A few times a day we get DMs from sneakerheads on Instagram that are asking us to post their latest photo showing off their Sean Wotherspoon Air Maxes, Virgil Abloh Air Jordan 1s, or Tom Sachs Nikes that they took with a DSLR camera. Every few days, they take the same photos of the same expensive sneakers—maybe they have one on each foot, or possibly they paired the shoes up with one of their few A Bathing Ape or Supreme sweatshirts in the hopes of gaining more Instagram followers and likes. It’s hard to gauge whether these people, or anyone in general, are really into sneakers, or if it’s simply something they just use to get noticed on social media. One thing’s for sure: They either had a few thousand dollars and spent it all on shoes, or maybe just got lucky on a few raffles. With sneakers being a consumer culture, it’s fair to pose the question: Can you buy your way into the sneaker world? Or does it take more than that?
There’s one thing all sneaker people, even the ones who work in media or have become “influencers,” at least most of them, have in common: They’ve spent way too much money on shoes in their lifetime. If you haven’t hid a pair of shoes from your family or significant other, you’re either 11 years old or haven’t been into this for that long. I remember dropping $175 on the “Mork and Mindy” Nike SB Dunks in 2006 and keeping them in my trunk for a week so my parents wouldn’t freak out. So to call people out for blowing a bunch of cash to get the coolest shoes is lame. When it comes to sneakers, though, it’s an insider’s game. A lot of people feel you needed to have had, wanted, or remembered cool shoes when you were growing up to have an opinion on them. If you’re 32 years old right now and you first got into shoes in 2015 when the Yeezy 350s came out, it’s hard to say that your opinion matters. Hate to break it to you, that’s just the way things go.
I get it: We all can find passions later in life. I didn’t start going to football matches every weekend until four years ago. But shoes feel a little bit different—we’ve all been wearing them our whole lives, unless you grew up in a weird commune somewhere out in the Pacific Northwest, then you have bigger issues to deal with at the moment. Most of us grew up in the ‘90s or early 2000s when sportswear marketing was everywhere. It was thrown in our faces on TV, in magazines, or on subway ads, and was nearly impossible to escape. That’s why it’s strange to believe that someone who struck it rich at the age of 35 and spent it all on footwear is the cup of knowledge for this community. It doesn’t work that way.
I know I said earlier that you don’t need to know everything about shoes to be considered a sneakerhead. I still think that’s true. If someone doesn’t know the difference between a New Balance 998 and 997, you can’t crucify them. As long as they love shoes, that’s OK. Where it gets twisted is with people who have large amounts of disposable income who now act as the gatekeepers of the scene. It’s easy to see why people take issue with that. You don’t have to know who designed the Air Force 1 or have been there in 1982 to buy a pair when they first came out to be into shoes. But if you call yourself the expert and are getting paid to talk about shoes and don’t know about any of that, then you look foolish.
Often we get hell for uplifting celebrities with millions of followers that have found their way into footwear industry—think Kylie Jenner and DJ Khaled—who probably can’t tell an Air Max Light apart from Air Max 1, or even know the names of the shoes. And I get why people take issue with other people thinking that they’re important to sneaker folks. There are plenty of connoisseurs—Wale and DJ Clark Kent come to mind—who run circles around the aforementioned big fish celebrities when it comes to stain in the sneaker game. But it’s difficult: We live in a culture where people don’t want to look into things deeper. They want to follow the most popular people on Instagram and make their decisions based on what those people are into. It sounds shallow, and it is easy, but that’s where we’re at as a society. You can’t blame media outlets for being a reflection of the world they’re reporting on.
I know it was controversial when we named these people to the most influential celebrities sneaker list, but you can’t deny that someone wearing a pair of shoes that gets a million likes on Instagram has a bit of clout.
Now this is where all of this comes full circle. The average person on the internet feels the need to keep up with those who are swimming in their riches, and they do this by acquiring shoes with high price tags. The internet has made everything a numbers game. Posting a pair of Yeezys on Instagram will get more likes than a pair of ASICS Gel-Lyte IIIs. Writing about Off-White x Nike on a website will get more views than a story, no matter how well it is written, on the Mizuno Sky Medal. Bills need to be paid and bigger numbers are always more attractive than smaller ones, no matter how good the content. Sneakers that resell for $1,000 are always going to pique more interest than shoes that go for half of their retail price, if you're lucky.
In a weird way, we’re all trying to “buy” our way into sneaker culture. We all show off our best shoes. No one posts the Gazelles they’ve worn 150 times where the suede has faded and they’re covered in lager stains. We all want to put our best foot forward. Some people just think they can do it by spending enough to get their hands on and feet into the shoes everyone talks about online. That doesn’t make them better than anyone else, it just establishes them as someone with enough money to buy expensive shoes. As I’ve said before, though, the greatest thing about learning is that you can always do it, no matter how old or young you are now. Maybe you convinced your parents to blow your college fund on a pair of Red Octobers or you hit it rich on the stock market and got a pair Undefeated Air Jordans. Congrats, that’s a come up, and you should use it as a stepping stone to making yourself legit in the shoe world.