The serious sneakerhead can list the differences between generations of the same shoe—things like the color of the label on the tongue and the material used for the side panels that surround the logo. Like becoming a connoisseur of fine wine or cars, getting truly immersed in the culture of high-end kicks means learning the history of the big sneaker brands, sweating the small details, and ultimately pledging allegiance to a brand. Although plenty of collectors cross company lines to pick up any collectible they can get their hands on, most will argue for Nike or Adidas as fervently as car guys argue Ford or Chevy, and oenophiles rave about Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Once thought of as purely functional footwear, sneakers have become such an important part of global fashion that it’s impossible to imagine a world without them. Collectively, the top sneaker brands accumulated dozens of millions of likes on Instagram last year. Here’s the story of how sneakerheads helped grow their culture, from the feet up:
From Humble Beginnings
Today, everyone laughs and cringes at the idea that people used to play basketball in Converse sneakers. In 1923, Indiana hoopster Chuck Taylor endorsed Converse’s new athletic shoe, known as the All-Star, and the names have been inexorably linked ever since.
One year later, across the globe, a German cobbler named Adi Dassler also named an athletic shoe after himself—and adidas was born. Shortly afterward, his brother, Rudolf, broke away and started Puma. The brothers built competing factories on opposite sides of a river in their hometown, and so began one of the greatest business rivalries in history. Ever since, die-hard sneakerheads have formed allegiances that give sibling rivalries a run for their money.
Slam Dunk Success
The sneaker landscape was forever changed in 1984, when Michael Jordan signed a deal with Nike to create Air Jordan—which has since become the best-selling sneaker of all time. The original sneaker craze was fueled by a combination of factors, most notably Jordan’s immense fame and talent, and some high-profile competition from Run-DMC and adidas.
Ever since those early collaborations, limited-edition kicks from celebrities have become in-demand tickets to an exclusive club. The act of camping out for shoes, and the thrill of victory (or the agony of defeat when your size sells out) conspire to create a camaraderie that no other footwear can match. A sneakerhead can wax poetic for hours about the differences between years’ releases and colorways, and can share stories of snagging that last pair . . . or being five minutes too late.
The Difference Is in the Details
And it’s not just fans who stake their claim to specific brands (a couple sneakerhead rap superstars recently collaborated with adidas and Air Jordan). Similarly, skaters took Vans shoes from fringe tools for the job to global superstardom. The brand now regularly collaborates with athletes, musicians, artists, and iconic brands—as they did on the Vans x Pendleton skate shoe, which brings cozy, California vibes to the famed waffle-soled sneaker.
Nike and adidas have the athletic sneaker game on lock, from ready-to-ball basketball shoes to the soccer-inspired “flats” that are also Puma’s mainstay. Probably inspired by the price of limited-edition sneakers, fashion icons Louboutin and Givenchy have both jumped into the sneaker game with decidedly retro offerings, which shows that even the ridiculously rich and fashionable want to rock a pair of swaggy sneaks.
The appeal of sneakers spans aesthetics and cultures—Converse have been basketball shoes and staples of punk rock culture, while high-fashion imitations have retailed for more than the guitars played by the rockers who made them famous. Where will your lace-ups take you?