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Understanding the hype behind sneaker culture

April Dudgeon

Fri Aug 19 2016


JORDANS, Adidas NMDs, Yeezys – sneakers are a big business, attracting sneakerheads and re-sellers to camp outside stores for these shoes to drop. But what’s all the hype for? April Dudgeon investigates.

Shoes. Sneakers. Runners. Trainers. Joggers. Kicks. Whatever you call them, we all own a pair. Many of us don’t even wear them for sports. I own a pair of blue Vans and a pair of maroon Converse shoes (complete with rainbow laces) and I’ve never played a game of basketball or ridden a skateboard in my life, yet that’s what they were each originally designed for.

Our shoes mean more to us than just practicality. They are works of art and design triumphs, which we can take with us wherever we go. We use them to show off our personal style and make ourselves known in the world. In the words of legendary shoe designer, Christian Louboutin, “a shoe is not only a design, but it’s a part of your body language, the way you walk. The way you’re going to move is quite dictated by your shoes”.

Shoes have evolved in our world to represent more than just pieces of material that we wrap our feet in, and sneakers are more than just decked out running shoes. Becoming one of the most powerful style movements over the last three decades, they are the only fashion statement that defies size, age, gender, and race.

Now, in this globalised, fashionable world of ours, sometimes it seems like the whole world has gone shoe crazy; from the wall-to-wall display closets of Carrie Bradshaw to the some 30 variations of Air Jordan Nikes. But to the true ‘sneakerheads’, their particular world is quite exclusive, each with a love of sneakers that is hard to comprehend.

A sneakers shop in Melbourne

Sneakerboy is one of the most popular sneaker stores in Melbourne. Everytime there’s a new sneaker drop, throngs of sneakerheads queue outside this Little Bourke St shopfront. | Photo by Trinh Le.

Picture this. It was lunch time on a typical cloudy day in Melbourne’s CBD. Black and khaki green camping chairs lined one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares and the street was littered with pillows and sleeping bags. It looked like a homeless sleep-out, but the people were just too well-dressed.

Groups of them stood around chatting with one another. Some slouched in their chairs, while others sat on the ground, sipping cups of coffee. There were close to 30 people on one side of the street, and hundreds more on the other.

Walking and weaving my way through people, I stopped and managed to grab the attention of one of the young boys in the line. As he slowly looked up from his phone, I asked him what was going on. He looked at me and smirked, as if I was stupid for even asking.

“It’s a drop,” he said, shaking his head and returning to his screen. But I pressed on. “A drop? What’s that?” I asked, clearly pushing the limits of his interest.

“A sneaker drop. The new Adidas Ultraboosts are being released tomorrow.”

The boy put in his headphones and I assumed that signaled the end of our conversation.  But I still had so many questions.

This boy, and the others just like him who wait in these long queues all over the world, often in freezing conditions, are part of the sneaker culture.

A photo posted by NMD • #adidasNMD (@adidasnmd) on

Vietnamese student, and self-professed ‘old school Sneakerhead’, Minh Phan, 22, is a part of it and says he’s definitely not alone in his love of sneakers.

“You know, there are thousands of people talking about shoes. The whole sneaker thing… It’s bigger than you think it is.”

Phan, who now owns about 60 pairs of sneakers and runs his own Instagram page dedicated to the collection, has spent nights lining up for shoe releases and says its not that unusual.

“I mean, people line up for iPhones! It’s just what we do for brands. In the sneaker world, it’s about the idea and the appreciation of the shoe. It’s for the people who like to wear sneakers and like the look of them.”

Not only are sneakers the new ‘wearable art’, Phan thinks the idea of sneakers and their culture is about passion and the worth they add to someone.

“It’s about competition. And value. We attach value [to sneakers]. People buy also art because they like it, not because of money. You think people wear sneakers to go running or play basketball? No… It’s for the art. And how they look; how they feel.”

Sneakers have always been about breaking the rules. Men were always supposed to wear shoes; clean leather shoes. So sneakers became about the people who didn’t fit in; they became statements about being different. We watched athletes, rock stars and performers wear them, and we associated them with “breaking the mould”, and now, as those people have become revered in our society, sneakers are also about status.

“As a general idea people buy into better houses, cars, image – like getting your hair done, and clothes. So it’s the same with shoes, because sneakers are likened with entertainers, athletes, and celebrities,” Phan explains, “and psychologically speaking, we always look up to people who seem to be doing better in a social setting. That is hard-wired to our brains as kids. We look to the leader of the pack for approval.”

And in learning more about this elusive group of individuals, I was made aware of the two kinds of people competing in the sneaker world for their status.

When you think about it, it really is the most “hipster” of concepts. You love something, and you want other people to love it too, but not too many people. Enough that you feel supported in your passions, but not so many that it loses its ‘niche’ status. Because as soon as too many people love it and it becomes too popular, there are inherently going to be people who try to exploit that system.

“In the sneaker world there are two kinds of people,” says Phan, “people who want the shoe for themselves, and those who take advantage of people who love shoes.”

Not knowing much about sneakers, I figure it is like the stock market; value based on perception. The more people talk about a particular pair of shoes and speculate about how many there are, and who is a part of the design collaboration, the more the shoe’s perceived value goes up.

“It’s what we in the sneaker culture refer to as ‘hype’. Hype means everything that is hyped up, it’s exciting, and everyone wants to buy it regardless of whether they want to or if it is worth it.”

In sneaker culture, there are people out there called ‘resellers’, who professionally line up to buy shoes with only the intention of selling them on to someone who wasn’t in the line. It is these resellers who creating ‘hype’, which Phan says sneakerheads, or the “people who actually love shoes”, hate.

In the line, along Melbourne’s Little Bourke St that day, there were two types of people camping out; those who wear the shoes, and the people there for the money. But it appears as though they were all there for the same reason.

“Either way it is about the value that they add to themselves. Resellers add to themselves the amount of money in their pocket, but people who love the shoes get the value from wearing them,” Phan tells me, “not just the $200 paid in store, but because [they] lined up for 2 days, and the reseller’s hype has just added a $2000 value onto [their] person.”

The hype surrounding sneakers is turning them into big business, as hundreds of thousands of people line up for various sneaker releases worldwide, and are willing to dish out thousands of dollars to get their hands on a special pair. Just last year people lined up outside for over a week for a pair of limited edition retro Air Jordans, and the new Adidas ‘Yeezys’, released in collaboration with Kanye West were resold for more than four times their original retail price.

And the love of sneakers is even turning deadly. Americans are reportedly willing to kill for sneakers, according to a video released by GQ. So we should probably start taking this culture seriously, huh? Fortunately, no such incidents have been reported in Australia.

With overnight campouts, instant sell-outs, and Instagram photos alive with sound of rubber on pavement; the sneaker world is thriving and the inhabitants don’t appear to be calming down any time soon, with their value only increasing.

So follow the Sneakerheads, and listen to Minh Phan when he says, “Life sucks. Just appreciate the shoes.” Just please don’t kill anyone for them. Please.