The Main Players Behind The Sneakerhead Phenomenon
Common Projects Achilles Low sneakers. Photograph by Common Projects, all photographs courtesy of HarperCollins.
The designers, style icons and cultural fixers who took sneakers by the likes of Nike, New Balance and Common Projects and ran with them.
“Sneakerhead” hasn’t quite made it into the OED yet, but if the recent additions of “fatberg” and “Brexit” are anything to go by, it probably won’t be long. Used to define the growing community of people obsessed with casual footwear, a sneakerhead is someone who is devoted to rubber-soled ephemera, someone who will camp outside stores for the privilege of paying hundreds of dollars for some limited-edition kicks, only to keep them perfectly preserved in the box they came in. Sneakers, a new book by designer Mr Rodrigo Corral and journalists Messrs Alex French and Howie Kahn, attempts to explain this phenomenon by cataloguing the major players responsible for alchemising sneakers into a global sensation – interviewing the masterminds behind everything from Jordans to New Balance.
The Sneaker Circle stockroom, Queens. Store owned by the father of Messrs Ankur and Nick Amin, founders of Extra Butter, in the 1980s. Photograph by Extra Butter, New York
“Collectively, sneakers do not become the basis for their own culture without an incendiary and driven cast of characters perpetually pushing them forward, keeping them fresh,” write the authors in the book’s introduction. “Over the course of more than one hundred interviews, [they reveal] why sneakers matter so deeply to them. With their words, and despite our title, this book isn’t really just about the shoes.” Instead, it’s a treatise of the hustlers and dreamers behind the sneaker’s frenzied history.
Mr Jeff Staple, the man behind the Nike Pigeon Dunk, one of the world’s most sought-after sneakers, is one such character. In an interview in the book, Mr Staple tells of the riot caused by the Pigeon Dunk’s release in 2005: “Five days before the release some kids started sleeping outside Reed Space in tents and sleeping bags. It was February and there was a blizzard. The cops came down to break up the line… The kids didn’t want to get off the line, and they were literally saying, ‘Fine, issue me a summons, arrest me, but just let me get the shoe first.’ After that, things got really crazy.”
The riot is a landmark moment, and was the tipping point when a pair of kicks became more than just a fashion item, transcending to objects of intense hype and obsession, sometimes to the point of serious danger. According to Mr Staple, as well as attracting attention from the police, the riots outside his New York store also drew a few unsavoury characters: “It was obvious they were waiting for the kids to get the shoes and then they were going to get the shoe from the kid one way or another. These guys had baseball bats tucked under their snorkel jackets. We found a machete on the sidewalk… We had to get the kids into the store through the front door and funnel them into cabs that we had waiting out the back.” The story made national news, and covered the front page of the New York Post.
Footwear Designer Mr Salehe Bembury for Pyer Moss, Spring 2017. Photograph by Mr Tom Vogel
As well as exhilarating anecdotes, the book also features interviews with fashion heavyweights such as Mr Alexander Wang and Off-White designer Mr Virgil Abloh, and sports stars like Mr Kobe Bryant and Ms Serena Willams. Some of our favourite interviews highlight the surprising pathways that have led to some of the greatest innovations in footwear. Ms Tiffany Beers, for example, is a designer responsible for the self-lacing Back To The Future Nike Air Mags, and began her career as a lab technician at a plastics company, working on Sharpie pens and Pringles potato chip lids. Mr Bruce Kilgore designed washers and dryers for Whirlpool and Sears in the 1980s before moving onto sneakers. “It’s funny what you learn from places like that… I got a lot out of just seeing people interact with the product,” he says. Mr Kilgore later went on create the feted Air Force 1.
The book also shines a light on some of the contemporary names in the sneakersphere; namely, Messrs Flavio Girolami and Peter Poopat, the gentlemen behind Common Projects. Explaining the way their minimal ethos has caught on with the sneakerhead community, they say: “We never want to be that pushy brand that’s always in your face, you know? We prefer that someone discovers it… The more people who discover it on their own, the more they fall in love with it.”
For all the voguish hype that surrounds the products themselves, and the fans they have amassed, a sneaker’s appeal is about more than just the shoe. Nike designer Mr Aaron Cooper puts it best: “The products I want to be part of are the ones that are bigger than the shoe, because I want to be part of something that’s bigger than myself… A shoe by itself doesn’t mean jack. It’s the stories that matter.”