Exploring Sneaker Culture


At the Burn Rubber Sneaker Boutique in Royal Oak, manager Azriel “AZ” Gilmore juggled customers’ requests for sizes and colors of shoes in the store, and a barrage of phone calls about the latest anticipated sneaker to hit the market in late February. Some customers called twice.

For about a month before the Nike LeBron X Cork reached the store, employees fielded 50 to 200 calls about the shoe a day. “That’s typical for an anticipated shoe,” says Gilmore, 32. The exclusive $250 shoe made of cork was inspired by LeBron James’ NBA championship win last year with the Miami Heat-and the corks that popped from champagne bottles during the celebration.

Sneaker aficionados had a celebration of their own as the latest unique design hit stores Feb. 23: Each pair already accounted for before the official start of sales. Last summer, customers flocked to Burn Rubber for the Air Yeezy II, a Nike shoe designed by rapper and producer Kanye West and released last June.

The popularity of athletic shoes has evolved into a full-blown culture of its own, and Detroit is in the center of it. With Bob’s Classic Kicks, a sneaker boutique in Detroit’s Midtown district, the bevy of local sneaker customization artists, Burn Rubber and a legion of sneaker fans, Detroit is becoming the capital of sneaker culture.

The stores-with barbershop-like atmospheres that attract professional athletes such as Detroit Tigers’ Prince Fielder and have caught the eye of A-list hip-hop artists and athletes like Jay-Z and Detroit emcees such as Big Sean-are what Burn Rubber co-owner Rick Williams calls “the early adopters.” He explains, “We’re the people that are ahead of the curve and, by the time they get to the Foot Lockers and the Finish Lines, we’re pretty much done with it.”


Detroit style

Today’s sneakers are as popular and as signature as yesterday’s gators. “Twenty years ago, Detroit was known for alligator shoes,” says Chuck Bennett, a Detroit-based style expert. “When hip-hop came in, things became relaxed. Guys weren’t wearing suits. They were wearing jeans and sneakers. Now, some people make alligator sneakers. Now, Detroit is known for sneakers.”

Christian Dorsey, co-owner of Bob’s Classic Kicks, agrees. “Detroit has always had style,” says Dorsey, 31, whose store has been open for eight years. “Sneakers replaced the gators. You used to wear different-colored gators; now it’s different-colored gym shoes.”

The popularity of sneakers started to brew with Chuck Taylors in the 1970s. Sneakers have been a staple in hip-hop culture since the beginning, and Run-D.M.C. recognized sneakers’ role in the culture in the 1980s with their song “My Adidas.” They also had an endorsement deal with the company.

But the pinnacle moment when sneakers were thrust into superstar status was when former Chicago Bulls basketball icon Michael Jordan signed a $2.5 million endorsement deal with Nike in 1984, says Robert Thompson, a popular culture professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

A rookie, Jordan sported the shoes on courts despite a NBA dress code ban that prohibited him from wearing the signature red and black kicks. Jordan racked up dozens of $5,000 fines that season, all of which Nike paid for. In the 1990s, Jordan went on to film a popular commercial series with filmmaker Spike Lee, expanding the  kicks’ popularity.

“These things were marketed so absolutely brilliantly. The attachment to Michael Jordan, the use of him, the way in which those many sneakers were marketed so it almost seemed like a superhero power,” Thompson says.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, shoe brands such as Nike continued to develop their marketing strategies and partner with hip-hop artists and athletes to release high-end limited editions that increased demand and prices.

Music videos and advertisements in urban magazines such as The Source and Vibe also help facilitated the growth of the culture. The popularity hasn’t slowed down. In 2010, Nike CEO Mark Parker said its basketball division earned an estimated $1.7 billion in revenue-and its Air Force 1 shoe, which debuted more than 25 years ago, continues to sell 15 million pairs annually.

Part of the rise of sneaker culture is due to the evolution of the shoe from sports use only to daily wear now. “There are very few places in America where you can’t wear sneakers anymore,” Thompson says. “They’ve become part of the uniform of American life. We’ve become so much less rigid in our dress codes. In two generations, what was considered unacceptable clothes has disappeared.”

Shoes have also become a really important part of the male fashion statement, and sneakers are an acceptable way that men can express their love for shoes. Brian Watson, 37, of Detroit says as a teenager, he loved Air Jordans and the way they complemented his outfits. Now, his style has matured and he wears sneakers less, but he still owns about 20 pairs of the shoes he purchased for $125 and higher per pop.

“I’ve had almost every pair known to man in previous years,” says Watson, an assembly line worker at Chrysler. “It’s more like a trip down memory lane. They’re mostly collectors’ items now. I may wear them once and put them in a box and that’s it.”

But women are a part of sneaker culture just as they are a part of hip-hop culture, says Gwendolyn Pough, associate professor and chair of the women’s and gender studies department at Syracuse University.

