In 2002 Woody launched Sneaker Freaker, Australia’s first magazine devoted to sneaker culture. Since then, Sneaker Freaker has expanded far beyond its Melbourne roots, with distribution to over 50 countries around the world, and now boasts a strong online presence as well. In the first part of our interview, along with Michelle Hargrave (former Curator at the American Federation of Arts), we discussed how Sneaker Freaker came to be, how the magazine’s readership has changed over the years, and Woody’s thoughts on retros.
Kirstin Purtich: Did you have a connection to sneakers growing up, or is there a reason you were drawn to sneaker culture?
When I was a kid, at some point just before high school, I became aware of what shoes looked like and how they signified who you were through association with a brand or a particular model or style, or through the fact of you having something new that no one else had. Really, that’s the whole sneakers thing in a nutshell. But we didn’t have a hundred pairs of shoes back then, in that generation, and there have been some big changes. I’m consistently amazed at how far sneaker culture’s come.
Cover for Sneaker Freaker #24, 2012 (the magazine’s 10-year anniversary)
Back then, I was really influenced by tennis shoes. That generation also had some of the best tennis players in history. And they were associated with specific brands of footwear and apparel: John McEnroe wore Nike, Boris Becker was signed to PUMA. I didn’t even play tennis, but I was fascinated by the bad boys—Jimmy Connors, McEnroe, those guys. It wasn’t so much the sporting gear but more their attitude that I got into.
Until I started Sneaker Freaker in 2002, I didn’t engage with anybody else about my connection to sneakers. I would say it was a secret hobby, but it wasn’t a guilty pleasure or anything. I just liked shoes, so I would buy them—in the same way that some women buy handbags…
Michelle Hargrave: Or shoes!
I lived in London for about four years in the 1990s, where I worked in advertising. Pretty much every day, I would do a round trip of a store called Passengers, as well as frequent visits to JD Sports and others—there was a little patch of sneaker stores around there. Some were importing shoes from Japan.
At that time I was also a huge fan of The Face magazine. I had all The Face magazines from that period. I carted them around from share-house to share-house, and I thought about sending them home, but they weigh so much I never did, and in the end they just disappeared. I think they went in the bin, actually, which is tragic. If you look at them now, there was actually surprisingly quite a lot of sneaker content in that magazine.
The Face was what inspired me to move to London. It provided the best marketing for a city ever, and I still think it was the greatest magazine of all time. I love car magazines, I love Vanity Fair, and I love Wired too. But The Face had the best blend of fashion, arts, politics, everything—it was a really amazing magazine. I honestly still can’t believe that it’s gone bust.
MH: You’ve talked about the shoes you admired when you were younger—is there a shoe that’s your holy grail from your younger years, and have you been able to track that down and acquire it?
Oh yeah. If you go back to 2000, that was a pretty defining point, not just because it was the change of the millennium but also because you had new shoes coming out—like the Presto, for example, the most famous shoe from that time. At that point, the industry was not so interested in bringing out old shoes. That seems strange today, since I think everyone now expects that if they walk into a store, they can see everything from cutting-edge designs like the Ultraboost to a shoe that came out in the 1960s, like a pair of Superstars. But back in 2000, it wasn’t very common to see a shoe seemingly plucked out of nowhere come back. It might have been possible to find Air Force Ones—there were a few—but not some of the more obscure, really interesting shoes, unless they were vintage.
Sneaker Freaker #32, 2015
The big change is that, since then, there have been so many reissues: Nike Zoom Spiridons just came out last year—that was an amazing runner. My vintage pairs, sad to say, are falling apart. The little pods on the soles, the glue just kind of gives up—I’m walking down the street thinking they’re fine, and all of a sudden I turn around and there’s rubber flying off everywhere, and I’ve just blown them out.
