There Are Two Types Of Sneaker Wearers. Which One Are You?
One wears their sneakers without much thought. The other thinks... a lot.
Street To Street is a monthly column on the globalization of Black American culture through fashion.
“Those kicks are cold, still.” That’s what I overheard a girl say to her friend as I was walking in East London. A couple days prior I’d witnessed a guy break his neck to gawk at my sneakers while careening down the street on a bike. I never thought my sneakers were special enough to warrant these kinds of reactions, though I understood clearly what they said about me: I’m cultured, but in a way that’s understated. That is, I might be cooler than you, but I’m not going to make a thing out of it. I could get away with these shoes making a statement in London. It would never fly in New York.
I was wearing my favorite sneakers, Jordan Fire Red 5s. They’re mostly white with black midsoles, red accents, and hits of 3M reflective material. They’re a bit bulky with a mid-cut and marshmallow-y tongue that screams ‘90s. At the time they were pristine, I had waited for my trip to un-deadstock them. They take up space and draw attention, but at their core they’re just another white sneaker. When I wear, them I walk with a bit of a bop, the shoes mirroring my gait’s thoughtful effortlessness.
Sneakers have walked their way onto the footbed of modern fashion. With the global sneaker industry making tens of billions of dollars each year, we can almost assume that everyone has a pair. Sneakers are tools. We walk, we run, we jump in them; we look to them for support. Good sneakers are a testimonial to their necessity. They are a vessel through which you tell the world what you want them to know about yourself. Do you skate? We can tell by the burgeoning hole where your foot meets the grip tape for a trick. You tend to your family’s backyard garden? Well, that explains the dirt and faint stains or green. Or maybe you just have a favorite sneaker that you wear every single day. We see that too, as evidenced by tread on your soles starting to give way.
Good sneakers can be expressionless or convey drama. What color are they? Are they high tops or low tops? Leather or suede? Are they sleek and simple, transporting us to cobbled streets on the Adriatic coast? Or are they thin and flimsy, channeling the energy of the other Venice beach? In Tim Burton’s Batman, Michael Keaton sports modified Nike trainers and in Batman Returns he wears modified Jordan 6s.
In both films, you can’t tell that Batman is wearing sneakers unless you’re really looking for them. With Batman always on the move or occupied by holding some scoundrel over a ledge, no one is thinking about what’s on his feet. Knee high and entirely blacked out, these shoes don’t want to be noticed. Instead, they mirror the stealthy nature of their owner, inviting us to consider the ensemble and to revel in the wonder that is Batman.
Good sneakers tell stories, and there seem to be two kinds of storytellers in this world. The first is the author who wears their sneakers and doesn’t think much about them. The second is the griot that wears their sneakers and thinks about them––a lot. Picture two kids begging their moms for a pair of sneakers that they know they can barely afford. Both moms eventually cave and spend a week’s worth of wages on the shoes and as a result they’re the only ones the kids have for a long while. Everything that the kids do happens in these shoes.
School, sports, the beach. All in these shoes. Now, the author wears hers, and I mean wears them. Any and everything she’s done is imprinted on the sneakers. Her blood, sweat, and tears are written into every crease and scuff. The griot, on the other hand, is more precious with her pair. She still does all the things in them, but mindfully. She doesn’t alter her stride but is sure not to step in puddles; and you won’t find her kneeling down creating unnecessary creases, either. Keeping her shoes looking as new as possible for as long as possible, you can’t really tell the story of the griot’s shoes by looking at them. The griot can tell you the story while the author has it etched into the shoes themselves.
In the community of people who fanaticize over sneakers, sneakerheads, you’ll find plenty of griots. Companies such as Crep Protect and Jason Markk are dedicated to DIY shoe cleaning and target their marketing towards these types of storytellers. Some people go above and beyond to keep their kicks pristine. I am thinking of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).
I am thinking specifically about the scene centered around Buggin’ Out’s shoes. He’s standing on the block when a sweaty white man with a Larry Bird tee on lugging a bike around bumps into him and scuffs his “brand-new white Air Jordans that he just bought.” We get a close up of black streaks on an otherwise bright white sneaker. Buggin’ Out all but demands an apology and fake threatens the guy with violence while the rest of the neighborhood instigates by up-playing the minor offence. We later see him cleaning the shoe with a toothbrush. Buggin’ Out is clearly a griot, he’s got a lot of talk. His respect for the shoes doesn’t come from his experiences in them––he just got them. Instead, it comes from how they look and their being symbols of Black sports greatness.
In 2017 images surfaced of an exclusive pair of pre-scuffed Jordan 4s stylized to resemble Buggin’ Out’s pair. Unlike Buggin’ Out, Nike placed the sneaker’s value not only on its appearance and the fact that it had been in the movie, but also on the context within which they appear in the film. This sneaker never saw a public release, which shows that money wasn’t the motive behind the replica. Still, I find it interesting that Nike thought that people would value the sneaker more for having the experience of someone stepping on them stamped onto them, even if that experience was manufactured. How will those people react when someone actually steps on those shoes?
Today, I find myself somewhere between an author and a griot. My Jordans don’t hold up to the standard I once held myself to: they’re creased and scuffed all over, there are paint smudges that I have no idea how they got there, the 3M is all scratched up, and in a most recent development there are now blotches of indigo stained onto the upper and laces thanks to a pair of denim I got in Japan. They’re still my favorite sneakers. The difference is that now they are my favorite because of their condition, not in spite of it. I’ve been away from home traveling for almost a year, and my Jordans are the only sneakers I brought with me. They hold the memories of the countries I’ve been to and clubs I’ve danced in, the people I’ve met and the gum I’ve stepped in. I could go ham with a toothbrush like Buggin’ Out, but that’d be like whiting out pages of a diary.