The Gatekeepers of Culture

How some OG sneakerheads' exclusionary attitudes stifle the very growth that they were instrumental in creating

sneaker culture gatekeepers

Words: Dane Maharaj | Illustration: Lapin Blanc

Every subculture has its gatekeepers and they're usually the people who have been around longer than the rest. In sneaker culture, the gatekeepers are often referred to as "OGs", who as elders of any society play an invaluable role as innovators, acting as bastions of undocumented history and a catalyst for cultural growth. 

This was particularly important in the 90s and early 00s, or "before the hype" as members of NikeTalk would say. When sneaker culture was a street culture in a literal sense and the internet hadn't yet become the repository for all things related to "the Culture".

But, as much good as gatekeepers have done for sneaker culture, they sometimes develop a sense of entitlement that is counterproductive to growth. Picking and choosing who has the right to be let in based on subjective criteria and pushing the ever-present agenda that exclusivity is a basis for good taste. 

Think Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates in Supreme:

"When did you start collecting?"

"How many kicks do you have in your collection?"

"Do you even own any pink box Nike SB Dunks?"

"Oh, you got some WTAPS Vans? Sure man, you can come in."

The reality is that a major aspect of sneaker culture is its commercial culture and, for it to grow, you need bodies through the door and buying kicks. The rules of admittance need to be relaxed. Sure, there may be more culture vultures now, but they usually lose interest after a while.

Of course, sneaker culture is not only about buying sneakers and appreciation for a shoe's design and story should be equally important, but for a brand to be able to release more, innovate more, and tell more stories, it must be commercially viable for them to do so. And it really has been. 

Between 2009 and 2013, sneaker sales for Nike, Adidas and Under Armour increased by an estimated $25 Billion – a 47% increase. In 2017 alone, sneaker sales in the United States increased by 37%, which is particularly impressive when one considers that 2017 was a year in which global retail was depressed and long-established fashion retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Ralph Lauren saw share prices drop to their lowest point in years.

In 2016, The Financial Times estimated the value of the global sneaker market at $55 Billion, or roughly six times more than the GDP of your average developing country. The value of the secondary (which is just a kind way of saying reseller) sneaker market alone is estimated at around $1 billion. The kind of commercial growth that the sneaker market has enjoyed since 2009 is incredible. It's something no one would have predicted when they were rioting for their Staple Nike SB Pigeon Dunks in 2005.

It's not like the OGs have been left behind either. The net result of the commercialisation of sneaker culture has been pretty good for your average sneakerhead. Especially in smaller markets like South Africa where our retailers now hold the highest tier of accounts with most major sportswear brands, and generally just get a wider range of sneakers, than was available just a few years ago.

From collaborations with more obscure Asian brands that would ordinarily never make our shores – Like Ader Error's work with Puma, to timeless staples like Converse Chuck 70s – which were previously unavailable outside of the United States, Europe and Asia – sneakerheads have more choice and access now.

But it's not just accessibility to the latest drops that's improved life for sneaker lovers, the commercialisation of sneaker culture has also resulted in so much more creative expression. Not all of them hit the mark, and of course you get a shameless cash grab every now and then, but thanks to the commercial growth of sneaker culture, everyone has a voice to express themselves. Whether its official collaborations with artists from all sort of disciplines, or custom sneaker services like NikeID and MiAdidas giving the average fan a chance to create their own colourway.

Not only is more creativity being expressed, but there is also more sneaker related content to devour than ever. Gone are the days of trolling a handful of blogs like NikeTalk or SuperTalk to keep up-to-date. We now have critically acclaimed Netflix shows dedicating episodes to sneaker design, with countless blogs and Instagram accounts to follow to get the latest drop information or read up on the history of Nike's iconic Alpha Project initiative.

Even streetwear and sneaker culture focussed platforms like Hypebeast and High Snobiety, which would once have been considered niche, have become mainstream media outlets. Hypebeast even listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2016 and saw its revenue increase to $49 million. This is a 76% increase from the previous financial year, and not bad for a blog started in 2005 by a streetwear obsessed student at the University of British Columbia.

Sneaker culture, like any culture, is constantly evolving and the commercial success of the industry means that this evolution is happening at a rapid pace. While it is important to appreciate and understand the history of the culture and those who contributed to its growth, it is also important to understand that we live in a world where relevance changes faster than Kanye West's politics. While some may have entered the culture when multi-coloured Air Force 1s or Nike SBs were the height of cool, it doesn't necessarily mean that new kids entering the scene, who came up on the Adidas Yeezy or Nike x Off White collaborations, are disingenuous about their interest in sneaker culture because they can't identify a "HUFQUAKE" Air Max 1. It's just that their taste is informed by what they are exposed to and what's culturally relevant at the time.

The gatekeepers of sneaker culture must be wary of being so exclusionary that they not only stifle the very growth that they were instrumental in creating, but also become irrelevant themselves, due to an unwillingness to accept the changes in taste and opinion that comes with each new generation of sneakerhead. Sure, sneakers have become pop culture and cultural appropriation is more present, but the massive upside is that we're seeing unprecedented levels of creative output, access and growth. Right now, is arguably the best time in history to be a sneakerhead.

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