The Director of "Sneakerheadz" Explains Exactly What a Real Sneakerhead Is

We spoke with the director of the "Sneakerheadz" documentary to see how it all came to fruition.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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We're living in a time where sneaker culture is as diverse as ever but also extremely exclusive when it comes to brands and limited-edition product. Exactly ten years after the sneaker world's first major documentary about the culture, Academy Award-nominated director and producer David T. Friendly premiered his own documentary on Vimeo today.

Featuring some of sneaker culture's most recognizable personalities while also including new school contemporaries, "Sneakerheadz" aims to share the stories of our misunderstood subculture to the mainstream. We caught up with Friendly and spoke to him about why he decided to make his first documentary on sneakers, what the current and future state of the culture holds, and how this all came to fruition.

You can peep the interview below and purchase on Vimeo now.

What made you want to produce a documentary about sneaker culture?
I had always wanted to do a documentary, I just wasn't sure what to do a documentary about. I happened to be in New York in the mid-2000s and around 2006 I stumbled into an adidas Originals store and I bought a pair of chocolate brown RUN DMC Superstars. At the time, I knew so little about sneakers that I thought they were 35 years old. I thought “Oh, these are in great shape!” Only later did I understand what retro was. I started to look at the blogs and websites and it just came to me in a flash. I thought that this is a really deep subculture and I want to do a movie about it. That’s how it happened.

Before that moment you never considered yourself a sneakerhead?
I admired sneakers, but I wasn't a collector. I didn't know anything about the world. I was just the typical guy that had a different pair of shoes for playing different sports, but five or six pair total.

How long was the documentary in the making?
From the inception of the idea to today is probably about a three year period. So three years womb to tomb. We shot 74 hours of footage for 70 minutes, so almost an hour of footage for every minute in the film.

That’s pretty crazy.
It is pretty crazy. You have to shoot a lot for documentaries. I don’t know how much you know about documentaries, but ultimately you never quite have enough b-roll or background footage and you're constantly grabbing more and more you never have enough.

What was the biggest challenge in putting this together? I imagine it was pretty tough getting everyone involved.
In the sneaker world, the subculture itself, it’s a very closed world. It’s insulated and it’s not the most trusting community. I was having a hard time getting anybody to talk to me and then I met Peter Fahey of Sneaker Pimps. We were shooting at a sneaker show in Miami and we developed a relationship with Peter and he kind of became our guide. We bounced names off of him and I would say, “Can we get to Jeff Staple?” He helped us corral Jeff and people like Frank the Butcher. I hate to say it this way, but it’s almost like the mafia or something. You need an introduction. You need an introduction to get to these people and you have to get the sign off.

These are the type of things where once you get a few notable people involved others are going to want to get down and then it gets the whole thing going.
No question about that, but there’s also old school and new school. I’ll give credit where credit is due and that Joe La Puma at Complex helped us get to Vashtie, who I didn't even know existed. The only woman that ever designed a Jordan. She’s kind of like the ultimate new school, but it’s great to have Vashtie and Frank the Butcher. And they require different intermediaries, if that makes sense. We were determined to make a film that appealed to the aficionado, but was also accessible for people who didn't know anything about kicks. That’s whats why we have some cool new folks in it like Jon Buscemi and Vashtie, and Deon [Point] from Concepts. We’re trying to keep it current.

“Sneakerheadz” talks a lot about what a real sneakerhead is. What is a "real" sneakerhead in your opinion?
It’s kind of hard to have a concise definition, but I will say this. They have to know a great deal about the various manufacturers and the people that design the shoes and the difference between one model versus another, and it’s almost like somebody who’s really deeply immersed in a sport. They have to know the players, they have to know the stats; in this case they have to know how much the shoe sells for and you have to know what makes the shoe special. A sneakerhead to me is someone who is very informed and has a point of view on what they like. You have to know about everything, but then you have to have your own set of aesthetics. That’s a true sneakerhead to me.

So someone with a cursory knowledge of just one brand, you wouldn't call them a sneakerhead?
No, not to me. And you’d be surprised how many people came up to me and said, “Oh, I heard you're making this documentary. I’m a sneakerhead.” I just nod along, I’m not here to kill anybody’s buzz, but there’s levels here. There’s real levels. When you meet a guy like Elliot Curtis, who’s in our documentary, and taught the only course about sneakers that was accredited at a university – that’s a sneakerhead. But some guy who in the last three years picked up seven different pairs of the latest Stan Smiths is not, to me, a sneakerhead quite honestly.

In your travels to produce this what was sneaker culture like in different parts of the world? You went to Japan, was there anything different in the culture there compared to the United States? 
We spent 10 days in Japan, mostly in the Harajuku section, and that was such an incredibly eye-opening experience. There’s so much respect for the craft of making kicks. In America, people are drawn to what celebrities or athletes are wearing and a fundamental difference in Japan is that they are drawn to the workmanship—the quality of the stitch, who designed it, the form versus the function of the shoe.

Most sneaker culture in the United States to this point is built around Michael Jordan and the Jordan line. Great, I tip my hat to him. It’s incredible what they’ve done and without Michael Jordan there is no sneaker culture. But in a place like Tokyo, they might flip out over an Air Max that had a particularly beautiful stitch in it that has nothing to with an athlete. I think that’s cool and different.

