Jeff Staple: 10 Ways Sneaker Culture Was Better in the '90s

Jeff Staple is helping bring Airwalk back in 2016, and we got him to reflect on sneaker's golden era: the '90s.

Jeff Staple in New York in front of a table of 2016 Airwalk Classics.

Image via Complex

Jeff Staple in New York in front of a table of 2016 Airwalk Classics.

Jeff Staple doesn't need an introduction to anyone with a mild interest in limited-edition footwear. His work on the NYC Pigeon Dunk with Nike SB—and subsequent collaborations with New Balance, Puma, Timberland, and Airwalk—have made him a household name for sneaker connoisseurs.

It's now 2016 and he's helping  reignite Airwalk, through a series of collaborations with the '90s skate brand for its 30th anniversary on the Airwalk "The One" shoe. The Airwalk Classics' sneakers are set to release in capsules in October, Black Friday, and December.

Given Staple's long career in what's now called sneaker culture, he's able to give a retrospective look at how it's changed since its inception in the '80s, grown in the '90s, and finally established itself as something mainstream in the 2000s.

Long before Kanye West was making websites crash on release day, Staple was at the heart of sneaker hype and he doesn't forget the glory days of athletic footwear: the '90s.

We recently connected with Staple to get his opinion on how sneaker culture was better two decades ago. Here's what he had to say.

How Kanye has changed color perceptions:
“Back in the day, and I’m talking not even that far back, but from the early ‘90s, ‘80s, all the way up until the mid-2000s, if you were designing a collection of merchandise in a shoe line, this would be the color preference choice. You have to do black, right? You have to do navy. You’ll do a “pop” color, which is like red or something like [that], a loud infrared or teal blue or something like that. The lowest priority was the skin-tone one, the sort of brown, neutral, mocha-coffee tan. That was always gonna be your worst seller because if you took ten sneakerheads or people who buy shoes, two out of the ten could rock a brown shoe. Not too many people could rock brown sneakers, or in that earth-tone color.

“And it’s so funny how in the past two or three years, that color palette is so fire. It’s so funny because I look at it and even my…I can’t pull it off. I think because of skin tone I don’t want to wear it. I don’t want to wear all-tan shoes, like the Yeezys or like Nike did the Air Max 1 with the military Velcro pack.

“I attest a lot of that to Kanye. I think his collection made people want to be skin-toned and monochromatic and for the shoes to match it as well. So it’s incredible how a trend can change someone’s perception of what’s good and what’s bad.”

Collaborations don’t have the same meaning:
“Collaborations back then were very athletic-focused, so collaborations were Bo Jackson, John McEnroe, Chuck Taylor. They were with people who were actually using the product for their original intended purpose. What happened a little bit later, sort of in the 2000s, was sneaker companies started to realize that the people on the court using the stuff wasn’t matching the fact that the kid was buying that shoe to just go to the mall or go out on a date. They weren’t using it for balling or playing tennis or anything like that. So with the rise of an influencer that wasn’t an athlete, whether it’d be a musician or designer or rock star or fashion designer, those creators started to pull their own influence.

“For instance, my friend, Hiroshi Fujiwara, his contract with Nike is on the level of an NBA athlete. Some people are like, ‘He’s a musician. He’s a streetwear designer. Why is he getting paid so much?’ It’s because his weight moves more than LeBron James in Japan does. So why wouldn’t he get paid on that level?

“It’s almost like a chessboard of collaborations. Remember that game Risk where it’s like, ‘I got this property.’ So now it’s like people are signing up talent for larger, longer-term situations: Kanye, Pharrell, Rihanna, The Weeknd or Future, right? Or Kendrick Lamar. People are signing up acts as if they’re signing up record label deals. And they’re just trying to capture chess pieces on the board, because, in reality, there are not that many influencers in the world that move the needle.”

Influences are stretched too thin:
“There are too many distractions for a young person now. When we were growing up, it was like sports, school, women. [Laughs.] That was really it! Think about the magazines. There was Sports Illustrated, your dad’s Playboy, and schoolbooks. That was your whole medium. Now it’s like kids are chasing around Pokémon and they’re on Snapchat, they’ve got to take care of their Instagram account, they’ve got to make sure their Tumblr is updated, and then they have to take care of their fit.

