“I think something as esoteric as sneaker culture could never find a home outside of a place like YouTube,” Casey Neistat told Complex’s Joe La Puma during his episode of Sneaker Shopping. When I first heard him say this, I didn’t agree. Sneaker culture had existed 30 years before YouTube was founded in 2005 and, to me at least, it felt a bit disrespectful to everyone who had participated and helped birth the mainstream’s fascination with footwear. Then I stopped myself. Neistat wasn’t wrong, rather his perception of sneakers had changed along with the culture itself. Long gone are the days where you had to hear whispers about a store carrying a color of an Air Force 1 that no one else wore, or when you couldn’t find out the releases simply by scrolling through an app. The culture has gone mainstream and as I write this on a website -- a now-archaic format in its own right -- the future of shoes, hype, resellers, and fanaticism is on YouTube.com, where a host of personalities debate, discuss, and relay information on what we all love: sneakers.
I wrote a story last year about Sneaker YouTube’s obsession with clickbait. I wasn’t a big fan of the subgenre at the time, but it fascinated me in a hate-watch type of way. I love sneakers, but I wasn’t into the personalities and their lack of knowledge on the history of footwear as a whole. I kept watching and talked to a handful of the game’s biggest names: Qias Omar, Jacques Slade, Foamer Simpson, and more. A lot of people got mad at me, said I didn’t understand Sneaker YouTube, and maybe that was true in a sense.
But then things changed for me. I started to co-host Sole Collector’s sneaker debate show, Full Size Run, and my perception on Sneaker YouTube not only changed, but I was now part of it, too. I wasn’t alone in my thought, either, and a lot of traditional sneaker media people have a bias against Sneaker YouTube, even if they’ve dabbled in it themselves.
It’s hard to talk about sneakers and YouTube without mentioning Nice Kicks, the website that was founded in 2006 and had a strong run on the video site, although it’s slowed down in the past few years.
“To me, traditionally, Sneaker YouTube is a community within the YouTube community, which I haven’t always had been a big fan of,” says Nice Kicks founder Matt Halfhill. “It’s no shot at people who make content, but I think a lot of the content that’s being made isn’t about shoes, but it’s about the people who make the videos. It just so happens that a shoe is part of the subject matter.”
Halfhill’s gripe about Sneaker YouTube was one that I shared as well. I liked that people were talking about sneakers, but I didn’t like that it was more about the people in front of the camera than the shoes or their importance. Seriously, who the fuck are you that we need to put you over cultural movements and historical moments?
That ideology behind sneaker media was nowhere near in line with mine. It was all about getting your facts straight, finding an applicable storyline, and being able to educate the readers on a subject that would improve their understanding on why shoes matter.
To better understand why YouTubers were so self-focused, you have to look at YouTube itself and the way it enticed people to come on its site to broadcast their stories.
“YouTube’s original tagline was ‘broadcast yourself,’” Halfhill says. “But when have publications such as Sole Collector, Nice Kicks, or Sneaker News ever been about broadcasting individuals? It’s not what we do, we talk about shoes. That’s why [the two separate platforms] have been different for awhile.”
Sneaker YouTube and Sneaker Media aren’t as different as you’d think. A handful of the people in front of the camera, like Jacques Slade, who goes by the name Kustoo, have experience writing on websites, too. Slade has written for Nice Kicks, Sole Collector, and Complex Sneakers in the past, and he currently has over 850,000 subscribers on his channel.
“Sneaker YouTube’s always been legitimate,” Slade says. “It’s always been legitimate in the space. It just took brands a long time to stop thinking, ‘Unless it’s a blog, it’s not legitimate,’ and they were like, ‘OK, these Sneaker YouTubers are just as legitimate as the rest of the blogs.’”
Slade’s highest trafficked video is a tour he took of Michael Jordan’s Chicago home in 2015, which has over 12.5 million views. His style is one of the most professional and informative Sneaker YouTubers and many look at his videos as the industry standard for independent creators. Slade’s unboxings, although frequently titled with vague descriptions, give an accurate description and full scope of information on each shoe.
His work has caught the eye of many major footwear brands and he now operates in a similar space to many websites. We’ve even seen each other at major footwear sneaker releases, such as the launch of James Harden’s first Adidas sneaker in 2016.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between Sneaker Media and Sneaker YouTube, though. The bigger brands -- yes, ourselves -- want to make a legitimate presence in a scene that’s so grassroots. The brands can’t just swoop in, throw dollars, and expect to get a positive result. They need to earn the trust of the viewers, who often look up to one-person video channels for their content.
