Has "culture" become a loosely thrown around word now? Attach to it footwear, sneaker culture is a topic that’s a controversial and heated debate for years, but it’s not one that’s been documented.

Let's start with the term "culture". It has been notoriously difficult to define, so in all fairness, after reading this, it may be even more confusing.

In 1952, the American anthropologists, Kroeber and Kluckhohn, critically reviewed concepts and definitions of culture, and compiled a list of 164 different definitions. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as the following:

  1. the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

  2. the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

And definition number two is the main argument that is used to define sneaker culture as being a "culture".

Photo by Slammin' Kicks

So what "cultures" are there? In anthropology and sociology, it has broken down it to seven elements

  • Social Organisation

  • Customs and Traditions

  • Language

  • Arts and Literature

  • Religion

  • Forms of Government

  • Economic System

It is then broken down many times within those elements — I've taken a deep dive into the subject matter to determine if sneaker culture can be part of any of these cultures listed above.

For those that know me and my history, I have been against using the term for several years and have debated with many names in the industry about this. However, after speaking to UK rapper, Mikill Pane, who agreed on many points that were made, but still was adamant that sneaker culture was real, he’d mentioned something that I hadn't heard before, and that was ‘consumer culture’.

My biggest argument for years is that if you have to buy something to be included in a culture, that no longer becomes a culture, but a hobby, pastime, business, consumerism or commodity. Let me break this down.

Take for example skateboarding or basketball culture, the argument comes again that you have to buy a skateboard to be able to skate, and a basketball to be able to hoop, but the difference is that you could have one guy who buys the latest and most advanced tech skateboard and be absolutely trash, and another guy who has a homemade board and is tearing up the skatepark. The same goes for the basketball player who comes to the court in the latest and most expensive kicks, full gear but no idea, but then a player with beat-up shoes, dirty old tee and some no-name shorts, but is scoring on everyone and nobody can stop him. It is not about what board or ball you have that makes you part of that culture.

As the old adage goes, “if you look good, feel good, you play good”, so you’re ready to take on the vert/street or court. We’ve long seen pro athletes doing what they do on the courts kitted out in the best gear and that effect has rubbed off onto us. The audience, the fans and spectators.

 

Look at Kerry Kittles in the 1996 NBA Draft wearing the Air Max 96 while everyone else is wearing basketball shoes

Naomi Klein, author of the acclaimed book "No Logo", states that “advertising and sponsorship have always been about using imagery to equate products with positive cultural or social experiences.“ Sporting goods are produced by brands so that sports like skateboarding or basketball can happen.

Furthermore, Klein expresses that “advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make the brand the star. It is not to sponsor culture but to be the culture. And why shouldn’t it be? If brands are not products but ideas, attitudes, values and experiences, why can’t they be culture too?”

Putting aside the obvious basketball G.O.A.T., Michael Jordan and his own brand, think about Run-DMC earning their Three Stripes. They wore their adidas Superstars in striking fashion with no laces (a nod to prison, where they were removed to prevent inmates hanging themselves with them) combined with black Lee jeans, leather Double Goose jackets, Cazal glasses and gold rope chains had long been the look of New York hustlers. Stylistically Run-DMC took their street look mainstream. Their 1986 single "My Adidas” was simply talking about what they wore, and what it represented. When the single was performed at Madison Square Garden leg of Run-DMC’s tour on 19 July 1986, the group urged the audience to hold up their sneakers aloft. The adidas endorsement soon followed, a then-unprecedented for any musician — let alone a hip-hop act — $1m dollar endorsement deal, and the rest is history.

The crowd at a Run-DMC gig in Philadelphia, USA, c.1980s. Photograph by Mr Lawrence Watson/PYMCA

The issue about sneaker culture is that you cannot go to Payless Shoes or ShoeZone to get some sneakers and then claim you are part of it. It is all based on the product if a group of people will accept you into their group, i.e. buy your way in. This sentiment is echoed by Rob Walker (author of "I’m With The Brand") that “any product or brand that catches on in the marketplace does so because of us: because enough of us decided that it had value or meaning and chose to participate. Because of the the dialogue between consumer and consumed.”