“And then on an international level, too. When I grew up in Jersey, I didn’t give a shit what was going on in Japan or London or Paris. It was so far away for me back then. But now it’s like, ‘Alexander Wang just did a drop in Katayama, Japan!’ It’s like a city that I’ve never been to but kids are just name-dropping these crazy cities because they just know now. The whole world is exposing them, and I think your brain can only accommodate so much.”

The Internet is not a positive:
“There are way more negative aspects to it then positive. The only positive of it is that it’s easier to get the shoes now, which also might be a negative. I can tell you the first 50 shoes in my sneaker collection. I can recall how I got each one, who I had to meet, where I had to fly, how I had to get these, who I had to trade with, and I remember the stories. Like every story.

“Honestly, without sounding naïve or cliché, but without the story it just becomes stuff now. It’s just a commodity item. Whereas with the story attached, then it’s the culture. That’s what makes the culture is the stories. Because of the technology and the Internet now, it’s removing the storytelling process of it.”

Instagram is changing the game:
“It sounds so old man of me to say, but there are a lot of fuccbois out there; guys that don’t know why Nike re-released the Air Talaria or why Bo Jackson means this. They’re just buying into the hype, and you could see them because they’re dressed head-to-toe the way Hypebeast told them to dress. So they’re just doing that.

“To me, that’s a shame. It’s not so much bad as it is a shame because there is so much rich culture around all this, whether it’s sports or fashion or technology. There’s so much rich history behind all of this. And for you to use your money to buy into that simply for the hype is a shame. The fact that you don’t know who Tinker Hatfield is is a shame on you, not so much a shame on Nike. They’ve put him out there. You could do your research but if you don’t want to, that’s too bad.”

Hypebeast culture is too prevalent:
“If one day at the nightclub, the owner was like, ‘You know what? Everyone’s allowed in the VIP section tonight.’ So everyone’s like, ‘What?! I’ve never been to the VIP section! I’m going there!’ And boom, everyone is in the VIP section. After a very short time, people are gonna be like, ‘I don’t really want to be up here. Actually down [with the regular crowd] is better now.’ The sneaker companies gave [us] the keys to the kingdom in terms of being the other guy, like the limited guy or the special guy. Now that everyone is rocking something special, there’s no longer anything to aspire to.”

The hype is driving too much of the culture:
“At this point, how can you possibly keep up with the hype? You have to be dealing drugs, like that’s the only way to manifest the amount of money you would need to keep up with what these companies are pumping out at you. And I hear it from these kids. It’s like abuse at this point. You’re making hot stuff but the way they’re doing it, like pacing it out every Thursday and Saturday, it’s just making it really difficult for them.”

Sneaker prices are out of control:
“It’s honestly insulting sometimes. Some of the basketball shoes are upwards of $200. When they reengineered the Jordans recently, the complaints were that Jordan’s quality was going really bad with the retros, right? It’s just going downhill. So then they were like, ‘We’re gonna reengineer the Jordans so they’re just like they were when they came out, but we’re gonna charge like $250-$300.’ What? I don’t get it. We just asked you to do it the way you used to do it, but why is it now twice as much as it was back then? I think that’s just insulting, and honestly with the recent sales news of how the KD and LeBrons are doing–they’re doing pretty bad in terms of sell-through–it’s probably a pricing issue. You can’t just keep price-gauging these people.”

Sneaker violence is still here:
“I think maybe it feels a little more prevalent now because of the access. Everyone’s got a smartphone so everyone can capture it now, whereas before it could have happened but there was no way to really communicate it. I always thought that the responsibility of an organized release was in the hands of the retailer. I never once thought it was Jordan’s fault or Nike’s fault or the brand’s fault if there was a chaotic release. It’s the sneaker company’s job to release a sought-after product. It’s the retailer’s job to organize the fever pitch. And I can speak on that because we are infamous for having one of the most unorganized, chaotic releases of all time, right? I never blamed SB like, ‘Why did you make such a great shoe and people wanted to kill each other for it?’ That was my fault for not having a ticketing system and NYPD all set up.”

Sneaker culture is in trouble:
“I think the culture is in trouble. Not right now today, but I think the smarter people at the sneaker companies realize that when you keep pumping out a drop a week and now the release system is like Twitter-based and very robotic and mechanical, and then even the after-market thing with eBay is even mechanical now too with bots that just win the auction for you. It’s all so automatic that they have to figure out a way to bring the story back into the product or else it’s just going to be commodity items.”

To learn more about the launch of  Airwalk Classics and Jeff Staple’s collaboration watch the “Made in Japan” video here: