Sneaker culture not just for the rich

An OCC student stands on his skateboard wearing Nike’s Air Jordan Legacy 312s.

What started as a pragmatic and essential invention for athletes has grown into an important part of culture as both status symbols and a fundamental aspect of style.

“Sneakerhead” is the delightfully amusing term for those who buy, trade, collect and/or simply like sneakers.  Hip-hop, basketball, skateboarding, street style and their associated icons gave rise to the popularization and expansion of sneaker appreciation.  Beyond its simple nature as a shoe, a fresh sneaker is a bond to history and the people who wear them.

“It’s kids emulating their heroes by trying to wear what they do,” says sneaker designer Dave Ortiz in the 2015 documentary “Sneakerheadz.”

Today’s sneakerheads include a range of people across various lifestyles and like every aspect of culture, there’s a dichotomy between the old and new generations that both bond and divide the community.

There are the old school traditionalists, their roots planted in New York’s hip-hop scene, who adhere to high standards of preservation and the art of presentation.  They bump Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” while sporting track suits, Nixon watches, backwards caps and, of course, crispy unlaced Superstars to complete the look.  

The sneakerhead who follows the culture’s original values would never be caught dead in dirtied, scuffed, creased or yellowed shoes, according to Ariana Peters, who owns more than 6,000 pairs of sneakers.

There are the Michael Jordan idolizers who grew up playing basketball and praying for Air Jordans every Christmas; the skateboarding crowd likes Vans and their waffle-grid, rubber-grip soles preferred in the sport; big city kids, whose trendy streetwear caught on and propelled to high fashion status, rock the loudest and wildest styles.

Brands like Converse, Adidas, Reebok and Puma were common among athletes in the 1970s, but it was Nike’s 1984 release of the first Air Jordans that skyrocketed sneaker popularity in the general public. With such a big name behind such a cool pair of shoes, the sneaker game changed.

Celebrity collaborations and limited production of certain colorways (a model’s available color combos) yielded tons of demand to own these exclusive items. Short-supply sneakers drive up value and sales.

There’s also a new generation, mostly composed of rich suburban kids, who buy in bulk and resell for hundreds or thousands over a pair’s original retail price. Benjamin Kickz, a 20-year-old reseller is known to have high-paying celebrities who purchase rare shoes from him, most notably self-proclaimed sneakerhead DJ Khaled.

“There’s a lot of money in it these days,” said one Orange Coast College student who asked to remain anonymous.

No joke. They just don’t want anyone in their business and value financial privacy.  

“I’m supporting myself through school right now and help my family out a lot.  Mostly through flipping shoes.”

They work a minimum-wage, part time job that affords enough to buy sneakers cheaply on auction websites or discounted at outlet stores.  

Then, depending on the shoe, they’ll keep it for some time for personal wear (always well-kept with the intention to sell later) or upload immediately to make a profit.

It’s this consumeristic behavior that ultimately divides the culture, with some maintaining an appreciation for the hunt.

Sneaker copping used to be an art form; diehards would meticulously search, travel to different cities and sleep outside for days in line for a chance to get a pair of the freshest and hardest-to-find releases.  

Some uphold the physical effort element with the most regard but really, technology aids in extending the very critical pillar in sneakerhead culture of trade.

Swapping shoes is one way to see into another’s world. Brand, style, colorway, wear and upkeep say a lot about a person.  

A sneaker is history, design, nostalgia and connection packaged in a cardboard box with your size on a label stuck to the front.

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