I've had a suspicion for a while. And it's one that you're not going to be happy about. That suspicion is that sneakerheads have no idea what they're talking about when they reference "quality." Instead, I think sneakerheads mean something else when they say "quality." (I think they mean "desirable.") For years now, the community has been complaining about declining quality, and it has turned into a narrative that many who don’t even understand it have taken the banner for. Regardless of the release, you'll get some folks saying, "This is the best quality sneaker ever!" And others saying, "The quality on these suck." But "quality" is an objective, measurable thing. It is not subject to opinion. So I thought I should measure what sneakerheads think, rather than just lambasting. I put together a small survey, opened it to the Internet for people to respond (326 respondents) and, you know what? The results are kind of crazy.
A poorly made shoe can have 13 pairs of laces, and it still won't change how well the sneaker is made.
I used to work in sneaker retail in a senior management position. While there, I managed the release of thousands of pairs of shoes and handled over half of them personally. In one case I operated as the sole quality control agent for almost a thousand pairs. I looked at every angle of the shoe, determined material consistency, construction strength and overall "quality," grading each individual pair. It took 4 days. I've witnessed collaborations from design to production. I've been in meetings with brands discussing their limitations, both actual and self-ascribed. I have friends who own sneaker brands and have described their process. I know a little something about how quality works with sneakers. So when I put this questionnaire together, it was to see if sneakerheads knew what they were talking about when they talk about it, and it turns out they kind of don't. How do I know this? Let's go to the numbers.
When determining the quality of any product, one must decide what rubric they're going to use to determine quality. I asked that specific question: "When considering product quality, what do you take into account?" I chose the words specifically to remove value judgment. Respondents weren't being forced to decide "is pebbled leather better than patent leather?", but merely the "materials considered when making my assessment." Thankfully, 95 percent of respondents considered materials. Leather holds up better than mesh over time, there are varying degrees of suede nap that indicate varying qualities, nubuck and Durabuck have different lifecycles.
You know what doesn't affect quality? Colorways. But 59 percent of those who responded said they consider the color of the materials when determining the quality of a shoe. As if any black shoe had more or less inherent quality than any blue shoe. It's just not the case. Same with those who think additional laces change the quality (53 percent), production quantity (43 percent), or resale value (20 percent). Those considerations do not affect the quality of a shoe. A poorly made shoe can have 13 pairs of laces, and it still won't change how well the sneaker is made.
One of the most alarming numbers is how few sneakerheads consider where the product was made (Factory Location: 9 percent). Almost every brand that produces anything does not own their own factories. Not even Apple owns their own factories. They enter into leasing or production agreements with factories in productive cities and countries to produce their goods for a certain period of time. There’s a reason that “Made in USA” New Balance 998s are priced differently from the Chinese and Vietnamese made pairs. The Made in USA ones get a premium mark up because of PR, sure, but they’re also made by hand, and they use different lasts (the mold that the shoe is placed on during construction, which changes the fit of the shoe). The same model produced in different locations is a wildly different shoe in terms of construction and fit. With most brands it’s easy enough to find out where the shoe was made, and although the judgment is not always clear, it’s a factor that must be considered if you don’t have the pair in hand.
Collaborations always get people salivating and interested. Forty-two percent of respondents said they consider collaborators when considering the quality of a shoe. And this is fair, but it’s a slippery slope that has been sugarcoated by PR. The truth of the matter is collaborators have less control over the final product than you might think. In general, collaborators tell the brand the colors and the materials that they want to use on a shoe, and the brand does what they can to source the materials in those color. The shoes eventually have to go to market, and the brand has to make money off them, so they do what they can to find what the collaborator is asking for within a specific budget. They’ll then make a sample, the sample will be approved or amended by the collaborator, and the shoe will go to production. And then anything can happen. At that point, the collaborator must cross their fingers and hope that the brand does what was asked of them. The brand will cross their fingers that the factory they chose to produce this project doesn’t mess it up. But depending on the collaborator and brand, there’s not much that can be done. It’s fine to consider the collaborator and brand’s track record when buying a shoe blind, but it will not contribute to the bottom line of quality. There are too many variables.
The most telling response from the questionnaire was the response to price. Sixty-five percent of respondents consider price when determining the quality of the shoe. Price tells you nothing. Nothing. The more time, care, and quality materials go into a shoe will drive up the final price, that’s true. But so can brand mark up. And if a sneaker isn’t going to be wholesaled, the final price might end up much lower than shoes of similar quality. Price determines value. When quality is compared to price, one arrives at value (“Am I getting a lot for my money?”). But on its own, the price just tells us the price. That’s the same with resale value (20 percent), popularity (16 percent), and celebrity endorsement (7 percent), which each got small numbers. The quality of a shoe can, and should, be determined on the merits of the shoe itself, and not on the market and social forces around it.
Making judgments about quality is great. I encourage it. But it needs to be educated. A large portion of the discussion around “quality” is subjective, and therefore is not about “quality.” It’s really about desirability and value. When someone considers subjective factors like colors, add-ons, quantity, and collaborators, it’s no longer a procedural question, it’s a preference question. “I like this shoe” and “This shoe is of high quality” do not mean the same thing. A hideous shoe made in vast quantities from unheard of collaborators with no extra laces can be impeccably well made. Quality and value are different.
My suspicion is that rather than saying, “I like this shoe,” sneakerheads want to claim objective reasoning to show that they are right. That anyone who doesn’t agree with them is wrong. This isn’t a self-centered move, in fact it’s the opposite, it’s a shy move. To do so is to say, “See, I’m right, not because of an opinion that you can disagree with, because of quality.” I say, if you’re not sure how quality is determined, that’s okay. Wear what you want to wear. And if someone says, “But don’t you think Jordan’s quality has gone down recently?” You can say, “All I know is that I like them.” At the end of the day, none of those things matter if you like what’s on your feet.
But for sneakerhead sanity's sake, use the right word.
Pete Forester is a contributing writer for Complex Sneakers. If you think he's wrong about "quality," you can find him on Twitter here and call him out.
Hit the jump to see the full survey results.