Published on October 7th, 2013 | by Alex Smith1
Confessions of a Sneakerhead
“I mean, seriously, how often do you look at a man’s shoes?”.
Morgan Freeman’s famous line from The Shawshank Redemption sums up how most people think about shoes. For most, shoes aren’t coveted or dwelled upon, instead serving as utilitarian objects that keep us comfortable and not unkempt. Your average Joe is more likely to care about the shirt on his back and the pants on his waist than the shoes on his feet – evident in the way that a tattered, beaten up pair of Vans won’t draw judgmental eyes in the same way that a ripped, discoloured shirt will. It’s fair enough really; shoes take up less space and so have less space for creativity and design, and we expect less creativity and design from them. They exist on the part of the body the furthest away from the eyes, and in a crowd or dark place may not even be visible. It stands to reason that shoes just really aren’t a big deal.
In spite of popular indifference, shoe-loving sub-cultures have emerged, the largest of which favours sneakers. Under the umbrella of sneakers there are shoes inspired by or purposed for skateboarding, basketball, American football, baseball, running, hiking, surfing, casual wear and (on the back of efforts from Cole Haan) formal wear. Known as ‘sneakerheads’, these people love sneakers like a musician loves their instrument, a petrolhead loves their prized ride or an art collector loves a new piece.
And there are millions of them.
Sneaker appreciation and popularity have been growing for decades with no end in sight. Pushed onwards and upwards by athletes, musicians and film/television luminaries, these objects of utility suddenly became “cool” around the early 1980s. Michael Jordan gave us the signature shoe which started an empire, with the help of Academy Award winning director Spike Lee. Multi-disciplinary athlete Bo Jackson gave the world his shoe, along with the reassuring tag-line that you should wear it because “Bo knows”. Will Smith’s shoe collection as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air represented the growth into television that will, in the coming months, will be celebrated with the “Bel Air” collection from Nike. Michael J. Fox’s custom Nike Mags from Back to the Future showed an expansion into film, and drew enough attention to warrant prices in the many thousands of dollars following 2011’s re-release. Hip-hop group Run DMC even went so far as to write songs about how much they loved Adidas, while Kanye West has more recently tried his hand at sneaker design with great success.
On the back of these people and others, sneakers permeated through popular culture, eventually creating an entirely unique subculture. Today this is celebrated on dedicated websites and in specialised magazines, on social media, at swap meets and sneaker showcases. What has emerged is a loyal fan-base who wait for hours or even days in the cold, fervently refresh six copies of a website page in the middle of the night and spend hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars just to get the new pair of Jordans, Yeezys, Ronnie Fiegs or Doernbechers.
The lengths at which some will go to get their sneakers would astound most. The limited release of the Nike “Pigeon” SB Dunks in 2005 caused a small riot, with police having to escort successful buyers to taxis in order to avoid a raucous crowd and would-be thieves that had gathered in anticipation. Upon the re-release of the Jordan XI “Concord” in 2011, there were widespread reports of fights and robberies linked to the shoe, while in early 2012 some stores opted to cancel their release of the Nike Foamposite “Galaxy” in the interest of community safety. Riot police have been called in more than once, arrests have been made, and once upon a time murders were not unheard of (because as with any sub-culture, there are those willing to go to extreme measures). There is great diversity of opinion, preference and purpose among those who would call themselves sneakerheads. Some hate the fact that old shoes are re-released to make money, or that releases are limited, or that many value shoes on hype rather than quality of design. Some are loyal to individual brands or refuse to buy some brands on principle. Some wear their shoes, while others leave them untouched in the box or just want to make a buck selling them on to desperate buyers.
And within this diverse group, I am unashamed to admit; there is yours truly.
Twenty-one pairs of Nikes, eight pairs of Adidas, seven pairs of Air Jordans, six pairs of New Balances, four pairs of Pumas, three pairs of Vans, a pair of Asics, a pair of Reeboks and a bunch I don’t care to count, housed in five pieces of IKEA furniture and two closets. That is my collection, and save for the fact that I have an unusually large shoe-size, it is entirely unremarkable compared to some. Despite being relatively unremarkable, it has set me back thousands of dollars and countless hours of researching, bargain hunting and auction bidding, many of which admittedly should have been spent studying or sleeping.
Upon hearing of my collection or my love for shoes, most friends, relatives or strangers will ask incredulously: “why?”. To be frank, I don’t know. Sneakers make me happy for some reason that I can’t explain beyond saying “I just like them, really”. I like seeing a courier parcel await me at the front door or browsing at the local brick and mortar, I like opening the box of a new pair, I like looking at them sitting on my shelf and I like wearing them around, not only because I think they look good, but also in the hope that someone with the same passion appreciates them too. It has become such a significant part of my life and daily routine, however bizarre and unhealthy that may seem.
Joe and I have quite a bit in common; we’re both law students in Perth, Western Australia, we enjoy the same music, film and television, and we come from the same extended family. We also share an unapologetic passion for sneakers. To both his credit and detriment, Joe is a much more devoted collector of sneakers than I. His collection was approaching ninety pairs the last time I checked, stored in floor to ceiling bookcases that have consumed his bedroom; the product of a full time student and part time dishwasher’s obsession with sneakers. His poisons are Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Asics and Reebok – the most valued of which adorn his mantle-piece, never to be worn in their lives.
I don’t ask him the total cost of his collection because I don’t imagine he wants to think about it. Having such an obsession makes him (like many others) feel guilty. This is the guilt of not being able to easily afford holidays and other luxuries that you otherwise could, not being able to save money for more important things like cars, computers and contingencies, and knowing in the back of your mind that you don’t need this pair, and you have pairs like it. The guilt recedes as the collection and the addiction grows, because what is one more pair in the scheme of the dozens you own? What is another $150 when you’ve spent thousands already? You jump through hoops to justify it instead of just accepting that it makes you happy, and what wrong is there spending money if it makes you happy?
The next time you hear Macklemore, Kanye West, Jay-Z or John Mayer on the radio, know that you are listening to sneakerheads. The next time you catch an NBA game, see Nic Naitanui play footy, watch Mark Wahlberg in a movie or laugh at Jerry Ferrara’s antics in re-runs of Entourage, you are watching sneakerheads. In spite of how little most people care about shoes, how strange such a predilection may seem and how detrimental it can be, sneakerheads are here to stay. It might not make sense to most, but hey, neither does politics.