How Big Money Changed Sneaker Culture | KALW

How Big Money Changed Sneaker Culture

Feb 24, 2020

The sneaker industry is expected to be valued at $95.15 billion dollars by 2025. It’s been decades since sneakerheads could claim to be members of a small subculture. San Francisco high schooler Bryan Ng looks into the resilience of sneaker culture. 

I remember watching every single NBA basketball game as a kid. What always caught my eye were the shoes. I loved the way the color of the shoes popped, and how the sneakers would squeak on the court. 

My favorite sneakers are Steph Curry’s Nike Zoom Hyperfuse 2012 Pes. Before games, Curry would write "I can do all things" on the side of the shoes with a sharpie.

I didn’t think much about the culture behind these sneakers. I just knew I wanted the shoes on my feet. Everyone I knew wanted them. 

“I Wanted To Look How Those People Dressed” 

Now that I am a teenager, many of my friends buy and sell shoes. My friend Jacen Canales has loved sneakers since middle school. 

“My sister used to get like old Jordans from my cousins. You'd see them on TV or social media,” Jacen told me. “I wanted to look like how those people dressed.” 

A few years ago, Jacen decided to turn his love for sneakers into a profit. He started selling shoes on apps like Instagram, Ebay, and a selling platform called Mercari. 

“It seemed like an easy way to make money,” he says, adding that customers kept offering him less cash than he wanted. “It was hard to get rid of them, and to get the amount that I wanted.”

Sneaker Con in San Jose
Credit Bryan Ng / KALW

The World Of Benjamin Kickz 

My friend Jacen is a small time sneaker dealer, but there are teenagers who make six-figures reselling Yeezys and Air Jordans. People like Benjamin Kickz even sell to celebrities. 

Jemayne King, an English professor at Johnson C. Smith University, has studied what sneaker culture was like before the internet. He even created a class that uses economic theory and hip hop to show how sneakers can be a cultural language. He’s also a big sneaker enthusiast. He remembers wearing a new pair of Reebok 4600s during trip to Washington D.C in the 4th grade. 

“They were black and gold, old gold as they say. And with those within the culture, it was a big deal,” King remembers. “But to every other kid, they didn’t even notice.” 

From Underground To Mainstream 

He says that sneaker culture began as a form of expression for African Americans in the 1970s. In 1985, a Nike advertisement featuring Michael Jordan changed sneaker culture forever. It featured sneakers that weren’t even allowed in basketball games. 

Nike paid the $5,000 dollar-per-game fine for him, and Jordan took the Bulls to the playoffs while wearing those shoes. 

In the 1986 song ‘My Adidas’, hip hop icons Run-DMC defended sneaker culture from people linking shoes to crime. 

Nike’s revenue soared from $270 million in 1980 to $2.23 billion by 1990. 

Jordan shoes worn by Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Denver.
Credit David Zalubowski / AP Photo

SnapChat Lessons On Wearing Shoes 

Sneakers are still big business with no sign of slowing down. Jemayne King, the sneaker expert, says corporate greed took the soul out of sneaker culture, and the internet has turned sneakers into a fad. 

Internet culture isLet me go to a blog to see how to wear a Huarache’”, King says. “That didn’t happen before the rise of the internet.” 

A Trip To Sneaker Con 

The online sneaker industry has vastly outpaced sales growth in physical stores. Sneakerheads no longer have to hunt for shoes, or even leave their bedrooms to buy or sell them.

Sneaker Con in San Jose
Credit Bryan Ng / KALW

I went to Sneaker Con in San Jose to learn more about whether sneakers still inspire a sense of community. Sneaker Con is like a travelling trade show for sneakers where thousands of people wait outside to get in. I went with my friend and sneaker salesman Jacen Canales. He brought around 20 pairs of shoes with him to sell. 

There were tons of people, noise, and sought-after sneakers inside, like Yeezys, Off Whites, and Jordans. 

Feet, Shoes, Heart, And Community 

David Elias was there to sell some shoes. 

“I got into sneakers when I was 15 years old. Now I’m 32. My first paycheck...I started buying shoes” Elias said. “Has it become too corporate? Not really. In the end, people are still going to want those shoes.” 

My friend Jacen didn’t sell as much as he wanted. But for me, Sneakercon was a success. I felt like I was a part of a community. 

It’s true that big money and status are now a part of the culture, but it is still a form of expression. I think as long as people have feet they will be interested in having cool shoes. And as long as people have heart, whatever community they belong to will survive.