The streets of Harlem in the final years of the 70s had a desolate and resigned air to it. Massive amounts of people took what they called an ‘exodus’ out of that part of New York, in search of a place that would afford them a better shot at the American dream. Only those who didn’t have the means to take off stayed. Harlem, as it is known today, took its form out of those that remained.
It was basketball, hip-hop, and rap music that became the staple in the streets. Personal style and street credibility became an outspoken law, a status-symbol. It’s no surprise then that the culture of the Sneakerhead came from these very streets. Nike Air Jordans worn by Michael Jordan created the promise of surmountable heights. Rap artists like Run DMC and 50-cent spoke about their three-striped Adidas and Reebok sneakers alongside conquering prison, their abusive households, as if their shoes became a hymn of deliverance.
But in today’s context, what does a pair of sneakers signify for an average teenager born out of the streets of Harlem, washed and unburdened of the weight of history, gripped by modern-day marketing and social media influence?
The sneakerhead psyche
Subcultures, characteristically, are non-exclusive. You can be a sneakerhead and recite a passage from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake with theatrical ease. You can be a Marvel geek, but against mainstream pop music. The notable disparity among these subcultures is that each serve a commitment to their own style and presentation.
We often see sneakerheads on Instagram, or all over school, in their distinct pairs of Nikes or Adidas sneakers. Somehow, they stand out of crowds, their certain, homologous get-up identifying them in a chaotic hallway amassed with other people.
For self-proclaimed sneakerheads, it is their attention to style and presentation that becomes the foundation of the subculture. Diego Caitindig (III, CIV) says after buying his first few pair of sneakers, “Only my fashion sense has changed in such a way that I have dressed to complement what [I wear] on my feet. Because for us [sneakerheads], it is disrespectful to the sneakers if you don’t wear something to complement it.” Some others go as far as changing their whole ensemble to fit their sneakers and their outfit. “Buying my first Nikes drastically changed my style. I started being very ‘90s’. I wore boyfriend jeans and ringer tees and leather backpacks to match my shoes,” Marga Ruelan (V, ADV) admits.
Most of the sneakers that they own hold personal significance or carry sentimental value. Nico Figueroa (III, PSY) shares, “They’re important to me because in the culture of sneakers, I was able to meet a lot of people who share the same hobby as mine.” Their enthusiasm for buying their own pairs can be comparable to those who await an author’s new book, or a singer’s new album. And yet, in this community, the concept of competition can be just as closely synonymous. There is hype, then a subsequent struggle to get the product—especially if it’s limited—and a kind of triumph once obtained.
For a few veterans who breathe and speak the language of sneakers, they consider this culture slowly being devoid of its essence. They may not have been born into a Harlem neighbourhood, nor have they rubbed elbows with Shaq, but theirs is an intimate community that used to be united in the name of finer footwear. While outsiders would raise their eyebrows at its seeming impracticality, these people would treat their shoes like their own child, without nary a glance at the adoption price tag. “They (sneakers) may be hype, rare, or a general release pair, it does not matter to me. As long as I like it, I will rock it,” pronounces Catindig.
As previously mentioned, one of its more known roots lie in basketball, owing a lot to the NBA and all it was, which soon the epitome of effortless marketing. Much like how little girls bought make-up and clothes to look like Hannah Montana, boys would buy sneakers to be like Mike. Or Kobe. Or Lebron. Enter the year ‘02 or ‘03, when the Jordan brand began releasing Jordans sneakers to the public in the original colorway he wore when he played. With a single pair of sneakers, the average joe could feel light years closer to his idol. And so the culture flourished into the mainstream—but did it cause a sell-out?
“I think it was the fault of whoever coined the word ‘sneakerhead’,” states Paulo Reyes, an avid collector and member of Team Streetwear PH. For him, ‘sneakerhead’ became a label, demoting it to a meaningless status symbol that people started to throw around. “I think the love for it comes with the search. [Personally], I would look high and low for a certain pair only to find it after two years. That’s what it used to feel like. It used to be almost a community badge. You walk around the mall in the slickest sneakers, then you see someone wearing the same pair. Bam, high five and dabs,” he shares. “Nowadays, it’s a competition. Everyone’s hostile in attempting to cop the newest and rarest styles before anyone else does. They’d buy to stunt, but know nothing about it.”
Indeed, people’s hunger to be first is evident when one attends sneaker conventions (yes, those exist), or during a brand new release, which certain people camp outside the store for. Some folks would even go as far as travelling abroad in sole pursuit of purchasing a certain pair, shy of a few weeks before it hits local shores. Log onto Facebook, and it won’t be hard to come across actual groups dedicated to sneakers. From buyers and sellers, to plain borrowers and traders, one thing is certain—the ebb and flow of supply and demand is real. Take the first Yeezy model, for example. Released under the Adidas label, Kanye West blessed sneakerheads with the highly-coveted Yeezy Boost. Contests were held. Public figures such as the Kardashians who sported it were made to look like gods. Stores sold out like groceries during a zombie apocalypse. If the net price was P20,000, online resell prices would shoot up to a whooping P50,000—more than twice the original amount. And still, people were hooked.
To each is his own
“Being a sneakerhead doesn’t mean you need to have a 20-pair collection or you need a legit pair of Jordans, Nikes or Yeezys…you just need the passion, the knowledge and [the] love for the sneaker culture,” Ryosuke Takahashi (II, ISE) explains. He refers to the fact that the subculture welcomes both the impassioned and the casual wearers. Those that can collect up to as many as 50 pairs, while others a meager two or three. Some willing to shell out more money than your average consumer, as well as those that are content in what they find in stores by their neighborhood. And yet, the basis for this craze remains simple: a love that grows and revitalizes with every pair they own and walk around in.