The Story Behind the Rise of the Sneakerheads

 Courtesy Friendly Films

Why own 100 pairs of sneakers if you can only wear one? If you have to ask, you don't understand. But David Friendly, a film producer who made his name racking up credits on Dr. DoolittleBig Momma's House, and Little Miss Sunshine, gets it. "A suit is a suit. A shirt is a shirt. But with kicks, you can tell a story about yourself," Friendly explains over breakfast in Los Angeles. "How many things that you own really do that?" His latest project is a documentary, Sneakerheadz, which will premiere at South By Southwest, and which he wrote and co-directed. The film explores the world of sneaker collecting, and features interviews with some of the subculture's most prominent personalities, including Jeff Staple, DJ Clark Kent, Wale, and Samantha Ronson. We recently sat down with Friendly to talk about sneaker culture, its future, and the difference between hoarding and collecting.

When did your fascination with sneakers start?
When I was young, I loved this basketball player, "Pistol" Pete Maravich. He was famous for playing in Adidas Superstars, with big floppy socks that he would fold down. My parents wouldn’t buy me Superstars because they were $25. They would say, "If you want $25 sneakers, you can buy them when you’re an adult." A few years ago, I was producing a movie in New York and I wandered into the Adidas Originals store in the West Village and found a pair of the exact same Adidas Superstars in a retro edition.


Is that what planted the seed for making a documentary about sneaker culture?
It definitely reignited my interest in sneakers. I found out what retro releases were, and that there were entire blogs and websites devoted to sneaker culture. I immediately thought, I’ve always wanted to do a documentary, it would be fascinating to do one about sneakers.

When you came up with the concept, did you have a list of people you felt you had to interview?
We kept a running list. As the shooting progressed, people would say, "Oh, you have to talk to this person, or that person" and we'd add them to a long Google doc. We wanted people who had credibility within the culture — designers, collectors, tastemakers — not necessarily celebrities. Would we have wanted to interview Kanye West? Of course. But in a way, he wouldn't have been as important an interview as Jeff Staple, whose "Pigeon" Nike Dunk changed everything for collectors. It was important that the movie included people who could bridge two worlds — experts who have credibility with aficionados, but who can also relate to people who aren't interested in sneakers.

What drives someone to collect sneakers so obsessively?
It's never one simple thing. Sometimes it's a way for people to express themselves in an original way. Sometimes it's a way for them to reconnect to their youth. Sometimes it's a way to connect with a community. Sneakers have a way of unifying really diverse groups of people. I may not speak Japanese, but I can go to a sneaker boutique in Tokyo and compare Nike models with a local sneakerhead, and it's like we have sneakers as a common language.

Was sneaker culture different in other countries?
One thing everyone told us: "You have to go to Tokyo. The Japanese are sneaker crazy." I don't think the movie would have been what it is without us visiting Harajuku, which is the area in Tokyo where all the sneaker stores are. They're incredibly passionate about sneakers there, but they're different from American customers in terms of what attracts them to sneakers. In America, a lot of it is based on what celebrities or superstar athletes are wearing, but in Japan they're focused on craftsmanship, detail, design. I'm not saying one is wrong and one is right; they're just different.

Were there certain sneaker models that became a central focus of the documentary?
The whole culture wouldn’t exist without Jordan. It all started with the "Bred 1," the black and red Jordan model that the NBA banned for being too colorful. The vast majority of Americans, in terms of the sneaker culture, are into Jordans. But what I found interesting, was all the other niches. For instance, skate shoes are a huge chunk of the industry — the Nike SB's and Vans. There's also a sneaker divide geographically, with some kicks being bigger on the East Coast or the West Coast.

You spent a lot of time interviewing huge collectors, the kinds of guys who have entire storage units filled with sneakers. Did you ever feel like maybe there's a dark side to the culture, too? Like people whose collecting borders on obsession?
There's the obvious question: "Are some of these more extreme collectors dysfunctional?" You never want to see someone spending their rent money on kicks, but believe me, it happens. I felt like it was any subculture, the people that are really into it have obsessive qualities, and some of them get carried away. We did notice that some of the bigger collectors weren't necessarily very good communicators when it came to subjects outside of shoes. They're very narrow in their focus, this is what they follow, and it's difficult to talk to them about much else. We interviewed an expert on addiction, Dr. Caroline Rodriguez from Columbia, but I don't think most people who collect sneakers have a disease. And we definitely didn't make a movie about hoarding. It's like anything, you can get too deep into it.


