Kickin’ Facts | The sad truth on why it’s easier than ever to buy your way into sneaker culture and become a “sneakerhead”
Sneaker culture started on the block. Once upon a time, it meant something to be a “sneakerhead.” But, with open access, it has never been easier to buy your way into the culture that originated from black people in the hood.
“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s new sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.
Sneaker culture started on the block, with its lineage riddled with distinct signifiers and rites of passage. The nuances and motivations that once characterized us as “members of sneaker culture” were driven by the people of the culture, and crafted through markers and defining moments of our lived-experience. Once upon a time, it meant something to be a “sneakerhead.” It was a passion point, a term of endearment, a sense of understanding, and belonging. But, with technology, open access, and a surging aftermarket, it has never been easier to buy your way into a culture.
Studies show that over the past few decades, sneakers have transformed from being a community signifier to being a crucial ingredient in defining your status. Instead of being linked with sports, hip hop music, and urban culture, in 2020, sneakers — surpassing luxury handbags — are the newest marker of wealth, status, and all things cool.
This is why the term “sneakerhead” has become challenging to identify with, primarily for those of us who have been celebrating sneakers since before Travis Scott x Virgil Abloh had collabs. We grieve the intimacy and safety we once felt amongst our own, as we watch the community we loved shift from a genuine fellowship to a commercialized, and often gentrified culture. The evolution of the sneaker industry shows no signs of slowing down, forecasted to reach $95 billion by 2025, with Millennials and Gen Z propelling the industry’s rapid growth.
The heightened visibility through placements and collaborations has further increased the reach of sneaker culture, creating new points of entry for a broad demographic of people who “want the shoes that Kylie had on Instagram” but don’t necessarily understand the subtleties and social norms of sneaker culture. What does all this mean? That in 2020, anyone with a credit card (and high enough limit) can hit the aftermarket right now and become an instant sneakerhead, hypebeast starter kit included.
Before transmutation, the sneaker community was comprised of an alliance of misfits who shared the same values, played by the same rules, and recognized the work and devotion that went into the unique hobby. Each of us was on a quest to find our personal Holy Grail, or Grails, and as a whole, the culture wrote the rules and directed the narratives, establishing traditions and moments that hold fast today. This includes signifying behaviors like sharing plugs, lining up and camping out (which evolved into more lines plus raffle crowds), and creating meaningful nicknames for significant drops.
“For me, it was about waiting patiently for the Eastbay catalog to come in so that I could circle absolutely every sneaker I wanted and leave it on my mom and dad’s dresser. Then I would bring my whole family out to the raffle hoping that one of them would get a winning number. It was about lining up at the Foot Locker at the Eastmont Mall in East Oakland, hoping to get the latest drops. Back then, lining up was the ‘sneaker way of life,’ and it created a family environment. You knew the people you stood in line with, and you became friends with the people who attended the same raffles as you. It was all love.”
– ReeCee, Adidas Basketball Sports Marketing
One of the most significant shifts we’ve seen began with the rise of e-commerce and digital, when access to localized, limited edition and hard to find releases became available with the click of a mouse. App-based drops took the place of campouts and raffle crowds, eliminating what was once the pulse of the community: connection.
We can still find connections in the new age of sneakers, through avenues like social media and conventions, i.e. SneakerCon and ComplexCon, but with sneakers now considered a signifier of status, it presses us to question the motivations of the new congregation. It isn’t necessary for today’s sneakerhead to educate themselves on the nuances and map their quest to the holy grail. With ample resources, they can buy everyone’s holy grails in one swoop from the comfort of their couch and be perceived as king.
It’s undeniable that sneaker culture’s origin story began in urban neighborhoods, with black faces like Michael Jordan, Kanye West, and Travis Scott continuing to lead the pack when examining the most hyped releases. But, who is the consumer that today’s sneaker brands and publications are targeting?
Is it the originators of the subculture in the urban communities that the sneaker industry was built upon? How can it be when we know presently that sneakers are regarded as a status symbol, adjacent to the themes of wealth and hierarchy? And when discussing wealth in America, the disparity in the black-white wealth gap has to be mentioned. Statistics show that the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a black family, formally prohibiting a large portion of those who created the culture from participating today. Today’s target consumer is not the kid in Oakland sharing their passion with their like-minded community. It’s the affluent and mostly white kids in Suburbia, who can afford the price to participate.
“Back in the day, your reach as a sneaker enthusiast wasn’t that far. Only a few celebrities were a part of the culture, so if you were popular because of sneakers, that meant you were ‘the man’ on your block, at your school, and your local neighborhood. There were outlets like ISS and NikeTalk for us to share your enthusiasm with other people around the world, but that was it. It felt like people were into sneakers for totally different reasons back then, and most of us came from humble beginnings. We spent entire nights on eBay, searching for deals and gems. We looked up to Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey and wanted their signature shoes. We wanted to be able to rock the same kicks as The Fresh Prince, Dwyane Wade, Wu-Tang, and Rakim, idols who came from the ‘hood, because it wasn’t for the ‘hood, there would be no hip-hop, no sports stars, and no urban fashion.’”
– AfroKix, Sneaker Collector & Influencer
I know things have to change and evolve, and I accept that. With time, stories morph, and new stories get told. I firmly believe there is a place for all of us in the New World, but what I won’t subscribe to is being dismissed and eradicated from a culture that my culture helped establish.
Authentic storytelling has always been a cornerstone of sneaker culture, and it seems to be another thing lost in the change. The most recent example of this can be seen with the release of the Nike x Travis Scott Air Max 270 “Cactus Trails,” the latest hype drop from the recording artist. As part of the marketing push, Nike created a retro website optimized for Netscape Navigator 4.x and Internet Explorer 4.x telling the story of the shoe. These images have been replicated in some form for social use and third-party retail accounts featuring wrestler Mick Foley as Cactus Jack and satirical YouTuber Brad Hall. I went through the entire website and most of the ads online and though black people inherently have a unique relationship with wrestling and I see the nod, black people were unquestionably forgotten in this messaging.
Furthermore, in selecting talent to amplify the release, Nike and Travis chose Brad Hall, who some would say is a manifestation of the new face of sneakers: suburban, white and wealthy. Assuming the storytelling doesn’t bother you, and you still want to purchase, the asking price on StockX today is approaching $1000. This is the cost of membership in today’s sneaker culture. This is the price of status.
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