The Rise of the Sneakerheads

As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s almost commonplace now. Throngs of people, lines stretching city blocks, fellas camping out for days, police crowd control, and near riot scenarios. Now we’re not talking food rations, celebrity sightings, or even Star Wars movie premiers (though that’s pretty close), all of this is business as usual when the hottest sneaker drop hits the streets. Yup, we’re living in peak sneaker times. From the city playgrounds in the early 80’s to the runways of high fashion, the sneaker has transcended function, sports and style, into pop culture itself. But how’d we get here?

“Please allow me to re-introduce myself”
Before Foamposites and Huaraches, and well before the high-end soles from Gucci, YSL, and Bally, and the Yeezy frenzy, it was 1917 and the very official-sounding the U.S Rubber Company released the first canvas-top shoes we all know as “Keds”. These became the first sneakers and the world hasn’t been the same since. The true watershed moment though, wasn’t until 1923 when shortly after Converse released the now-legendary “All-Stars” and OG sneakerhead, Chuck Taylor, endorsed them. WIth that, the cult of the sneakerhead was truly alive and kicking. Sneakers went global in 1924 when German-born Adi Dassler and his brother founded both Adidas and Puma, respectively.

“Can I kick it?”
Fast forward to the mid 80’s. Hip hop was steadily gaining in popularity, sports were beginning to become culture, and Nike was steadily building the athletic sneaker empire most of us know today. But it was on September 15, 1984 when Nike dropped a sneaker bomb on the world that a whole new universe opened up. That bomb was the now iconic Jordan I. Arguably the most influential sneaker line in history, “Jordans” became a culture in and of themselves. It wasn’t just the Jordans though, iconic silhouette after iconic silhouette was created and released in the 80’s. Air Max 1’s, Air Force 1’s, Adidas Shelltoes, it goes on and on. Much like the rising of hip-hop culture in the early 1980s, the increase in popularity of sneakers is attributed to their early adoption in many of the urban and inner-city centers of the country, both for form and function.

Nike, along with Adidas, Puma, Reebok, and others, created a wave that hit many suburban areas to a point where the trend then went mainstream. Suddenly, it wasn’t just street kids and basketball hopefuls rocking the latest Jordans or Shelltoes, but suburban kids, soccer dads, school teachers and even your parents could be seen sporting a sick pair of Stan Smiths, Purcell's, or Air Max 90’s. In addition to an unprecedented era of design creativity, this golden area of sneakers, (and many would argue, hip hop) roughly 1984 - 1998, redefined how the world viewed shoes and set the stage for the sneakerhead’s ascendency into the mainstream. Run D.M.C even made history by signing the first non-athlete sneaker endorsement when they inked a million dollar deal with Adidas. While the world of sneakers was popping off, it was, for the most part, largely ignored by the “fashion world”. Some people, though, were starting to take notice.

“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”
In the late 1990s, and into the early 2000s, large and small fashion houses primarily fumbled their way into the then nascent “streetwear” category with mixed results. Much of the blame was placed on the disconnection between mainstream designers and the subcultures they were trying to emulate. It wasn’t until hallowed streetwear brands like Fubu, RocaWear, Sean John and more came onto the scene and changed the way people looked at and engaged with streetwear. Younger designers had the ability to connect not only with their target audience, but also at a deeper level with the neighborhoods and cultures where their audiences were born and came of age. Young sneakerheads that had come up through the ranks and wanted to design clothes and create brands that emulated the styles and culture they loved. Nikes, Reeboks, Timberlands, and Adidas became not just everyday wear but the cornerstone of what people were building their style around. Further sneaker subcultures began to gain popularity as well. Skater kids had their own swag, surf culture gained ground, and Nike’s influence on the sneaker world kept getting stronger and stronger. What had started as subculture was now widespread.

Eventually these brands gave rise to massively successful cult streetwear brands, like Supreme, that kicked off the eventual crossover between “streetwear” and “fashion”. Suddenly the streets were the hottest place for style inspiration and rather than style trickling down from the hallowed runways of NYC and Europe, the flow was reversed. Inspiration began to trickle upwards from the subcultures of the streets, music, art, and more. It was this key that enabled mainstream fashion brands to begin to draw inspiration from contemporary street style to create the bones of many of the “casual luxe” or “athleisure” looks you see nearly everywhere today.

