Written by Gary Warnett (@gwarizm)
London is the ultimate trainer city — we don't call them sneakers around here — because of the sheer variety of subcultures the term houses. Other cities get it — New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Berlin being just a few — but London has a depth when it comes to sports footwear that's unmatchable. Those who live in the places which are, supposedly, spiritual homes for shoes sometimes don't see the wood for the trees.
Londoners have long been masters of re-apppropration and there's a broadness to our trainer offerings. Before we even talk about the kind of people who Instagram #feetheat or whatever the fuck, there's the history — the regional differences between north, east, west and south parts of England's capital.
When you're south, you might see the Air Force 1 still heavily in circulation. Further north, you might see the black-on-black Air Max 90 still making power moves. You might see loose lacing criss-crossing through a couple of holes, inspired by post young offender institution stays that — that like so many outlaw aesthetics — becomes a style statement.
Now the Air Jordan is everywhere, but back in 1988, you'd have to pay a significant markup and run the gauntlet of robbery risk to get a pair from one of the only places selling them in the city. Plenty of 1980s basketball classics never made it here, so there's a culture that built up based on research and, as a result, people appreciate shoes like few others do.
But let's move from basketball shoes for a minute — this is a place where running silhouettes do some serious mileage. You can't look at the floor for more than a few minutes without seeing a pair of adidas or Nike reissues. As we sit in silence on the underground like typical Brits, we have a lot of time to stare at feet.
You can't look at the floor for more than a few minutes without seeing a pair of adidas or Nike reissues.
Before hip-hop culture ever made its mark here, there was casual culture. Football (like sneakers, soccer is a no-no) hooliganism played a role in London style just as it did elsewhere in the UK (the north of England can be considered pioneers of it) and it's far deeper and more complicated than anything in bad fantasy movies like Green Street — dressing for a fight inspired generations who've never had a fight in their life, but wanted to wear some nice gear.
London's club and rave culture created its own footwear trends. There's a paradox of putting on expensive running shoes, only to get them stamped into a mess by some pilled-up lunatic or a champagne-addled goon.
Football terrace culture created demand for then-obscure Italian brands, expensive sportswear, rare tennis and training shoes from the likes of adidas, PUMA and Diadora. All in the name of one-upsmanship. That created a boom in sportswear for non-sporting means for the working and middle classes. Its influence is still very much part of London's approach to style. After all, you can't wear a football boot on the street, can you?
Hip-hop hit hard in London though, frequently interweaving with casual style, creating a whole wishlist of classic shoes with status. West Indian culture is also imbued in the city's style DNA in rudeboy looks from the late 1980s and early 1990s — pinrolled trousers, Huaraches, ZX 8000s and 90s were worn perfectly, inspiring future generations.
Collector culture has a place in London too — during the late 1990s, with labels like Mo' Wax connecting a Japanese otaku attitude with London's own brand of nerdery. London was at the centre of the Stüssy movement, with figureheads like Michael Kopelman turning the city into a cultural connection point between east and west. From there, a love of hard-to-find imports popularized some shoes that even Americans weren't paying attention to.
Like any city, recessions and insane rents have claimed their share of victims — R.I.P to boutiques Bond International, Passenger, Sports & Things, Slammin' Kicks, the original Foot Patrol, Duffer, Cobra Sports, Frontier, and Olympus Sports. The imminent closure of The Hideout is another blow because that spot had a Probe account long before the Tier Zero era. JD Sports, Slam City, size? the recently reopened Foot Patrol and Crooked Tongues have long held it down for the city, making some rarer releases easier to grab in London than they are elsewhere.
A love of hard-to-find imports popularized some shoes that even Americans weren't paying attention to.
A trip to NikeTown reveals product on shelves that caused pandemonium across the Atlantic sitting in full size runs. There are several doors for Jordans in close proximity. adidas fans seem to get superior Originals offerings than they get overseas. There’s a sense that some things at least seem a little more attainable here — though the reseller virus is eroding that.
Over the past few years, there's a worrying trend for ditching the word "trainers" and the creeping homogenization of offering to accounts that might have watered down this country's individuality, but this is a city that's obsessed with sports footwear. The daylong queue in the hundreds for Crepe City (crepe being local slang for trainers) is a testament to the next generation pushing that obsession to their peers. But no matter the hype, some of London’s eccentricities will always remain.
Our pizza might be an abomination compared to the NYC pie and we might be paying £4 for a slice while you’re moaning about a $5 one, our service might be significantly more surly, the grey skies put a permanent frown on our faces and our teeth might be off-white. But we do trainers better than you.