Sneaker culture isn’t just confined to online forums and brick-and-mortar high-end stores; it’s also creeping into the mainstream. Last February, when 150 potential buyers showed up at a Lower East Side boutique to purchase only 30 pairs of a $300 NYC-tribute shoe, the Nike Pigeon Dunk SBs (skateboards), a minor riot broke out. Thugged-out dudes waited on nearby corners to rob buyers leaving with their spoils, the NYPD swooped in, and the New York Post splashed the street ruckus on the front page. This past summer, Where’d You Get Those?: New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 author Bobbito Garcia hosted It’s the Shoes on ESPN2, a late-night sneaker-centric summer-series featuring interviews with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Spike Lee, and Missy Elliott. In November, Riverhead Books published Sneaker Freaker: The Book, a softcover compendium of the first six issues of the sleekly designed Australian fan-magazine that’s become a scene linchpin. There’s even a specialty market for art with sneakers as a muse: paintings, customized jewelry, Swiss chocolate.
New York City, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo were early-adopters of sneaker culture. Now Boston’s really starting to get into the game. Femalesneakerfiends.com, a Web community for laced-up ladies, launched from Jamaica Plain last April. Rob Heppler, now a free man living in Pepperell, hosts a biweekly sneaker Podcast called Weekly Drop with Arlington resident Jeff Cavalho. When New Balance released its first “Artist Series,” the Allston company selected only one contributor, Somerville painter/illustrator Josh Wisdumb. The national traveling collectible-shoe exhibition “Sneaker Pimps” has stopped by Lansdowne Street two years in a row. Over the holidays PUMA offered its design-your-own-shoe process, the Mongolian BBQ, in Boston. New Balance, PUMA, Converse (now owned by Nike), and Reebok (now owned by Adidas) are headquartered in Massachusetts. And then there are the new independent outlets selling specialty sneakers: streetwear boutique Karmaloop settled into Newbury Street this past fall; last month saw the soft opening of Laced, a brand-new NYC-style sneaker/skateboarding boutique in the South End.
To the brands, the hardcore collectors are commercial visionaries. “Before, a lot of this stuff just stayed in this culture,” says Steve Gardner, vice-president of Lifestyle at Reebok. “[Now] a lot of these kids are influencing fashion — they’ve become the trend leaders.”
Give me two pairs
Sneaker love didn’t start with that first resplendent pair of high-topped, wing-logoed Air Jordans in 1985. But the Mercedes-Benz of balling shoes certainly shifted kick-worship into higher gear. Soon after, Run DMC did the illest things with their shell-toed Adidas, followed by Do the Right Thing’s Buggin’ Out getting in a white man’s face for stepping on his “brand-new white” Air Jordans and some well-publicized real-life shoe-related beatdowns.
Two decades, lyrical name-drops from the likes of Foxy Brown, the Game, and Scarface, and one Nelly song about Air Force 1s later, sneakerheads run different games. Many collectors are unabashed Nike worshippers — obsessed with the Oregon behemoth’s practice of putting out limited-edition shoes every month. Some are slaves to Bathing Apes (a/k/a BAPEs), a trendy Japanese clothing and sneaker label of vibrantly colored kicks that usually retail in the United States for around $200. Some want sneakers that drop with huge hype, like last July’s Nike Diamond Dunk SBs, a/k/a the Tiffany Dunks, a powder-blue and burnished-silver pair that sold out of Concepts, the Harvard Square sneaker shop hidden in the back of the Tannery, in 10 minutes. Some buyers are in it for the extra income, queuing up outside stores for short runs and reselling their spoils to the highest bidder like old-school ticket scalpers. Some won’t buy Nike because they’re too corporate. Some just amass Jordans, long regarded as the Benzes of basketball shoes. Or kicks with orange colorways. Or the strange-footwear rejects found in retail outlets. Or the hard-core nucleus of sneaker collectors devour: limited editions.