Joah Spearman opens the door to Austin Java Cafe, brushes the late-afternoon drizzle off his leather jacket and wipes his limited edition Livestrong for Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop black and yellow Nike’s on the restaurant’s welcome mat. The back of the 28 year-old sneaker fan’s kicks proudly read “Austin” and “Texas” on the left and right shoe, respectively. Just minutes after he leaves the table with our photographer to shoot some photographs, complete with poses that scream confidence, a woman comes up to me and asks if he’s famous. He laughs.
A doppelganger for Outkast frontman Andre 3000, Spearman confesses that he’s gotten into nightclubs pretending to be his celebrity look-a-like. It’s a far stretch from who he was (or wasn’t) growing up.
“When I was in school, you know, girls didn’t really like me. I had big glasses, and I was four-foot-ten-inches,” Spearman said. “I knew I wasn’t going to play basketball or football, so for me this was never about being an athlete trying to identify with shoes.”
While puberty may have been a likely culprit for Spearman’s transcendence from nerd to fashion-forward cool guy, there’s another factor that played a major role: his love for sneakers.
Spearman is the brains behind the cleverly-named Sneak Attack pop-up boutiques that sprout up at events in town such as FunFunFun Fest, South By Southwest and local concerts. He is also the creator of the SXSW fashion trade show, Style X.
“It’s aspirational, so for me it’s a sign of cool, and this idea of making it,” he said.
Most other “sneakerheads,” (people who are enamored with sneakers), agree that they view sneakers as a status symbol; not necessarily a symbol of wealth but of something money can’t buy: the rare commodity of cool.
Spearman started Sneak Attack by buying shoes off private collectors and failing shoe boutiques, which allows him to sell styles and brands that no other Austin sneaker store carries. His unique buying strategy lets him carry only one kind of each shoe, so that a customer is likely the only person in town with that specific shoe.
He recalled the infamous 1985 launch of Nike’s now sneaker staple, the Jordan, which was the turning point where sneakers became a true phenomenon.
“People talk about luxury brands like Prada and Gucci, but growing up, Jordans were like a luxury brand to me,” Spearman said. “I saw this video once of this guy who was like, ‘Yo! Mom, I made it. Look at my Jordans!’”
In the last decade, sneakers outgrew their obvious connection to sports and made a name for themselves in the fashion and music worlds, proving that now, sneakers are more than a means to walk from point A to point B.
According to Spearman, there was a clear moment when sneakers slipped into the music world. When Michael Jordan retired, the sneaker companies were spending a lot of money looking to cultivate the next Jordan, a new shoe that would sell out the way the Jordan seemed to do every year like clockwork.
“At one point, companies like Nike decided they were going to spend a lot of money that would be traditionally spent on athletes, and spend it on Kanye West because music is where it’s at,” Spearman said.
Nike’s first sneaker collaboration with a non-athlete did just that. At the 2008 Grammy awards, Kanye West performed in a pair of mystery Nike’s which he later confirmed were the “Air Yeezys.”
That summer, West rocked the shoes on tour until their eventual sold-out release in 2009.
According to Complex magazine, West’s second Air Yeezy installment, complete with dinosaur-spiked backs and glow-in-the-dark bottoms, will launch this June. It’s likely each pair will retail for about $200, and spark early-morning storefront lines comparable to that of a new iPhone launch at an Apple store.
The new trend among sneaker companies relies on the quick turnover rate of talent in the music industry to complement their long-term athletic collaborations.
For Colin “C.Biz” Biz, founder of sneaker blog KicksAddict.com, growing up with a love of hip-hop music influenced his appreciation of sneakers as a fashion statement.
“Once I saw my favorite rappers wearing Jordans and Adidas, I knew it was cool,” he said.
Other sneakerheads feel the glamour of a celebrity endorsement pales in comparison to the actual style and “colorways” of a shoe.
Jesús “J.Star” Estrella, founder of SneakerShoeBox.com, admits that he puts more energy toward deciding which sneakers to wear than the rest of his outfit.
Like the fashionista who prefers a limited collection of wildly expensive Christian Louboutins over racks upon racks of Steve Maddens, most sneakerheads base their purchases on the sophisticated sartorial theory of quality over quantity.
“Men have always been afraid to adopt women’s shopping behaviors because, for men, everything has always been about function. Sneaker culture has made it about style, and you’ve got guys who have more shoes than their girlfriends,” Spearman said. “And I’m probably one of those guys. I think I have like 50 pairs.”
As more people look to sneakers as a gateway to embracing their own style, sneakers have become mainstream.
“This culture is very diverse, all nationalities, men, women, young and old are into it. It’s not just an urban thing, it’s everywhere,” Estrella said.