“I think [big brands making more professional videos] forces the independent creator to step up their content and the way they create their content. I think it also forces the publisher, like Complex, to recognize the power of the independent creator and craft their content in a way that taps into that dynamic,” says Slade. “All these shows like Sneaker Shopping, Sneaker Closets, it may be more polished and professionally produced, but it’s still tapping into that same independent spirit that you get from [some of the independent creators]. It’s funny, because you see the independent creators step up their game, and it makes the big publishers work harder, too.”
Sneaker Shopping started in 2011 when Joe La Puma, who worked as a sales associate at Finish Line for years, took Jim Jones, well, sneaker shopping at Flight Club in New York City. The series was rebooted in 2014, when Wale and La Puma went to UNKNWN in Miami. The show has since served as a place where celebrities can come and talk about their love of sneakers, and it’s the shining example for the rest of the Sneaker YouTube community. As someone who works on the show behind the scenes, it’s much different than the one-man production teams, like other YouTube shows, or even the show I’m featured on, Full Size Run; Sneaker Shopping has a production crew of 10+ people who put together the show on a weekly basis. It’s taken the format of Sneaker YouTube, where the audience is attached to the show’s host, and added celebrities and high production value to put it over the top. I’m not saying this to stroke our own ego, it’s just true. It’s also helped us transform the way we look at content, rather than writing stories that don’t pop like a video.
The reason that Sneaker YouTube has become an alternative to sneaker blogs is simple: people love to see other people talk about things, especially sneakers, rather than reading words from a faceless byline.
“It’s easier to get your point across when people have a visual. People have to like you to believe what you’re saying. They want to put a face to it,” says Qias Omar, a popular Sneaker YouTuber who recently reached one million subscribers.
Omar also views YouTubers, no matter how big or small, as more important than traditional marketing that brands might take part in. “Even if it’s a smaller YouTuber, [them] doing an unboxing is way more crucial than taking out a billboard on a freeway,” he says. “We can actually convince people to buy stuff, rather than just a sign on the street.”
Although Sneaker YouTube is bigger than ever, it’s not without its flaws. I may not have been a fan of the genre as recent as 12 months ago, but people within the cottage industry have views that not all is well in YouTube land.
“It’s repetitive. Everyone is doing the same type of content,” says Omar.
And not all the content is high quality. There are beefs between YouTubers, rampant clickbait, and videos that become, for a lack of a better term, dick measuring contests to see who can outspend each other. “I Wore $100,000 Worth of Supreme to High School.”
Outrageous titles certainly do draw in views, but they also bring detractors to Sneaker YouTube at the same time.
“I really enjoy the content I made over the past two years, but now it’s at the point where it’s the same stuff everyday, and I’m not enjoying it anymore. I’m trying to figure out that balance. I would say I like my content now. It’s a mix of sneakers, streetwear, and my daily life, but it’s the titles,” says Omar. “If you title your video wrong, it’s not gonna do as good. If I title a video my video ‘Vacation in Mexico,’ it’s not going to do as many views as ‘Spending $10,000 on Hypebeast Shopping in Mexico.’ I don’t want every video and thumbnail to be the same, but I want to enjoy the content. I’m trying to find a balance of liking my content and getting the viewership that I’ve had.”
Whether Sneaker YouTube completely overtakes the sneaker blogs is yet to be seen. There will always people who want quick information on the go, or a longer story to read, and there’s still money to be made in owning a website.
“There’s never been the direction. There’s always been multiple directions,” says Halfhill. “What Nice Kicks started out as was a different direction than what had been done before. Doing a blog about sneakers hadn’t been done, but there were magazines about shoes. There were message boards about shoes. There’s never the way. There’s new ways.”
Even if Sneaker YouTube isn’t the end-all, be-all for sneaker media at the moment, it’s finding a stronghold with those who have been involved with traditional sneaker media for years.
“I’m not going to fully say that YouTube is the future of sneaker media because there’s a lot of distance between who’s doing it well and who’s not,” says Complex’s Joe La Puma. “I will say though, on a Saturday morning in my apartment I’m catching up on all types of sneaker-centric products on YouTube. And there’s a wide-ranging spectrum of programming right now.”