.
During the company's pre-light era (circa 1990), MJ danced in his LA Gear sneaks
In 1992, they introduced an innovative design concept that undoubtedly endeared them to children on the virtue of sheer novelty and value to the easily entertained. The concept was simple but new: light-up sneakers. It's a well-known fact that children are big fans of simple visual stimuli, and these shoes were no exception. With each contact of the shoe-wearer's heel to the ground, the shoe would emit a flash of colored light. The inevitable oohing and ahhing was certain to make you the talk of the playground. These babies weren't so great for sneaking up on people, but they certainly were, ahem, flashy.
The shoes were comfortable as any sneaker but with every step, a burst of red LED light would flash from your heel. A a child, this was really the ultimate footwear victory. Suddenly, your shoes were not merely a functional piece of clothing but rather a legitimate novelty item to amuse and distract your classmates. In their own way, LA Lights were hypnotizing; watch a wearer walk away and you became mesmerized by the glowing flashes of light emanating from their shoes.
These light-up shoes unfortunately had a dark side as well. Unbeknownst to us as innocent children, the substance activating that little LED light was indeed mercury, a toxic element that could induce adverse effects on those in contact with it. Let's be real here: the actual tangible threat of mercury in our sneakers was pretty low. After all, it was handily encased in multiple layers of solid plastic. Unluckily for LA Gear, neither the plastic nor its corresponding argument of safety were solid enough to ward off the Cautious Cathys among us.
And so it went. Just as these sneakers had bounded into our hearts and lit up our lives, so fleetingly did they pass. Parents and watchdog groups weren't particularly keen to the idea of a poisonous compound seeping into children's heels with every blinking step they took. Environmentalists in my home state of Minnesota were among the first to take action against the well-intentioned LA Lights parent company, LA Gear.
LA Gear settled with the Minnesotan group with both a financial agreement and by establishing a mail-in program to safely recycle and dispose of the hazardous elements of the shoes. I can remember that day we mailed in my shoes and I said goodbye to those twinkling lights forever. As a child, I was not particularly concerned with the environmental or toxicity implications but more that I was forced to replace my beloved LA Lights with a crappy pair of white Stride Rites. Traumatic, indeed.
The manufacturers changed from a mercury to an inertial switch, but their product image had been tarnished and the brand was in decline. In 1995, the company made an agreement for their products to be sold in Wal-Mart stores, a rebranding effort that diminished LA Gear's hard-earned upmarket image. Sales dropped and by the late 90s LA Gear took action toward bankruptcy.
While our 90s pal LL Cool J might tell us not to call it a comeback, LA Gear has taken serious strides* toward reestablishing their brand. LA Gear is bringing back many classic styles including the beloved lights line sans toxic liquid innards. Yes, you heard right. Your present and/or future children too can relive the magic of LA Lights. In fact, just a few days ago LAgearnews.com posted the following sneak peak at the new light-up LA Gear sneakers:
I know, I know, it's too dark to get a real handle on the detailing, but just use your imagination. After all, if a sneaker company can find a way to use poisonous chemicals to bring joy into the lives of easily amused children, the least you can do is find it in your hearts to be impressed with this tease of a promo.
*please excuse this shoe joke