The Revenge of Sneaker Heads


At A.I. Labs we spend a lot of time exploring what people are drawn to and why. It helps us understand and predict consumer trends and decode the emotional connections between best-in-class brands and their customers.

One trend that continues to mystify us is the obsession with sneakers. The rise of ‘sneaker culture’ — along with the increasingly outrageous (and outrageously priced) designs — have gotten us thinking about the cultural significance of this particular style of footwear. Why and how have sneakers become such an important status symbol? Is this a fad? Or a movement?

Sneakers used to be…well, just sneakers.

It all changed in the 1970s, when the rise of underground sneaker culture and emergence of hip hop changed the narrative, as first evidenced in rap hits like Nelly’s “Air Force Ones” and Run DMC’s “My Adidas.”

Then, in 1984, Nike and NBA player Michael Jordan teamed up to launch one of the most iconic sneakers of all time. The Air Jordan 1 quickly took hold and fueled a wave of celebrity endorsements. This sneaker also is credited with kicking off the basketball sneaker craze.

Today, digitalization has made it possible for sneaker collectors (a.k.a. “sneaker heads”) to capitalize on the re-sale market, which was estimated at $6 billion in global sales in 2019, but projected to reach $30 billion by 2030. Digital technology also has opened the way for leading brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armor to make and market shoes for the metaverse.

Why Is It Called a Sneaker Anyway?

The term was actually coined in the 1880’s. It was a style of rubber-soled shoes with canvas tops that were worn by school boys. Compared to traditional leather shoes, they were so quiet that a person wearing them could sneak up on someone else.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

The sneaker industry has grown a lot since the 19th century. Flash forward to 2022, here are some of the most notable launches we’ve come across in recent months.

  1. Last week Nike announced the coming launch of its NikeCraft General Purpose Shoe – a collaboration with American artist Tom Sachs – which touts itself as boring: “Sneakers should not be the most exciting thing about you. They are tools, and what matters about tools is that they work.
  1. Nikecraft comes on the heels of Balenciaga’s new line of “fully destroyed” sneakers, priced at a whopping $1,850 per pair.
  1. Also notable are Adidas’ flurry of collaborations, for example:
  1. Other traditional sneaker companies also have joined forces with haute couture houses:

An Interview with Long Island’s Sneaker King

To better understand the rise in sneaker culture, we spoke with Rich Leggio, owner of Long Island’s premier sneaker store Street Gear. For more than 30 years, Street Gear has remained the source of the most exclusive, highly sought-after sneaker releases and street wear throughout the metro-NY region. To this day, Rich’s all-time favorite shoe is the Jordan 3 (as pictured here in 1988). “I remember when that shoe first came out,” Rich told us. “It was the first style that surpassed the $100 price point. It was the best fitting shoe I had ever worn. I bought it in every color.”

When and why did you decide to open your shop Street Gear?

I launched my business in 1988. We started by selling sneakers and jeans. Growing up on a farm in Kentucky, I always loved fashion. My mother couldn’t afford the more expensive brands like Converse and Levi’s, so I had to wear imitations. I knew that if I worked hard, I eventually would be able to buy the real brands. Many different paths brought me to New York, but fashion was always my destiny!

How have your customers changed over the past 30 years?

When I opened the store in the late ‘80s, I sold about 20 different brands. Nike, Adidas, Fila, Reebok, etc. Whatever style looked good found a customer. There was no brand loyalty. In fact, Reebok was neck-and-neck with Nike in sales. Over the years, the quality of the brands became more important. What used to be a product sale became a brand sale.Things started to change when the first Jordan came out in 1988. My customers just wanted Nikes. So I decided to close down all my other accounts.

Many luxury brands – including Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga – are expanding their offerings in sneakers. Their sneakers are also getting more and more expensive. What do you think of these ‘designer sneakers’? Is their prominence in the category sustainable? Or will it die down and will consumers return to traditional athletic companies for footwear?

When you say sneakers, you’re thinking of a basketball shoe or a tennis shoe. To the young generation, sneakers mean something else. Sneakers today are simply footwear. Sneakers are not about sports. They’ve become a core part of fashion. In fact, traditional fashion brands and sneaker brands have merged. That won’t change.

We’re noticing a big trend in “worn out sneakers,” as seen with Nike and Balenciaga. Is this just a gimmick? Or do you see ongoing demand for stained, distressed and torn styles among your customers?

That whole look started because expensive shoes – shoes that are made well and made with quality material – are kept longer and tend to look worn out. The worn-out trend is trying to convey that level of a shoe. It’s a rich look. But I think the trend will migrate back to the center.

It seems like more and more sneaker aficionados are turning into speculators, buying up and reselling new or worn shoes — sometime at 2x the original retail price. What’s your reaction? Any thoughts on why some styles generate a big market for resellers and others do not?

That’s all about supply and demand. The resale market will be there as long as supply is low and demand is high. Of course, the customer has to want that shoe. You could take two Jordans, and the one with the original colorways will typically outperform the one with newer colors. Customers want their Jordans to be true to the original look.

What’s your all-time favorite sneaker?

Jordan 3 in fire red. I remember when that shoe first came out. It was the first style that surpassed $100 price point. It was the best fitting shoe I ever had. I bought that style in every color.

Today, I also wear a pair of off-white Balmains. The material looks expensive, and they have just the right amount of white to look chic.

What’s your biggest sneaker prediction for the next decade?

What’s happening now will continue. Over time, the styles – even the colorways – migrate back to the center. There’s a basic silhouette that just looks good. The biggest change will be in the quality of material. It keeps getting better and better. But the basic business is never going to change.

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