“Until the Lil’ Kims and the Foxy Browns, women hip-hop heads wore the same things as the guys. I remember dressing up in my Lee jeans and my pastel Nikes, my Le Tigre shirts and my sneakers just like (the boys),” says Pough, author of “Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere.”

“Athletic women and hip-hop head women want the same shoes that the guys are wearing-just in a different color.” Angela and Vanessa Simmons, daughters of Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons of Run-D.M.C., put their own stamp on sneakers as did their father a generation before when they launched their Pastry line of sneakers for women and girls in 2007.

While the typical “sneaker head” may be between age 18 and 25, diverse clientele shop for sneakers at Burn Rubber, Gilmore says. “We get everybody from 12 to 60 coming here,” says the manager, whose store has a YouTube series backed by Eminem called “Detroit Rubber.”

“Every race, color and creed you can imagine, every socioeconomic background you can imagine… we have dudes who drive Ferraris and dudes who walk or skateboard here.” And customers are looking for brands and styles that are hard to find because they want to be unique, he says. “It’s the difference between setting the trend or being trendy.”

Hypebeasts and customization

Sneaker heads come in different varieties. They range from serial collectors with overflowing closets to enthusiasts who enjoy handmade customized kicks. Then there are the “hypebeasts,” a phrase often used to describe sneaker junkies who often only wear kicks hyped up by the media, their peers and other influential figures.

One way sneaker aficionados distinguish their shoes from others is by getting them customized. Sneaker customization has evolved from airbrushing hip-hop graffiti-influenced designs and school colors on shoes in the 1980s to placing various textiles and intricate artwork on shoes now. Brent Agee, who has been working at Bob’s Classic Kicks in Detroit for about seven years, started customizing sneakers four months ago.

Agee, of Detroit, says he alters shoes to his customers’ tastes and adds items such as fur, snakeskin and denim. He can change colors of shoes, add designs and dye the insides and the soles. Customization can take two days or a couple of weeks, depending on what customers want, and the price ranges from $50 to $120.

Customers invest extra money into customizing their sneakers after already paying a steep price for the shoes because they want to put their own original stamp on the shoe, Agee explains. “It gives the customer a chance to express what they want,” says the 22-year-old designer, who wants to eventually design his own brand. “You can buy an all-white shoe, and it’s like a blank canvas to do what you want.”

The inspiration of Agee’s designs ranges from historical events, such as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, to the solar system: He designed a galaxy-themed shoe, complete with stars and planets. Women customers have asked to have their shoes dyed unique colors, including a pastel blue similar to the color of the Tiffany & Co. signature blue jewelry box.

Customizing also can revive shoes that have been sitting on the shelf and breathe new life into them. “Some people take an old shoe and redesign them,” Dorsey says. But when new shoes hit the market, customers still flock to stores and stand in mile-long lines to cop the newest sneaker.

Part of that is due to “exclusivity,” Gilmore says. “It all comes back to getting something that no one else has. People want stuff because other people don’t have it.” Others seek to make a profit on the demand for shoes, especially limited-edition sneakers. “They figure if they wait in line so long they can resell, and that’s how they make a living,” Dorsey says.

Gilmore says some resellers sell sneakers up to four times the retail price. That price gouging makes shoes that are already expensive out of reach from some kids who want them. The cheapest shoes in Burn Rubber, are about $60, and the most expensive pairs are $200. At Bob’s Classic Kicks, the lowest-priced shoe is $50 and the highest $270.

“There are a lot of kids out there who would love these sneakers and can’t (afford them),” Thompson says. Since the Air Jordans grew to become the most coveted shoes in history, it became commonplace to hear about inner-city youth violence from stealing, fighting and even murdering their peers for a pair.

Most recently, Detroit native and star athlete Kavon Coleman, 18, was shot at a bus stop over a pair of $410 retro Air Jordan shoes, leaving him with severe mobility challenges. Agee says he’s cautious when wearing popular shoes, often reducing the time he spends engaging with strangers about his kicks. During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., he wore a pair of electric blue Nike Foamposites, which caught the attention of bystanders who stopped him to ask questions.

“It was already popular in D.C., but with rapper Wale hyping the shoe, you could get robbed,” Agee says. “I knew what people were willing to do for the shoe, and I wasn’t willing to take that chance.” Foamposites debuted in 1997 and gained a reputation for their wavy, synthetic mold-and being favored by former NBA player Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Agee says the shoe’s soaring popularity in recent years reflects the power hip-hop has on fans.

“Foamposites used to be considered whack. People would say it was ugly, that it looked like a shell-that it just looks weird. But soon as Wale came out with (Fitted Cap), everybody wanted a pair of this shoe,” Agee says.

Dorsey says he recognizes that the shoes he sells are out of reach for some kids. That’s why he says he gave away 3,000 pairs of shoes last year to teenagers who attended school on Student Count Day. He hopes to get support to give more shoes this year. “We want them to have at least one pair of nice shoes to build their confidence,” Dorsey says. “We want to put everybody on the same playing field.”

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