There’s a misconception of what we are really talking about here is, (a real study called) consumer culture which is a subculture. Consumer culture can be broadly defined as a culture where social status, values, and activities are centred on the consumption of stuff, including sneakers, but does that mean there is sneaker culture?

In a study by Mike Featherstone in 1990, there was an observation that consumer culture was about an emotional pleasure of consumption, the dreams and desires which become celebrated in consumer cultural imagery and particular sites of consumption which generate direct bodily excitement and aesthetic pleasures. Is that what we are all feeling? Why is there such a desire to be part of a sneaker culture and who benefits from it?

Last year, leading youth consumer insights group Ypulse, conducted a market research to understand sneaker culture for Bleacher Reports' B/R Kicks media channel to inform their advertising and content development. Ypulse carried out a psychographic segmentation study, uncovering four key segments:

  • The OG – Into the full sneaker experience, art and fashion take, self-expression, and information sharing. “They feel inspired and creative thanks to sneaker culture.” A little bit older, leaders.

  • The Culture Creator – Social, athletic, analytical, hyped. "They like showing off and starting conversations with their kicks.” Gatekeepers of what’s cool.

  • The Clout Chaser – Thrill-seeking. Trendy. Social media savvy. "Sneakers help them stay ahead of the curve, impress their peers, and make new friends. The side hustle of resale is a draw for some.”

  • The Trend Tracker – "Chill, stylish, empathetic, independent. They see the culture as diverse, always new, and constantly entertaining.”

There are many people who still heavily claim that this is a culture, like the Ypulse study shows, and while in my opinion, most of them are washed up old guys who are still striving to be "famous" in the sneaker industry, but then countless others who just found acceptance in the sneaker community and have embraced it ever since. Many of us have enjoyed the passion of sneakers and have some even turned that passion in to a business. This is incredible marketing strategies by brands over the years of all industries that has created a mindset of a sociological view, that the satisfaction that comes from goods relates to their social acceptance in a zero-sum game in which gaining status on having a pair of sneakers or the newest iPhone, brings joy and happiness. It is a strategy that we have all been part of and in all honesty, is it really hurting anyone?

Growing up as a teenager in the '90s was so special and, unbeknownst to me at the time, the most important period of my life. I made the basketball team and being in the starting five, I found myself wanting to elevate my game and to have an advantage on the court in any way possible, so I asked my mum for new shoes as I never had any basketball-specific shoes to play in.

Former NBA player, Jason Kidd's signature shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Flight 95

Picture this: it’s 1995 in Cobra Sports on Oxford Street. I’m standing on the escalators waiting to get to the top, as I approach the summit, the disappearing stairs reveal the footwear wall, and there I see them — the Nike Air Zoom Flight 95! The brand new pair that had just released that day. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. The carbon fibre pods, the shape, the tech... everything! It was perfect.

A few days later, I had my first ever game at the famous Wembley Arena. The pro team had just finished their training and sat on the sidelines to watch us play. Before the game, I took the shoes out of my bag, put them on and walked onto the court. The reaction I got was one that will stay with me forever. Everyone from my team, the pro team and even the opposing team surrounded my feet to look at what I had on with looks of pure amazement on their faces. While I don’t know if it was the shoes that gave me the ability to play how I did, I’d never felt more confident playing the game of basketball. That moment was the point that changed everything. I was never the cool kid in school, but when I found sneakers, I felt that my status was elevated when the older kids or road man from my area saw me and commented on my shoes.

Sneaker culture may or may not exist, but one thing is for sure, these products of leather/canvas and rubber has created a community of people that have helped each other, made people happy and has accepted anyone with no judgement, other than what shoe you have and if they are DS with original box!