Jeff talks about the current state of sneaker culture exclusively for Sole DXB
Published first in the 2017 Sole Magazine
Let me take you back in time. Not too far back. Not to the time when shoes were just strips of leather, nubuck, and suede sewn onto rubber. Not to the time when people only bought sneakers to play sports in and when that one pair died, you went and bought another pair.
I’m talking a little later. I’m talking that time when athletes were elevated to the highest status. When television commercials were a highly anticipated event. When marketing a shoe started to become just as important as the design of the shoe. Let’s call it 1987—which is, in my opinion—the start of the Golden Era of sneaker culture.
Back then, sneaker brands had one goal in mind: Make better products for our athletes. And that they did. Our athletes began to perform better and better. Not just because of the shoes; lots of other advancements were occurring. But the shoes were basically their sword and shield. When they became hero’s, we looked down at their feet in awe (and prayed?) “How were they able to accomplish that??? “Gotta be the shoes. The shoes.”
And the thing is, we all knew it was sort of a gimmick. We knew buying them shoes wouldn’t make us run faster or jump higher. But you know what? It was the only tangible thing that could connect Us to Them! And so we gladly forked over $70, $80, $90 or —GASP—even $100 for them! (The dream wasn’t cheap!)
So sneaker brands did their job. Athletes did their job. And all the while, the coolest kids around would know just how to rock these shoes into their own personal style. These were the fly guys aka The Cool Kids. Let’s face it, back in the 80s, if a kid walked into school with a fresh pair of Jordan’s or the new Agassi’s on; he was THE MAN.
I vividly recall the day I become a certified Sneakerhead. I was in 6th grade and the Air Jordan III White/Cements had just dropped. I wore the perfect pant with just the right pin roll, socks that would emphasize what I had on my feet and the crispy J’s without a scuff on them. First class of the day was Social Studies. I walked in a few minutes late (cuz that’s what the cool kids did) and I remember once I walked in that door, everyone in the entire class, including the teacher—Mr. Olsen, looked at me, then looked down at my feet. In unison! I literally snapped 30 necks all at the same time! And from that point on, I was hooked. To this day, that is still the most amazing feeling. But I digress….
It was all so innocent back then wasn’t it? Brands would make amazing products for their athletes. Athletes would do amazing things with these products. Brands would run a sick commercial on TV. We’d get hyped. We’d go out and do some babysitting, mow a lawn, deliver some newspapers or look under our sofa cushion so that we could get some cash together and cop those kicks. We’d love and cherish the shoes. Sleep with them at our bedside so it was the first thing we see when we woke up. We’d plan our entire outfit around these shoes. We’d study every centimeter of the box. We’d iron the laces to make sure they remained super flat. We’d smell the glues and try to guess which factory the shoes were made in. We’d save all the little hangtags. And the stories. Man, we would love those stories. And we’d want to be the one who shared those stories with our crew. And so we dug deeper for information to make sure we got the leg up on that intel that no one else had. “Y’all know these are banned from the NBA??” “Y’all heard only The Athlete’s Foot got this colorway!”
Then somewhere along the way, the tables turned and things got switched up. See, these Cool Kids started to tell shop owners what they wanted to see. And the shop owners took notes. And when the shops would meet the brands to place their orders, they’d tell them. “Johnny, who’s the starting QB and Prom King of our local high school says you should make these in Wheat. And kids really look up to him.” And normally, the brands would be like “yeah whatever.” But these stores started to throw their weight around. And why not? If you’re a store spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on a brand, you should be able to speak your mind, right? So the sales guy at the sneaker brands would go back to the design team and be like “Hey, can’t you just do a run in this other color for my account. They’re putting up some good dollars.” And as these special runs started to perform well, it only made sense for it to happen more and more. And the designers might feel more and more obliged to do it!
This all seems very rudimentary the way I am Spelling it out, but it marks a pivotal time in Sneaker culture: when consumers and sales People started to gain power. From a brand’s Perspective, it was no longer “let’s do what is right for the athlete and that’s it.” Now it’s “let’s make something for everyone. The Athlete. The shop. And the cool kid.” Inevitably, that waters down the product.
If you fast forward that rolling snowball to today, you have modern sneaker culture. Which is barely a “culture” anymore to be honest. It’s an industry titan. It’s gotten so crazy that in 2017, athletes are no longer seen as the influential figures they once were. Athletes want to be rappers. Or streetwear designers! So now the Cool Kids are running the show. And I can’t really complain because I’m part of the problem, right? Nowadays, a kid who printed some tees in his mom’s basement can be a rock star overnight. And now he can get a shoe deal faster than a kid in college who scores 38 points per game.
In addition, an integral new player in the culture came to fruition—The Reseller. I knew some of the earliest “resellers” in the game (Here’s lookin’ at you Vintage Kicks USA and SKIT in Kichijoji). They weren’t so much reselling as it was just charging a “service fee” for that person to get you some kicks that were hard to obtain. But today? All you gotta do is look at Stock X to see that this homegrown cottage industry has turned into a monster. And just like real stocks, you now have a lot of people playing a role in this without actually living or loving the culture it is based on. All they care about is whether it turns a profit or not.
Here’s the problem though. The sneaker brands create product with that threshold in mind now. Shoes are supposed to sell out in a day. Shoes are supposed to be rioted over (mah bad on that one). Shoes are supposed to have a resell value. Shoes are supposed to appear in your latest rap video. And when they don’t, it’s considered a flop. So designers avoid doing them. And you best believe your favorite shoe designer is checking for their creations on eBay and Stadium Goods.
But here’s a news flash: Shoes are not supposed to be any of those things! Shoes are supposed to help you feel better in every single step. And they’re supposed to make you look and feel good. Anything beyond that… Anything that relates to pair count, distribution strategy, celebrity endorsement, camp outs, bots, resell value, etc etc—is just HYPE. And we can’t build the future of this culture on HYPE. A lot of people can become introduced to the culture via Hype. But those people probably won’t stay for long. And after they’ve all left, we’ll only have the people who love this culture to its core. We all need to start paying attention to them again.
So here’s my question to the entire industry. The age of innocence is gone. How do we bring the culture back? How do we bring the excitement back? How do we bring the love back? Or… do we even need to? At the end of the day, they’re just strips of Leather, nubuck and suede glued onto rubber Right?
Follow Jeff on instagram @jeffstaple
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