What was the most interesting thing you’ve learned about sneaker culture from making this documentary?
I learned a few things. First, that it’s a very intelligent community. I was surprised at how knowledgeable and articulate and passionate the subculture is. I also learned that sneakerheads are very opinionated, which I like. They all have a point of view. If it was the art world, they like certain things, they dislike certain things, they talk it out. And it’s not like this shoe is right for everybody or that shoe is right for everybody.

I like a community that allows this back and forth dialogue. It can get a little nasty sometimes, but the bottom line is everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Within our film, there are people who make a point that it’s not about just putting on the most popular shoe of the day. It’s about picking that shoe off the wall and kind of making it yourself, rocking it yourself, and making other people pick up on it.

From interviewing all of those sneaker personalities in the documentary, what do you think is the biggest change in the sneaker landscape from the ‘90s to the ‘00s and now?
Unquestionably, the Internet changed everything. In the old days people actually had to go out and find the stuff. Sneakerheads pre-Internet were treasure hunters. I have a lot of respect for the old-schoolers. The new-schoolers, they are also hunting, but they are hunting with a lot more arrows in the quiver. They're getting information much faster and they’re able to find their targets more easily. But in the end, a true sneakerhead still has an opinion on what works, what they think is a great shoe and what isn’t and theres no amount of information or technology that can do that for you.

Every time you lace up a pair of kicks you’re telling the world a little bit about who you are and that doesn't change. It’s just the manner in which the treasure hunt occurs. There’s a lot of squabbling back and forth like, “Oh people just go on Instagram and they have it Fed Ex’d to their house in two days. That’s not really being a sneakerhead.” I try to stay agnostic. I wouldn’t criticize the old and I wouldn't criticize the new. I think they have to coexist. It’s how anything evolves.

A lot of sneaker culture today is about having the latest limited release, something that’s super hyped up. Do you think sneaker brands are responsible for creating this image of exclusivity and therefore having a direct hand in violence surrounding these releases?
I think companies are doing whatever they can to market and sell their goods. That’s every company in America and you can’t really fault them for that. What I do think is true is that by doing limited releases it creates a frenzy. Nobody should get hurt over a pair of sneakers and I believe that if they’re going to do these very limited releases they should just be done digitally. 

I do believe that major companies like Nike and adidas are very aware they have a certain responsibility here, and they’re trying. They’ve moved from release times. They used to release shoes at midnight, but they’ve found there's less violence in the morning. It’s not like they’re not aware of it, but it’s not something that they’re solving overnight. It’s not going to happen.

I agree, and that was a small incremental step, but Nike is a prime example of driving this hype on new sneakers. There’s definitely more that can be done with them.
100%. There’s definitely more that can be done, but it’s not an easily solvable problem. That is for sure. But I also think that there’s no harm in coming out with a release and if it sells out in one day, allowing another 500 or 1000 pairs to come out down the road. Why not make the shoes available to everyone that wants them?

That’s one step that would probably solve a majority of that problem. If you knew, ok I didn’t get them in the first run, but the Jordan OG that I missed out on, they’re gonna come out with more in a few months, I think people would come down. It’s the scarcity that creates the intensity.

David Ortiz said, “A sneakerhead has OCD. Obsessive Consumption Disorder” and others have touched on the fact that it can be a behavioral addiction when a sneakerhead just wants more and more. Do you agree?
I think that in my experience traveling around the world and meeting a lot of  passionate sneakerheads that hoarders are a very tiny percentage of collectors. It’s a very small percentage of the overall community. I think what’s tragic is someone using their rent money to buy a pair of kicks. That’s kind of sad. If you get carried away, and you lose your way, you can start doing some stupid things to support your habit, not unlike a heroine addict. Someone with a major sneaker addiction can do some pretty dopey stuff. I don't think that’s really a signature of the sneaker community, but it does exist.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the "Rise of Sneaker Culture" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Do you think that kind of signals a change in lanes from sneakers being a niche subculture to something that’s now fully mainstream?
Yeah, there’s no question. Look, you're talking about something that’s a $42 billion business. $21 billion in the U.S. and $21 billion around the rest of the world. That’s not a niche community in any sense, but when somebody takes the time to curate an exhibit that's devoted exclusively to sneakers, it tells you that it certainly has come out of the shadows and the artistic qualities of it are being appreciated. I think that’s wonderful.

Finally, what are your thoughts on today’s sneaker landscape and do you think this mainstream popularity is here to stay?
Sneaker people like to say, “The boom was this period, the boom was that period.” I think it’s happening right in front of us right now. I think there’s plenty of growth left. For example, sneakers for women. I think that will be the most explosive part of the market in the next 10 years. You’re going to start to seeing styles that are designed exclusively for women. You’re going to start to see women wearing sneakers a lot more often. I think that women want to wear what’s fashionable and for years sneakers were more about function than form, and now they’re as stylish as any article of clothing.

There’s also a lot of growth on the high-end. I think you start to see different sectors of the community that are really becoming interested in sneakers that we would’ve never paid attention to before. When designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga and Jon Buscemi and Gucci are doing sneakers, that’s telling you that the world is expanding. So there’s plenty of growth left.