The sneaker culture is serious business

By Nontando Mposo Time of article published Sep 26, 2017

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The sneaker culture is serious business. The brand and style you wear represents your fashion style and adds serious street cred. Pictures are supplied. 

The sneaker culture is worth billions of dollars worldwide. The market, fuelled by sneakerheads (people who collect, trade or admire sneakers as a hobby), hip-hop and lifestyle cultures, and ordinary people who love the footwear, continues to grow rapidly. We look at the rise of sneaker culture from humble, functional beginnings to the cultural phenomenon it is today.

An Unstoppable Force

A 2017 report released by Transparency Market Research expects the global footwear market to reach $220.2 billion (R2.9 trillion) in value and 10.974 million units by 2020.

It is impossible to deny that what was once an underground street culture has turned into a mass consumer movement.

An Icon is Born

The first sneaker made its debut in the 1860s in the form of a specialised running shoe made of leather and spikes. By 1892 the US Rubber Company had modified the design to include a rubber sole and a high top. These “Keds” were mass-produced and nicknamed “sneakers” by the advertising agency NW Ayer & Son, to describe their stealthy rubber sole. Pioneering the celebrity endorsement, in 1932 Converse set a marketing standard in the world of athletic footwear by adding basketball player Chuck Taylor’s name to the ankle patch of the All Star.

By the 1950s two new cultural archetypes had been born: the celebrity athlete and the teenager. Sneakers became the footwear of choice for young rebels and were coloured for ever with connotations of delinquency.

“The first sneaker I was desperate for was a pair of Converse 1989,” says Chris Viljoen, creative director at Spree. “You couldn’t get Converse in South Africa, it was an illegal import.”

The Culture

What started as a subculture is now omnipresent and the sneaker industry’s growth can be plotted alongside the rise of Beat culture in the 1950s and Punk in the 1970s (Patti Smith and the Ramones sported Converse). It exploded with the commercialisation of hip-hop. Watershed moments such as the release of RUN-DMC’s track My Adidas signified the beginning of sneaker endorsement deals for non-athletes and what rappers wore started going mainstream.

“From a young age it’s always been about having the coolest sneaker, but now it’s also about the culture,” explain Thabo and Thabiso Modiselle, founders of culture and sneaker site YoMzansi.

“We were influenced by streetwear, music and hip-hop movies, and started studying the culture and educating ourselves on the major sneaker brands.”

From Kanye West to Stephen Curry, sneaker culture continues to be influenced by basketball and hip-hop with no signs of slowing down. “The kids look up to a lot of musicians; most of them are wearing what they see on TV,” says record producer Gemini Major. “They’ll buy a pair of sneakers because they saw one of their favourite artists post it on social media, or wearing them in a new music video.”

The Power to Transcend

Sneakers have the inimitable power to transcend boundaries of gender, age and socio-economic standing, positioning them as the footwear of choice for millions.

As streetwear devotee Naledi Radebe puts it, “At the most basic level, sneakers are a form of transport. At the highest, they are a symbol of character and status.

“All these shoes say something about the people who own them. They’re a representation of the energy and vibe you as an individual want to emit to the world.”

Today sneakers go way beyond fashion or functionality; they signify who you are through the choices you make.

The Power of Online

The business model has changed over the past decade and sneaker brands now rely on the internet to push product.

“I always find out about fresh kicks on Instagram or I use specific apps and websites to order directly,” says Major. Technology has made it infinitely quicker to share sneaker information and to distribute across the globe.

“Online shopping has been made so easy,” adds Radebe. “I still enjoy the culture of walking into the store and trying on a pair of sneakers but I’m also moving towards online because of the wide range available, regardless of where you are in the world.”

* Online retailer Spree recently launched The Index, an online sneaker and streetwear destination for men and women. Shop it here: 

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