'Baltimore to the Fullest': Why Sneakers Matter in HBO's New Series

The costumer on 'We Own This City' explains the origins of the New Balances, Foamposites, and Air Jordans used in David Simon's latest show.

The silver Nike Air Total Foamposite Max
Complex Original


The silver Nike Air Total Foamposite Max

“The silver Duncans are the No. 1 shoe here that if you have them on, you’re the man,” says Anthony “Boost” Colston, who owns a sneaker cleaning and restoration shop in his hometown of Baltimore. “Of course, you know this is a Foamposite City, this is a New Balance City, but if you have the silver Duncans on, you’re the man.”

The silver Duncans—the Nike Total Air Foamposite Maxes—shine on the feet of an extra in We Own This City, the new HBO series from The Wire co-creator David Simon. We Own This City, based on the nonfiction book of the same name, tells the story of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force and the communities affected by it. Sneakers are not a central part of that story, but they play a part in its setting.

“I wanted it to represent Baltimore to the fullest,” says Colston, who procured shoes for the series. “I asked them to make sure. There were certain shoes that they needed to have that were staples here.”

And so, in the second episode, a man shines down his 1995 Impala with a pair of New Balances on feet. In an alley, behind yellow barricade tape, a limp body wears True Religion jeans and Foamposite Pros. Meanwhile, a man sits on a corner in Nike Flightposites. Another wears a retro Wes Unseld Bullets jersey and matching Reebok Questions.

The Wire co-creator David Simon with his arm around costumer DaJuan Prince

The sneakers in We Own This City were supplied by Colston via costumer DaJuan Prince, another Baltimorean, who met Simon on the set of the NBC show Homicide: Life on the Street in 1994. Prince has worked with Simon since The Corner from 2000. Prince prioritized making the footwear faithful to the city and the years depicted. The show moves across two decades through flashbacks, recreating specific events referenced in the investigation of the Gun Trace Task Force.

“They gave us the era and the location, and we basically went off the style of Baltimore,” Prince says. “So that’s where I’m from, so I knew the eras of style and the sneakers throughout the years.”

While Prince didn’t have the capital to really hoard sneakers growing up, he was an admirer of them and familiar enough to know which ones belonged in the show’s different eras and which didn’t. In one instance, he had to veto a suggestion to include Under Armour sneakers for a scene set in the early 2000s, before the Baltimore-based sportswear brand started making footwear.

Police officers in Baltimore in the HBO series We Own This City, one of them wearing Air Jordan 7s

“Sometimes we had to speak up because certain shoes really weren’t popular in Baltimore then,” Prince says. “So, a lot of times, we would have to maybe switch a shoe up or switch a colorway up.”

The production team viewed body cam footage online from police officers involved in the events depicted in We Own This City, which gave a first-person view of the outfits they sought to recreate. Colston says a friend of his was an ex of one of the cops portrayed on the show, so he had personal photos to draw from to depict the things he wore, such as his Nike LeBron 12s and Damier Louis Vuitton belt. Colston sold the same style of belt, along with around 350 pairs of shoes, to HBO for the series. The shoes he supplied came directly from the streets of Baltimore.

“Things that people donate, shoes that people forget to pick up,” he says, describing his sources. “I’ve had shoes from people who have been killed and I kept their shoes. I’ve had shoes from people who actually murdered the guy.”

In addition to selling shoes to the production team, he went through hundreds of photos to build references for fashion in Baltimore in different years. Prince told him they needed notes on what people would wear in 2011, 2015, and 2017. He called Colston again for input on 2003 and 2004.

Anthony Boost Colston

“I said cool, that was my era. I had everything,” Colston says. “From every Mitchell & Ness jersey to Coogis. I said I don’t even need the pictures; I can just tell you everything they would wear. But I still sent the pictures over.”

Prince didn’t have access to that level of resources at the start of his career in costuming. He says that when he began on The Wire, there wasn’t a big budget for wardrobe, so the show had to return to staple footwear that people could wear throughout the arc of a season. But as it gained traction, brands started to send product.

On an episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping from May, Wire actor Idris Elba said Jordan Brand was providing promo gear by the third season. Prince recalls Creative Recreation, a sneaker brand that reached its peak in the 2000s, also flowing them product.

“People just started sending a lot of stuff in for free to be on the show,” he says. “Creative Recreations really stick out to me because that was the ‘It’ shoe of that time, and the colorways. I remember that being on Marlo’s character a lot.”

The sneakers from The Wire are a memento for Jamie Hector, who played the series’ stony kingpin Marlo Stanfield.

“I still have them,” says Hector. “I have most of Marlo’s sneakers. I boxed them up.”

Hector’s character in We Own This City, Det. Sean Suiter, doesn’t wear any notable athletic footwear, save for a pair of all-black Nike Air Force 1s. The meme connotations of the black Uptown as a sneaker for the morally bankrupt track with the murky character of the real-life Suiter. The shoe was also a favorite of Hector’s growing up.

“Those were my winter sneakers,” he says. “Spring, summer, I always got the white on white. Wintertime, I would always get the black on black.”

Did his all-black Air Force 1s have the same red-flag status back then as the shoes do now?

“I’m a Brooklyn boy,” Hector jokes, “so that’s probably the reason why I saw so many people crossing the street.”

The Wire Kith collaboration modeled by Jamie Hector

He remembers pursuing shoes in his borough at stores like Sneaker King. Hector would dip through mom-and-pop shops across Utica, Flatbush, and Church Avenues in search of Adidas, Diadoras, and fat-lace Pumas. He went further, out to Harlem and into the city. In Manhattan he bought boots from David Z, the powerhouse retailer where Kith founder and recent Wire collaborator Ronnie Fieg got his start.

“I used to always go there and get my Dolomites,” Hector says. 

Though Hector understands the cultural significance different shoes carry, he doesn’t offer input into what his characters wear. Between Colston and Prince, We Own This City had the right resources to depict the street-level sneakers in Baltimore. If anything, there was a risk of oversaturation. 

“I was actually looking at it and I was like, ‘Did we do too much grey New Balance 990s and 992s?’” says Prince.

New Balance sneakers We Own This City

An informal survey of local taste confirmed for him that those models were as salient in the show as they should be.

“If you drive around Baltimore right now, you’ll see five out of 10 people with grey 990s or 992s,” Prince says. “So we made sure they were really prevalent in a bunch of scenes.”

Beyond reflecting the broad sneaker taste of the city, the show is careful about when certain colorways and models appear in its timeline. In a scene set in 2004, a cop wears a pair of the “Raptors” Air Jordan 7, one of the first retros for the shoe in that period. (The officer suffers for it—another cop beats on his leg after seeing his footwear stick out from a jumble of bodies and assuming it belongs to a criminal.) In another, set on March 26, a character wears the bubbly Air Max CB 94 in a nod to Air Max Day. That piece of footwear was a moment of validation for Colston.

“Man, I was so happy,” he says. “I’m like, ‘I did that for the fuckin’ culture.’”

The show has been a boon for him financially and personally. The bulk sneaker purchase from HBO came when business was still slow for Colston during the pandemic. After that, seeing the finished episodes of We Own This City as they aired for the past two months was an affirmation of his work in sneakers.

“I wish I could have screamed, but my kids were asleep because it didn’t come on until late,” Colston says. “But I was very hyped. I was very excited, jumping up and down. I love this life that I’m into now, I really do.”