Life, love, and sneakers

By CAMILLE DODERO  |  February 18, 2006

“It’s weird when you find your community, but you’re not in it,” says Lori Lobenstine, a 37-year-old part-time high-school basketball coach from Jamaica Plain. But some women do prefer Shelltoes to Manolos.

So last April she launched, a fan-obsessed community resource for women who collect kicks. “It’s not all about the product,” explains Lobenstine one morning at her home, orange men’s Nike Dunks a half-size too big on her feet. “It’s about how we collect them, how we wear them, what they’ve meant to us.” Last fall, Lobenstine threw an inaugural FSF party at Harvard Square’s Adidas store.

On the site, about 100 hard-core posters (the site also gets thousands of visitors) upload photos of their personal collections. Lobenstine asks questions like, “What would you do if something bad happened to a sneaker?” Members announce in forums about how walking through “tha mall and people constantly lookin at my feet makes me feel good.” They refute the misconception all female sneaker fiends are lesbians.

She’d also like FSF to be a force in the footwear industry. Her first campaign is an online petition lobbying brands to create limited editions in smaller sizes. (Personally, she doesn’t collect at that level, instead pursuing shoes that are “exclusively unexclusive.” She owns 30 pairs.) “My little fiends that wear a size four-and-a-half, they’re screwed, they’re just locked out of that whole game,” says Lobenstine. “There’s a lot of pain and anger around that stuff.”

The online appeal asks for equal-spending rights:

Not all women who love sneakers are tag alongs for their boyfriends. We should be able to have the same opportunity to collect and purchase sneakers just like men.... Instead it’s a struggle to stand on our own as we travel from shop to shop and drop money into an industry that obviously does not bother to notice our growing numbers.

“No one out there is the voice of women like Lori,” says Dee Wells from Sole Collector. “She’s a huge advocate for the women.”

Popularity breeds contempt
With the exception of Montrealer Al Cabino, the self-proclaimed “sneakerographer” who is petitioning Nike to make Marty McFly’s Back to the Future II shoes, Lobenstine is the epitome of sneaker-fiend activism. Words like “sweatshop” really aren’t in the collective lexicon. “There’s not a conversation going on in the community about how sneakers are being made,” says Lobenstine.

For the most part, there’s also no shame in finding corporate products cool. “There’s just too many chumps in America with too much loose change, all willing to pay anything to step into the shoes of champions,” writes Adam Neiman, CEO of the sweatshop-free Waltham-based sneaker company No Sweat Apparel, in an e-mail. “That’s what Nike has always sold and always will. But to turn the essence of chumpdom into the essence of cool?”

Perhaps it’s the object. “There is something very non-corporate about wearing this kind of shoe,” explains Jeff Cavalho. “Nike is corporate, this form is not.”

No matter, sneaker culture is clearly growing in Boston. “If New York is 10, 10 being the best . . . Boston is a solid six and rising,” measures Dee Wells.

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