You talked to some big names in the sneaker community — Jeff Staple, DJ Skee, Wale — did any of them have a personal story that exemplifies sneaker culture?
DJ Skee told me a story that really stayed with me: When he was young, his family didn't have much money. His mom would go to Walmart, and come home with cheap, generic sneakers and give him a sharpie so he could draw Nike swooshes on the back. And to go from that, to where he is now in the sneaker culture was really affecting to me. And of course, the whole story of the Pigeon Dunk fascinated me, because there were literally riots over a pair of sneakers. That's probably the story that really drew me into making the documentary in the first place. I was also fascinated by the story of this kid, Preston Truman, who was the guy that Jordan gave his kicks to after the notorious "Flu Game" during the 1997 Playoffs. Preston stuck the sneakers in a safety deposit box and sold them years later for $104,000.

You seem partial to Adidas Retros. Did filming this documentary make you want to collect other brands as well?
I tried to remain agnostic during the filming. I love Adidas because I grew up wanting them, but I'm very respectful of certain Nike models. I think Vans has some great sneakers. When I went to Tokyo, I developed an appreciation for Asics. I have around 100 pairs of sneakers now, but my wife said the next pair I'm getting, she's throwing them into the pool.

I'm curious, do you have a personal top 5?
It all starts for me with the Bred Air Jordan 1's. That's easy, then it gets hard. I have to include the Converse Chuck Taylor. If it came out today, no one would pay attention, but it's a classic and people are still wearing it 50 years later. I'd have to include the Adidas Superstar. It transformed basketball shoes, then transcended the game and became a fashion icon. How often does that happen? The Air Max 90, in terms of influence, is just huge. I'd have to include the Puma "Clyde," which brought suede into the game and were popularized by Walt "Clyde" Frazier.

Do you think any modern sneakers could ever reach the icon status of Jordans? The Lebrons, Kobes, or Yeezys?
It's impossible to predict. One thing I learned during the course of the film was that some sneakers that seemed like they would always be enormously popular have disappeared, and certain shoes that were initially unpopular went on to become classics. It's up to the culture to decide. There's just so much on the market now. It's completely flooded, which makes it harder for new models to distinguish themselves.

Are we approaching a sneaker bubble? Is the market getting too big?
There are really two schools of thought on this: The old school sneakerheads think the sneaker boom peaked in the 90s, before the Internet. They have great antipathy to the current market, where you just get on the Internet and type "air max" and 100 options come up. I think there's still room for tremendous growth, especially in other countries like China, or the women's market in general. I think it's only getting bigger, especially when you consider that people have changed the way they dress. If you go to Barney's today, 70 percent of the men's shoe department is sneakers.

So it helps that we no longer think of sneakers purely as athletic footwear?
My father — his generation would have said, "There's no way you're leaving the house in sneakers," today kids wear sneakers everywhere. They go to their graduation ceremony in sneakers. It’s also become a very acceptable way for men to express themselves visibly through their wardrobe. A suit is a suit. A shirt is a shirt. But with kicks, you can tell a story about yourself. How many things that you own really do that?

You must have seen thousands of sneakers while filming the documentary. Was there any particular sneaker that really stuck with you?
The one that really got my attention was a pair of Nike "Tiffany" Dunks. They're a collaboration between Nike and Diamond Supply. They took the "Tiffany Blue" and combined it with a Nike high dunk. I'm probably going to wear those to the movie's premiere.

I was going ask, I bet there's a lot of pressure while you're promoting the film to wear impressive sneakers.
That's what's on my mind. We're going to South By Southwest for six days, and I'm bringing a different pair for every day. There's a lot of pressure now with this movie. When people meet me, they look at my feet first.