Beyond the laces: Emotions around sneaker culture continue to run high

Philadelphia InquirerAugust 21, 2013 

— – Maurice Holoway had been obsessing for six days. On that Monday he had read that the classic Air Jordan IIIs were being rereleased.

These were the original red, white and black kicks first made available to the public in 1988.

Holoway, 28, knew he had to get to the store early if he wanted a crack at the $160 shoes. He didn’t want to be disappointed.

By 7:30 on that Saturday morning, when the UBIQ store opened in the downtown Philadelphia Gallery mall, Holoway was standing pretty – first in line. For the occasion he wore his Nike Barkley Posite Max Phoenix Suns in rich purple faux crocodile skin with zigzags of bright powder blue and a Nike swoosh in shocking orange that cost him about $250.

The importance of getting to the store early could not be overstated, said Holoway, a mental health counselor from West Philadelphia. Nike releases only so many of the shoes in each size to each retailer – the company won’t specify the exact number.

“You don’t really know” if there will be enough to go around at any given store, Holoway said. “You just go with your gut.”

A half-hour later, he had been joined by more than a dozen other men when the doors opened. A UBIQ sales clerk started reading off names. And Holoway realized he wasn’t really first.

Sneaker fans had come a week earlier to reserve their spot for the new Air Jordans.

He bided his time as a half-dozen or so men got their shot, two by two, at the shoes before him. Then it was his turn.

He and another customer were let into the store to claim their prizes. A metal gate clanged behind them. Mall security lingered nearby.

High demand has consequences

What makes a man get up early on a Saturday to wait in line for sneakers? Style, status, nostalgia and, in many cases, the entrepreneurial spirit.

In a city where people are passionate about what they wear on their feet, sneakerheads like Holoway can be found weekly, following the release dates on the Internet, sizing up which shops have the shortest lines.

Experts – and there are experts on this subject – trace the obsession with sneakers to 1985 with Michael Jordan’s first release, with its signature pair of wings gracing the upper ankle. The Air Jordan I sold for $65, the most expensive shoe on the market at the time.

The demand has bred an underworld of shoe resales in specialty stores and on eBay.

Today you can grab a pair on eBay for up to $1,500. Jordan’s influence still colors the shoes today.

Red, white, and black – colors of the Chicago Bulls, led by Jordan to six NBA championships – are the most coveted. A flashy pair of Adidas or Reebok will earn the long stare, but it’s the Jordans that get double-takes.

Demand for sneakers is so high, fans have been driven to violence and rioting while waiting in line. It’s even led to killings. In 2010, a group of teenagers shot 15-year-old Willy Tineo and stole his shoes as he lay dying in the street in Reading, Pa.

When the LeBron X Denim shoe was released in June, a patron shot a man pick-pocketing cash-rich targets outside a store in Atlanta. After fatally shooting him, he went back to his spot in line.

Retro and flash

Sneakers are riding high on the surge of ’80s and retro fashion that has been swelling over the past several years, said Natalie Nixon, director of Philadelphia University’s Strategic Design MBA program and a retail expert. They’re more than shoes, they’re the center of a subculture of style. Each silhouette and color carries a symbol of status, the flashier the better.

“When you see someone walking down the street with a flash of color, even if it’s just a neon orange shoelace against a gray canvas sneaker, it’s a nice surprising pop of color,” Nixon said. “You’re definitely not trying to blend in with the crowd.”

Limited numbers of each shoe are released, spurring a frenzy to be one of the trendsetters to snag a pair, said David Reibstein, professor of marketing at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It also justifies hiking the prices higher and higher.

Sneakers for the wedding

Jemayne King, a self-styled sneakerhead and author of “Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture,” once sold a pair of LeBron South Beaches for $500 at a convention to help pay for an engagement ring. That was a relative bargain, he said, for the teal blue kicks paired with either black or hot-pink laces. King, speaking by phone from Charlotte, where he teaches English at Johnson C. Smith University, has so many kicks he can go more than a year without wearing the same pair twice.

He intends to be married in his most-coveted pair, Ewing Athletics 33 Hi, which he picked up as an adult. He had pined for them since age 12.

King said the greatest moment of his life was opening the box and touching the cushiony royal blue fabric, accented with macaroni orange eyelets and a sewn white signature of the 11-time all-star, Patrick Ewing.

“There’s not a corner of this country not affected by sneaker culture,” King said. “Philly is … like New York, it’s going to leave its mark on any subculture. So it goes in Philly, it goes everywhere else. It happens in Philly first.”

As for Maurice Holoway, he wound up getting his Air Jordan IIIs that day. He planned to play basketball in the afternoon, but was worried about the forecast for rain. He decided to wear them after the game.

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