Grade 5, public school, 1991. I knew a kid in my class who lived in the same low income co-op as I did, but there was a noticeable difference between us both. He came to school with a new pair of kicks every week. At the time it seemed like every week, but it was probably every few months. Black and red trim Jordans. Nike Bo Jackson cross trainers. White and blue Patrick Ewing high tops. This kids had a impressive collection at the ripe age of 11 years old. My envy didn’t do un-noticed while I rocked my all white pair of Brooks tennis shoes.
Throughout my teen years and young adult life, there have been a few others who have come through my life with the same attribute- another day, another pair of kicks that I haven’t seen yet. I never really understood the reasoning or interest behind collecting numerous pairs of kicks until I watched the Netflix documentary Sneakerheadz, a film following the lives of several serial running shoe collectors, directed and produced by David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge. When I say collector I’m not talking about guys who buy 20, 50, or 100 pairs of shoes in their lifetime. Try 500 to 1000 minimum pairs stocked in homes, closets, storage units, etc. Some see it as as business opportunity while others do it for sport.
At first glance the film would seem to depict a bunch of compulsive shoe buyers who live in their parents basement in order to fund their addiction, when in reality Sneakerheadz documents why the appeal of sneaker collection is more about design, culture and just pure joy to the collector, and less about consumer consumption.
The Creative Side
So what exactly is a Sneakerhead? Clips of the film seek to ask this question several times in an attempt to define the art that is shoe collection. “A Sneakerhead is someone who uses rent money to buy a new pair of Jordans”.
As extreme as that line sounds, it’s not so unbelievable by today’s standards. In our wants over needs society, being broke but having nice things is a way of life for many misguided socialites. But watching the film you get a sense that though the statement may be true, most Sneakerheads would rather be known as a person that genuinely has a love for the shoe itself- the colourway, the stitching pattern, the fit, the comfort, the branding, the swag, and so on.
Your friendly neighbourhood Sneakerhead is a lot deeper than you’d expect. Most of the Sneakerheads interviewed in the film not only had an ungodly collection of kicks, but at some point in time were design collaborators with major shoe companies.
The love of footwear goes beyond the “Wow!” from their homies on the block. To achieve the holy grail of shoe-dom takes hours of precision at the design phase. One can only create a memorable pair of kicks if an unusual affection for footwear exists with the designer. Shoe companies continue to try and outdo each other, hiring creators and designers from all walks of life including, but not limited to fashion designers, luxury brands, graffiti artist, and professional skateboarders.
The film starts at the dawn of sneaker history. From Chuck Taylors in the 60’s, to Adidas in the 70’s, to Nike’s evolution in the mid 80’s, sneakers have invaded pop culture by going from just being worn for sports to becoming a fashion accessory for any time of the day. Having fanboys wanting to be like their sports icons, it was easy to see why the running shoe market was beginning to get crowded with each passing decade.
When Nike signed the ever iconic MJ to a contract in 1985, other companies took notice and concluded that in order to stay competitive, big names had to be signed to promote their brand. Athletes of all sports were pursued, but one intriguing acquisition was when Adidas signed popular 80’s rap group RUN DMC to the first non-athlete apparel deal.
RUN DMC almost single handedly breathed life into the 3 stripes that gave the company a strong following in urban centers. The release of the song “My Adidas” encouraged youths to raise up their kicks during live concerts to promote the brand they loved. From there, the sneaker culture became its own animal. Kicks became the status symbol of choice for not just athletes, but for all people from all walks of life.
Fashion, style, and influence. The shoe industry has a strangle hold in those three areas in North American pop culture, where the shoes you wear speak to the person you are. Brands like Jordan are seen as much on the red carpet in Hollywood as on the local courts. At a young age kids are being conditioned to have the freshest and flyest kicks in order to be accepted. More luxury brands are getting into the game producing $900 sneakers for Rodeo Drive sneaker enthusiasts.
The western world isn’t the only place where the love affair with kicks exist. The Sneakerheadz documentary travels to Japan to see how the population there has bought into the footwear fashion craz in their own unique way. Whereas North Americans value basically the same colour pattern and branding when it comes to purchasing shoes, the Japanese tend to focus on the actual make of the shoe- the cloth, stitching, unique colour patterns and unusual designs. For example, Air Max 90’s are huge in Japan now, but they’re coloured with a fatigue pattern or leopard print. Resale of kicks has also grown in popularity in Japan with retrofits being just as big there as they are here back home.
Being a Sneakerhead involves understanding that if there are 50 different colour ways for Jordan 3’s, then all 50 must be a part of their collection. It’s simple business math for shoe companies really. The more unique designs and retro releases that come out, the more revenue they make. There’s no shortage of buyers. Sneakerheadz abound globally. Gone are the days of the “hunt” for the fresh new kicks from your local show dealer around the block. The world wide web has introduced an unlimited supply of any shoe you ever dreamed of owning.
The film does a excellent job of displaying the parity of the lost art of shoe hunting and how being a Sneakerhead went from being this underground fraternity to an everyday occurrence with kids as young as 14 years old hustling shoe deals at regional resale shoe conventions.
Long lines for new shoe releases won’t end anytime soon as companies strategically never match the demand for it at the initial launch. Stocks will eventually be replenished, but shoe companies make sure to do everything to create the hype for their must-have products. Sneakerheads will always be viewed as hoarders, but you’ll have the other type of Sneakerhead that sees a business opportunity to swing a profit if he gets in line early enough. Good business is knowing what sells and having the newest kicks on the market is something many are willing to pay a pretty penny for.
After watching this documentary twice I came to realize a couple of things- a Sneakerhead is more about the appreciation for the design appeal for the product than actually just owning the shoe for owing sake. At various times throughout the film there were detailed reflections as to what made a specific pair of kicks so desired.
Two, the Sneakerhead culture transcends nationality, gender, age, and social status. Having a tenacious appetite for the latest kicks isn’t just about marginalized urban youth on the block trying to look fly. People from all socioeconomic backgrounds share in their love for being a Sneakerhead.
Three, the Sneakerhead phenomenon continues to grow in each generation. More and more apparel deals are being made between companies and non-athletes (i.e. Adidas Yeezys) and additionally more collaborations happening between shoe companies and big name clothing brands. Being a Sneakerhead is like a wine collector or a car collector, or even a an art collector. It may be an expensive hobby to have, but the affection for design, brand and the sheer love for displaying swag daily makes it worthwhile. Sneakerheads won’t change who they are even though the colour way on the Jordan 3’s will next week.