In part 1 of my interview with Woody, Sneaker Freaker’s founder provided a behind-the-scenes look into the magazine’s history. In part 2, we talk more about Sneaker Freaker’s foreign markets, as Woody explains the distinctive character of sneaker culture in Germany and Australia.
KP: Speaking of Sneaker Freaker’s demographics, I was curious about the magazine’s foreign markets for Sneaker Freaker. I know the magazine has had editions in Russia, Spain, and Germany, and I know that you were thinking about branching into Italy and France.
Actually, we’ve changed our strategy a little there—our German edition is very strong, but the economies in Russia and Spain were very, very difficult, so we’ve since closed those operations down. It was just becoming almost impossible to trade. Personally, seeing the magazine translated into a foreign language is probably one of the great highlights of my time doing this—Sneaker Freaker is the only Australian magazine that’s ever been translated into a foreign language. So we have a pretty unique place in the history of magazine publishing in Australia. We’re still doing a globally significant and influential publication from what’s really the ass end of the world. If you want to run a global business, Australia’s not the best base. If I turn up to an event in New York, everyone asks me, “How long did it take you to get here?” Oh, I don’t know, about twenty-eight hours? You can’t believe how far away we are!
Cover for Sneaker Freaker #33, 2015
KP: Why do you think that Germany in particular has picked up on sneaker culture in such a strong way?
Germany is probably the coolest place in the world right now, and it’s really because Tokyo’s slipped a little bit. Tokyo’s been thwarted by stylists and overrun by people poaching all their cool ideas and running with them. I think in Germany you see a lot more individuality, certainly in Berlin. Berlin is an amazing city for graffiti, for young people. It was a very cheap place to live, and the people who went there were very creative, whether that meant creating a store, doing art, or whatever it was.
There are a lot of really amazingly prolific creative sorts living in Berlin. Also, people there have really interesting backgrounds, because if they grew up on the east side of the city, or on the west, they have different points of nostalgia. For example, someone from the east might have grown up looking at kids on the other side of the wall wearing Nikes and playing with Walkmen, whereas for kids on the west side, often their exposure to American culture was through the soldiers that were stationed there, playing basketball and bringing American candy and that kind of thing.
But now some of the best stores in the world, like OVERKILL, are there—OVERKILL even has a girls-only store. They have probably one of the best, most developed sneaker scenes for girls over there, and that’s something I respect. Lots of young dudes over there wear shoes that look really stylish. Unlike the American market, which is so heavily influenced by basketball that anything else is niche within the sneaker game, I think in Europe and in Australia they are just far enough outside that American fascination with basketball.
The Sneaker Freaker x PUMA R698 “Geography Teacher” was released in 2010, along with a matching PUMA bicycle
KP: I should let you speak a little more to sneaker culture in Australia, since you have a first-hand perspective. Are there any particular brands or styles that sneakerheads in Australia like, or are there Australian brands that you can talk about?
There’s only really one Australian sneaker brand, and that’s a company called Volley, which has changed hands a couple of times recently. When I was a kid, they had a shoe that was a very simple tennis shoe with a pretty unique look and a very flat sole. If you look at tennis shoes, out of all the major sports shoes, tennis shoes have probably evolved the least. They’re actually pretty ugly these days. Roger Federer’s shoe, which Rafael Nadal is wearing at the moment, that’s actually quite a stylish looking shoe, but tennis shoes are just not happening at the moment.
The Volley, now that’s a classic shoe, and it’s probably cost about fifteen bucks forever. People like it for sailing because it has a really simple, flat sole with a great herringbone tread, and tradesmen love it because if you’re on a roof, it’s very nimble, and your feet can grip. We did some work with Volley a couple years ago, celebrating an anniversary, and I did a lot of radio interviews with talkback; it’s amazing to hear the stories from people who called in. I actually was best man at a wedding and wore them. The Volley is really ingrained into local culture.
KP: Are they based in Melbourne or are they elsewhere in Australia?
They’re based in Melbourne. But Volley isn’t really run like a brand—it’s the sort of shoe you could get in any Walmart-type store, just a shoe. It wasn’t marketed for sporting, even though people who play squash and tennis wore it. It’s a cult phenomenon, but it’s not talked about in the same way as Air Max or anything like that. It’s a totally different, specific cultural thing here.
It’s the quintessential Australian shoe—in fact, it’s one of the only ones really. But in terms of contemporary sneaker culture, you see here what you see pretty much everywhere else, which is the obsession among big companies to be global with their releases and their distribution. When you went to New York or Tokyo ten or fifteen years ago, you would walk into a store and see totally different products than you’d see elsewhere. Unfortunately, those days are gone, and you can now get pretty much the same things here that you can find in America. We don’t get all the colors—it’s a very small market of 23 million people, so we don’t get all eleven colors of LeBron’s new shoe—but in general, the market here is pretty mature. Kids really understand product, and the retailers here are pretty much on point.
Sneaker Freaker #34, 2015
However, there are a couple of unique things here. For instance, one of the biggest shoes of the moment, and for the last couple of years, is the Air Max TN. It’s reach extends from really young kids who are just starting high school up to bad boys who do graffiti and lads, I guess we’d call them. Air Max TNs are probably the quintessential Australian shoe, and that’s purely because Foot Locker in this country has been able to order whatever colors they want for a long, long time. Even when the TN wasn’t happening in America and everywhere else, Foot Locker in Australia just kept pumping out these colors. It’s got a particular cultural identity here that says that you’re an outsider, you’re a bit naughty, and there’s something to be celebrated about that. We did a lot of work hyping those shoes, and I feel like we played a pretty big role in how celebrated that shoe became. And what’s funny also is that one of my staff members just got a bong made out of a ceramic TN! So that shoe has become a cult item—it’s not just a shoe and what it does, it’s what the people make out of it, as with all great shoes.
MH: With the Rise of Sneaker Culture exhibition opening in Perth, is there anything unique you can share about Perth’s sneaker culture?
Yeah, Perth is the most isolated city in the world geographically. I always say that we’re in the ass end of the world, but Perth is the pimple on the ass end of the world [laughs]. It’s about 4,000 kilometers from Melbourne, and from there is nothing but water until South Africa. It’s got an amazingly isolated mentality about it. At various times, they’ve even threatened to secede from Australia and go their own way, because they’re very asset-rich, and until recently there was a huge mining boom. Perth real estate is some of the most expensive in the world—at one point it probably cost more to have an office there than it did in New York. Because of this mining money, the city has this amazing sense of luxury. It’s a city of a million people, but it’s got so much. It’s beautiful as well—there are so many different options with the coast, and there’s so much space.
In terms of sneakers, there’s a great store in Perth called Highs and Lows, which is one of the best sneaker boutiques in the world. They’ve created many great collaborations, and I respect them doing what they do from the city that they’re in. There’s also a great streetwear brand called StreetX that we just did some work with, which is purely a Perth phenomenon. Anytime you get an isolated city, you get all these little things happening that no one finds out about unless you live there, and I would say it’s pretty consistent in general with what’s happening in Australia. But it’s the people that make the difference. There are some really creative, entrepreneurial people in Perth that are able to create a business out of what’s a very tiny city.
Snapshots from the Sneaker Freaker offices