In 2013, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto launched what would soon become a travelling exhibition on the "history of sneaker culture": 'Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture'. The exhibition, featuring over 120 shoes, tapped into what makes sneakers such an important part of pop culture, and eventually in the world of luxury.
Indeed millennials and Gen Z who may not have even seen basketball icon Michael Jordan play during his career, are copping (sneakerhead slang meaning buying the latest sneakers) the newest Air Jordans. These limited edition shoes are released in such small numbers that most get sold out within 30 seconds of their online drop (or sneaker release). And those who fail to get these limited release shoes are willing to pay three to ten times their sale price to land their coveted pair of Air Jordans or Yeezys.
On the day of a new release, the early queues outside sneaker stores worldwide are indicators of the passion for owning the newest sneaker. But the world of sneakers is changing and new releases are now available online, on websites such as Nike, Adidas, and exclusive sneaker retailers like VegNonVeg and Superkicks.
In India, too, sneakerheads have finally upped their game. The country is emerging as a significant market for two of the biggest players in the sneaker industry – Nike and Adidas. Adidas India has experienced a huge surge in sales over the past three years, driven primarily by its Yeezy sneaker craze.
Increasingly, sneakers are seen as a luxury. Consider this list of the most expensive sneakers, which many a connoisseur desires:
Jordan 1 Retro High Dior: Cost: $8,500. It is the first collaboration between two mighty and iconic brands – one representing street and sportswear while the other representing high street and couture.
Jordan 1 OG Chicago (1985): Cost: $20,000. The very first Air Jordan in its original colorway. Perhaps the GOAT (greatest of all time) of sneakers, the one that changed sneaker culture forever.
Nike Dunk SB Low Staple NYC Pigeon: Cost: $40,000. Pigeons are considered synonymous with New York, and this version of Nike Dunk was a blockbuster release. There were riots amongst sneakerheads and New York City police had to be called in to keep things in order and make sure those who purchased could get home safely.
Nike Dunk SB Low Heineken. Cost: $4,000. These sneakers were inspired by the ubiquitous beer brand Heineken. The colorway features the Heineken green and white colours.
Nike Air Force 1 '07 Virgil x MoMA: Cost: $8,000. Museum of Modern art had pulled off this collaboration between Nike and Virgil Abloh to mark the opening of its exhibition, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”
Back in time
Collecting sneakers is a passion we can date back to the 1970s, as part of the b-boy and hip-hop movement in New York City. Unique clothing was a hallmark of the hip-hop culture and it was easy to customise sneakers simply by use of different laces or a coloured marker.
The sneaker craze hit mainstream USA when Air Jordans were introduced by Nike in 1985. They became a hugely sought after status-symbol and Nike continued to produce a new style of Jordan every year.
It was also in 1985 that sneakers and hip-hop went mainstream; this was the time when RUN DMC released My Adidas, creating one of the very first sneaker sponsorship deals between a hip-hop group and a sneaker brand.
Then, in 2002, Nelly created probably the biggest sneaker anthem of all time, 'Air force Ones'. For most sneakerheads, the Nike freestyle commercial is one of their favourite advertisements. Nike brought in almost every athlete on their roster; the result was one of the most creative hip-hop and sneakers combinations ever.
Circa, July 2020, Westcoast Joe, as he is known, picked up 600 pairs of Yeezy Boost 350 Zyon sneakers. For resale! He and other young sellers are the first generation to treat sneakers as an asset.
The evolving sneaker culture
Sneaker culture has changed: there are now sneakerheads, hypebeasts (Urban dictionary: a kid that collects clothing, shoes, and accessories for the sole purpose of impressing others), and also entrepreneurs (who are a blend of both). Some of these kids are only buying the latest sneakers for their resale value. Hypebeasts are selling out of limited editions within seconds, which are then resold at twice or thrice the original price.
However, this is not what the sneaker culture is all about. It is about connecting to like-minded people, the love of the story or history of the shoe, and the passion for the actual shoe itself.
For a true sneakerhead, it is the history of the Air Jordan 1 that matters. They revel in stories. Like the story of how the sneaker with the black and red colorway, worn by Michael Jordan 31 years ago on the court, was banned because they broke the "uniformity of uniform" rule. This ban offered Nike's marketing team, an opportunity to push the shoe as an act of rebellion, causing sales to go through the roof. And like the fact that a pair of pre-worn Apple sneakers dating back to the 1990s sold at an auction as a piece of 'urban art' for about $10,000!
Stories like these add to the value of the product. Underpinning all these tales is scarcity. Luxury sneakers can appreciate a great deal, but they must be truly limited.
On the sustainability paradigm
As the conversation around responsible fashion moves from a sub-culture to a powerful movement, all major sneaker brands have been tasked with finding alternate options. Of these, Adidas is the most vocal about its sustainability efforts, collaborating with Parley for Oceans (a material created from upcycled plastic waste that was intercepted from beaches and coastal communities before reaching the ocean) to reuse ocean plastic.
In 2018, Nike was recognised as using the most recycled polyester in the industry, and from 2010-18, it has recycled 6.4 billion plastic bottles into recycled footwear or apparel. Reebok's Floatride energy GROW guarantees almost 50% of its material is plant-based. On April 2021, the brand released a new version of the shoe in time for Earth Day.
Allbirds, a name that references New Zealand as a land of 'all birds ', is a hugely popular New Zealand-American start-up that focuses on sustainable footwear. For their shoes, the brand use merino wool or eucalyptus leaves for the uppers and sugarcane for the sole foam. Allbirds sneakers are extremely popular in Silicon Valley and the company had hit valuations of US $1.7 billion in January 2020.
Then there is Nothing New which has sustainability at its very core. Globally, brands such as Noah (Germany), Veja (Brazil), SoleRebels (Ethiopia), Nae (Portugal) and several others are setting new standards and helping consumers align their values with consumption patterns.
Sneakers as investment
The pricing forces in the sneaker market aren’t very different from the market for art. Works of a famous artist who has died attract huge premiums in the resale market. Something similar is being experienced in the sneaker market. And like most rare pieces of art, rare sneakers are being auctioned at Sotheby’s. For the auction house, it has become a significant business over the past few years.
While the sneaker craze is being driven hugely by global sporting icons, another big contributor is the rap culture (Eminem and Mark Wahlberg are marquee investors in StockX), movie stars and social media influencers. The fact that the resale market offers significant returns is also contributing to this global and local sneaker boom (a sneakerhead in China had made 6600% returns on flipping his Air Jordans in 2019).
Retro versions of Air Jordans (Michael Jordan had retired two decades ago) and Kobes (Kobe Bryant, unfortunately, died in January 2020) are the ones that attract a maximum premium in the resale market, while the player who has dominated NBA for the last decade, LeBron James’ lines can almost always be bought at retail prices and doesn't offer much return on investment, at least for now.The subtle thread connecting all sneaker lovers is the question: What is your sneaker story? It is about individual anecdotes and nostalgic stories, the moment when you looked down and fell in love with a pair of sneakers.