So when the Trainer One came back, around 2005 or so, that was a really big moment for me—that was McEnroe’s shoe. Agassi’s shoe came back too. Sometimes you forget that a shoe has already been retroed, so the new shoe is a retro of the retro of the original. Throughout the life of the magazine [Sneaker Freaker]—and this amuses me—sometimes we’ll go through a vintage collector’s stock, or even my own collection, and then we’ll tell the brands, “You guys need to bring this shoe back.” Then, maybe four months later, or eighteen months later, the shoe will appear again. So convenient! Maybe I’m just talking myself up, but I’m convinced that someone’s reading the magazine and thinking, “We should do that again, that’d be really cool.” So I claim credit without really knowing whether I should or not.
KP: Do you think there’s a shoe that’s due for a retro right now?
One of my all-time favorite ASICS shoes, which I never had as a kid, the Gel-Lyte, was just brought back last year. There’s also the Ghostrider, which is really cool—I’m getting more into late-90s runners. There’s a twenty to twenty-five year cycle, which is actually pretty effective. A friend of mine was telling me, “Each year it’s like they’re just going back twenty years to bring it through.” That’s when things start to look fresh again, but if you go back fifteen years, things look kind of awkward and ugly.
The Air Max 97 is another one that’s coming back that’s been in the market for about 6 months. The kids are going crazy for it. With the really young generation, these kids don’t even remember the shoe from the first time around. They weren’t born when it first came out. I like seeing their enthusiasm for a great shoe that they never got to experience. That’s one of the best parts about bringing back a classic.
KP: Do you have a sense of how Sneaker Freaker’s readership has changed over the years? Has the age range remained as it always was, or has it broadened?
Not only have our readership’s demographics changed, we’ve also changed how we deliver our brand and the content that we create. When we started, there was no Facebook. In fact, we had to build our own blogging software, because WordPress didn’t exist yet. The original website was pretty primitive—if you search the internet you can probably still find it. It’s pretty funny to see. There wasn’t even broadband internet; we were operating using something a little bit better than dial-up at that time. So everything has changed.
But in terms of the magazine, in 2002 I was pretty much the target audience. It was for people around 30 years old, who finally had some money and wanted to buy all the shoes that their mum wouldn’t buy for them. It’s really interesting when you go off to meet, for example, Hikmet Sugoer, who started Solebox in Berlin, or Peter Jansson and Erik Fagerlind from Sneakersnstuff in Sweden—some of the guys who set up the most famous sneaker boutiques and stores now—we’re all so similar. We love weird American culture, we love Japanese toys, we just love the same stuff. I think there’s a sense of nostalgia, but we also had this idea of collecting, which has changed a lot as well. Kids today don’t really want to acquire loads of stuff—they want to travel light.
Covers for Sneaker Freaker #29, 2015
In the beginning, there were about thirty or forty guys in Tokyo or London who played a big role in making this culture the mainstream beast that it is now. At that point we were talking to ourselves, and then people slowly got drawn into it. It’s exploded in the last five or ten years, as technology’s made it so much quicker to share information. Now you have kids camping out for shoes, but back then, the releases used to be once a month or something like that. We’re seeing a hyper-acceleration of the industry, it almost can’t keep up with itself. Now there are maybe twenty new shoes coming out in a single week, and they’re all amazing, but you just can’t buy them all. We never had that.
We used to have this saying, “one to rock, one to stock”—basically, we would buy two pairs and put them on ice, because it might be another month before you saw another really great shoe. That meant that you could have one to wear right away, and in a year’s time or two years’ time, you could pull out a brand-new pair and astound everyone with your brand-new, cool pair of shoes. But now there are just so many releases that no one does that anymore.
Back to talking about demographics, our audience has gotten very young. We have events here called “swap meets”—Sneaker Freaker was the first anywhere in the world to do a swap meet for shoes. We did our first probably in early 2003, and again, the audience was pretty much the magazine audience, so it was pretty focused on a particular group of dudes. Now we get five or six thousand people coming. We get 12-year-old kids coming and buying shoes for a thousand dollars, which just blows my mind, as well as dudes who are 50 and will bring their children. It’s a pretty broad church now. Also, I love the fact that it used to be more of an underground thing. There’s a lot to be said for it being much more mainstream now, because there’s so much more that can be done.
Cover for Sneaker Freaker #33, 2015