“Snap your Nikons with the icons with Nikes on" 
By 2005, the popularity of sneakers had reached an all-time high. With this this came the birth of a wave of passionate diehards doing everything in their power to collect as many brands and pairs possible. Some even highlight a specific date, February 22, 2005, as the tipping point when the near riots in NYC over the extremely limited release of the now legendary Nike “Pigeon” Dunk SB made national headlines. Collectors, obsessives, fanatics….Sneakerheads were official. Skate shoes, like NIke SB, Vans and more also saw a resurgence during this time, as it reflected the lifestyle of the streetwear aficionados and neighborhood kids during this time. Hell, even if you didn’t skate hardcore, you still made sure you dressed like you did. There’s a reason the SB line of Nikes carries a massive number of diehard collectors just as the runner sect or Jordan sect does. Every nike or jordan drop is met with fanaticism and re-releases of iconic silhouettes from the 80’s and 90’s are met with fuccboi frenzy, entire re-seller economies have arisen on the web as sneakerheads turned their obsession into commerce, and “Yeezy” becomes a mainstream term.

Designers, celebrities and street artists all wanted a piece of the pie at this point, and this is when you saw an increase in collaborations between them and notable shoe companies. Whether it was M.I.A for Versace, Palace for Reebok, or pretty much everyone for Converse, exclusive collaborations fueled the obsession for the rarest, most hard-to-find sneaks. These collabs then begot the beginnings of the push into high-fashion territory. By combining both the limited-availability ethos of the sneakerhead culture as well as high price tags and envious labels, sneakers were on the cusp of “fashionable” territory.

“Rock Margielas with no laces”
As early as 2008-2009, fashion houses and designers alike started to bring the sneaker into their fold both in collections and runways. Fashion mavericks, like John Varvatos and Riccardo Tisci, have long incorporated classics (e.g. Air Force Ones and Chuck Taylor All-Stars) into their designs, and vice versa. Striking a balance between high fashion and simple functionality, high-end labels, such as Lanvin, Raf Simons, Balenciaga and others have also raised the bar as to what a sneaker can be, combining rare leathers and metals to create walking works of art that could easily set a person back a couple hundred (or thousand) dollars.

Here we sit in 2016, a few months past the season’s fashion weeks and more sneakers graced collections and runways than ever before. Clean, simple and minimal are the current vibes happening. From high-end brands like Common Projects and Bally, to affordable e-commerce brands, the minimal sneaker is on fire. Furthermore, the embodiment of the “sneaker style” will continue to serve as an influence for newer, upcoming designers who’ve hinged their aesthetic on the comfort and casualness of the streetwear and, more specifically, sneakers themselves. Some of the hottest, most forward-thinking brands blowing up the web and the streets are combining some of the most traditionally “casual” styles (sweats, sneakers, t-shirts, sweatshirts) and re-imagining them in unique and high-fashion ways. Guys like Public School, En Noir, John Elliott, and more are turning what originally started with sneaker-obsession into full scale collections. It’s not so crazy to think about thanking sneakerheads and sneaker obsession for those high-end joggers and cozy boy swag you’ve got going on right now.

“Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman, them boys up to something”
But where to now? Good question. The strength of subcultures and trends flowing up into the fashion world is going to continue to push the industry. This will allow for more access to signature sneaker styles, from both high-fashion designers and mid-level companies, creating more opportunities for even the less fashionably inclined among us to have the ability to put their best foot forward. If we haven’t reached mainstream sneaker-peak now, can you imagine where we’ll be soon? It’s going to be exciting (and comfortable as hell).

The sneaker has had a miraculous journey, but what remains constant is the idea that a shoe with such humble beginnings has had the power to affect entire cultures with just a few, well-placed tweaks. If anything, that alone is evidence of a true statement item which will have a staying power that will outlast even the most popular article of clothing.