More Than Shoes: The Rise Of Sneakerhead Culture

When it comes to discussion about expressive subcultures, sneakerhead culture has become more ubiquitous in popular, mainstream culture than most others will ever be.

Sneakerheads come from all walks of life, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, age and just about any other boundary we define ourselves by. It's a subculture that consciously revolves around an ideology dominated by consumption and commodity fetishism.

Now sneakerheads... don't think I'm moralistically disparaging you in Marxist terms because I disapprove of your subcultural praxis – I don't, because I'm one of you!

But in the 1970's, you could count on one hand how many major players there were in the sneaker game, and nobody made much of a fuss over them at the time: Adidas, Puma, Vans, Converse, and Pony. My, my... how things have changed.

(Illustration: Albinal)

(Illustration: Albinal)

In 2015, The NPD Group calculated an 8% year-over-year growth for the largely millennial-driven sneaker market, to $17.2 billion in total annual sales.

Transparency Market Research estimates that the global footwear market will reach a hard-to-believe value of $220 billion a year by 2020.

The secondary market (resale), driven by hype cycles and low quantities of exclusive sneaker releases, has reached $1 billion a year, mostly in cash-based, person-to-person exchanges. (Resale boutiques like Flight Club and Stadium Goods play a huge part in the secondary market, and Instagram is also being used as a hosting platform for individual resellers).

But how in the world did we get from the simple days of tennis shoes to the frenzied, insanely lucrative global sneakerhead culture of today?

That's a massive question better suited for well-funded ethnographical research than a short-form article, but hey, I'll take my best shot at it.

My best guess is – people find complex meaning in sneakers. It's a straightforward idea, but one that still leaves most people perplexed as to how?! and why?! suckers like me will fork over upwards of $160 for a pair of shoes that are inevitably going to be destroyed on grimy city streets.

(Instantly, they go from perplexed to absolutely dumbfounded when I smile and say, "Oh, don't worry, I'll probably just keep these in the box for a little while!")

A photo posted by Nice Kicks (@nicekicks) on

The basic concept of shoes is a utilitarian one – keep your feet protected from the elements. But sneakerheads have elevated this once purely utilitarian object to the level of semiotic communication.

We have transformed sneakers into a language that we speak by using our feet.

When a sneakerhead puts on a pair of Air Jordan 1's, or 4's, or 11's, they are slipping into the historical legacy of the greatest basketball player of all time, encapsulated in a plush leather package.

They're signing to the rest of the world: "I'm a champion! The whole world is trying to bring me down, but I will author my own legacy! I will prevail like Mike!" This applies to other athletes' signature shoes as well – LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, etc.

Hollywood has obviously played its usual part in cementing a culture industry surrounding sneakers.

One of the rarest and most coveted sneakers in history – the Nike Air Mag – became a paragon of the sneaker game because Michael J. Fox wore the power-lacing moon boots in the Back To The Future franchise.

The Air Mags are set to get a re-release, but only in an extremely limited run (apparently, less than 100 pairs were manufactured, but we'll forgive them their transgression because the proceeds are going to a good cause).

Similarly, the Warner Bros. film Space Jam was basically a feature-length advertisement for Michael Jordan's now legendary Air Jordan 11 "Space Jam" sneaker (which will, coincidentally, also be getting a re-release this holiday season).

On stage front page every show I go /
It's Adidas on my feet high top or low...

In the same vein as Hollywood's immense impact on the sneaker industry, Hip-Hop music and the culture surrounding it has long set the pace as far as trends in the shoe game. Run-DMC's classic 1986 cut "My Adidas" is a perfect early example of the synergistic relationship between Hip-Hop and sneaker culture.

More recently, Hip-Hop stars such as Kanye West, Rihanna, Drake, Pharrell, Wale and Pusha T have made the jump from merely representing sneaker culture in their songs to actually designing and marketing their own signature shoe lines.

Kanye, who's designed sneakers with Louis Vuitton and had a successful run with Nike, defected to competitor Adidas, which gave him much more creative control (Kanye's presence is credited as a contributing factor to the three stripes' recent resurgence after a lengthy slump).

Now the Yeezy line is something of a gold standard for hype-beasts and resellers alike, with some models fetching upward of $2,500 on the secondary market.

The rise (and fall?) of sneaker culture

A subculture is defined as "a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture." With that definition in mind, what are we to make of the current state of sneaker culture?

Institutions like The Brooklyn Museum and The High Museum of Art in Atlanta have already held retrospectives on "The Rise of Sneaker Culture," and celebrities are cashing in on sneakerheads' ceaseless demand for more.

Arguably, these are two tell-tale signs that a subcultural mode of expression is dead or rapidly dying: When it has been irreversibly codified and incorporated (co-opted) into the fold of all that is understood as conventional (e.g., Punk, Grunge, Seapunk, Cybergoth, etc.). Name a subculture, and chances are it has suffered this fate to some extent.

(Source: Giphy)

(Source: Giphy)

I personally refuse to believe that sneakerhead culture is dead. Maybe it's because I'm so invested in it, or perhaps it's something else.

Despite the omnipresence of sneaker culture these days, it retains most of its elemental mystique. I think that's because there is still so much of the sneaker-sphere that is unattainable, even mythological.

As long as sneakerheads can derive their own personal meanings and satisfaction from their sneaker collections, what else really matters?

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