Shoes have always been bigger than their intended purpose (I wear a size 15, so in my case this rings true in more ways than one). At its most trivial level, shoes are a status symbol, letting the wearer and everyone else know where that person ranks on their social ladder. At its most important level, shoes have been the difference between life and death (To drive that point home, come to Michigan in the middle of February and try to go outside to get your mail barefoot. Now imagine having to survive an entire winter outdoors without shoes). Somewhere in the middle, between trivial and important, is where shoes have their most meaning to sneakerheads. But that meaning is completely independent and differs from person to person, depending on who you ask and what that person’s point of view is. I could try to summarize the many different points of views that people have of sneakers, but that would be too impersonal. So, instead, I’ll give you mine—my “sole” perspective. (See what I did there? I incorporated the title seamlessly into my opening paragraph as if to tie both title and premise together in a nice, neat little bow. It’s similar to when a character in a movie says the actual title of said movie in a sentence. Nice, neat little bow).
Growing up as a kid in inner-city Detroit, with no mother, no father, born into a family so full of dysfunction that it would make Charles Manson proud, surrounded by crime, drugs, and covert racism from the neighboring suburbs, I looked for a distraction. I needed something comfortable and safe that my mind could escape to. Music helped but I needed something a bit more tangible. It’s funny the lengths people go to distract themselves from life. Most people eat to hide their pain. Some people do drugs. Others pick up hobbies. Then there’s some who submerge themselves so deep into their work that they become too distracted to feel anything. My refuge was sneakers. It was the comfort food that I could wear on my feet. The insides of a sneaker box became my mental “fortress of solitude.”
For me, it started like it did for most other sneakerheads around my age; Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Nike actually had me believing that I could fly, drop 30 points a night, and receive the superficial adoration of an entire city all while wearing their shoes. (See, that’s the luxury of being a kid; the ability to naively fall for bullshit and look simply adorable in the process). Collecting sneakers, keeping track of their concepts and stories, and wearing them as some form of status symbol all began in the urban communities—which makes sense. Where else could you find a demographic of kids living in less-than-ideal circumstances looking for a way out or some form of distraction from reality? Michael, Bo, and Ken gave us the visual scripts in their athletic feats with which to fantasize. Wearing their shoes made those fantasies a bit more tangible. WE started the culture and WE sustained it. WE’VE made it into what it is today. That fact, in itself, is both great and unfortunate. It’s great that we continue to create these sub-cultures that grow and go on to influence the world. But it’s unfortunate that we do so sometimes at the detriment of our own financial health and, in some cases, our own physical well being. But at the heart of it all are the combined passions of each sneakerhead for a shoe. Seeing the beauty of the sneaker hidden in the flaws of marketing and hype. Looking past the flaws of violence and appropriation to find something beautiful in its culture.
In the last decade, sneakers have become my time capsule of sorts. I can look at a sneaker that I have and remember the time and era surrounding that shoe. It’s called nostalgia (thanks Microsoft thesaurus). And just like your father can go into the garage, pull the tarp off of the vintage muscle car he’s had since high school, and remembers the first date he and your mother went on, I get that same feeling when I walk into my shoe closet. They’re my synthetic leather time machines. Each shoe is its own ’85 DeLorean, but instead of a flux capacitor there’s a Nike Air zoom unit sending me back to the past. I can look at a specific sneaker and remember moments of my own life as well as moments in that particular player’s career. The “White/Cement” Air Jordan 3: Michael Jordan does that gravity defying dunk from the free throw line. The Nike Zoom ’96 Flight: my first pair of name brand sneakers that my uncle gave me because I came in first place in every race at a track meet back in grade school. The “Bred” Air Jordan 12: that was my first pair of Air Jordans. The “Last Shot” Air Jordan 14: Michael Jordan hitting that game winning shot against the Utah Jazz to win his 6th Championship with the Chicago Bulls. You see, each shoe is a moment in time. And as I’ve grown and evolved, so has the sneaker’s meaning to me.
Now I could bore you with a bunch of analytics and data highlighting the consistent growth, the 30 year upward trend, the positive economic impact sneakers have had over the last 3 decades. But instead of putting you to sleep with that paragraph of information, I can just as easily sum up that point in 4 words: Forbes is covering sneakers. When the biggest financial magazine in the world takes time out of its day to cover sneakerheads and their spending habits, that tells you everything you need to know about the size of its impact. It’s similar to a car; I could bore you to death about the engine specs and horsepower, but if you really want to get a picture of a car’s speed and power, just take a look at the brake pads. That’ll tell you everything you need to know. Better yet, look around you…….YOU’RE AT A SNEAKER EXHIBIT INSIDE OF A MUSEUM (Or at the very least, you’re reading about a sneaker exhibit inside of a museum). You’re looking at a collection of Air Jordans down the hall from a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. You’re either at a museum or you’re standing in Spike Lee’s living room. (The way to know the difference between the two is the level of regret you immediately feel over paying to enter one of those two places. As least at a museum you have the choice as to whether or not you HAVE to hear a lecture).
Sneakers have been a part of who I am for the better part of my life. In the same way I watch my daughter grow up before my eyes, I feel that same enjoyment watching the culture grow over the years. I remember the baby steps. I remember the defining moments. I remember the times I was disappointed and let down, but more often than not, I remember the times I was proud of my culture. And as I watch how the culture has grown, where it is and where it’s going, I can’t help but continue to feel that same sense of pride. In some small way I played a role (I did get asked to write this, so . . . ). The only fear that I have is that as the sneaker culture continues to grow, it never loses its sense of self and history. That that passion which cultivated it never dissipates. That no matter how much the price of the sneaker itself rises and falls, the soul of the culture tries to remain priceless. From my “sole” perspective, sneakers for me have gone from therapeutic catalysts to fashionable time capsules. I can’t wait to see how my relationship with sneakers evolves as I get older and what it ends up meaning to my kids. Flaws and all, it still remains beautiful to me.
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