For those asking what sneaker culture is, welcome to my wonderfully obsessive world of hot kicks. Please leave your New Balance at the door. Sneakers – referred to by some old folks as gym shoes – make up a massive part of street fashion, and as of late, fashion in general. People can now be seen in sneakers with everything from sweat pants to suits, and for those invested in the culture surrounding the footwear, every day becomes a hunt for a new, exclusive purchase. In the U.S., sneaker culture erupted in the 1980s, when they became a part of the mainstream with the release of the Nike’s first Air Jordan. Everyone wanted to buy the highly coveted “Black and Red” Jordan 1, notorious for being thrown out of a game for not having enough white color. After Jordans, sneakers became common place for young kids everywhere: Nike Dunks came out in 1985, Run DMC released the song “My Adidas” in 1986, and Nike designer Tinker Hatfield released the iconic Air Max 1 in 1987. Even Back to the Future got in on the craze, with the sequel featuring Hatfield’s “Air Mag” in 1989. While the fashion has changed from high top basketball shoes like Jordans to low top runners like Yeezys, sneakers as a concept are still essential to modern fashion.
In Japan, sneakers are just as popular as they are in the United States, if not more so. Visit any fashion conscious neighborhood and you’re likely to see some iconic brands done up in vibrant and different colors. However, while Japanese sneaker-heads place just as much value on sneakers as American addicts, their reasons differ. Americans care about two things: hype, and who wore/designed the shoe, both of which often influence one another. When a celebrity designs a shoe, it generates hype, and hype influences whether a famous person wears or designs a shoe. Anybody with a pulse has heard of Kanye West, and when his sneakers (both with Nike and Adidas) released, both sneaker-heads and Kanye fans alike flocked to purchase them. The same craze occurred with Jordans in the 1980s: everybody wanted to be “Like Mike,” and his sneakers became a way for his fans to imitate him. Japanese sneaker-heads, conversely, could care less if the shoe was designed by Kanye or worn by Jordan. To them, it’s all about style and craftsmanship. If the sneaker does not match their fashion sense, they will not purchase it. If the shoe is not well made, they will not purchase it. In a lot of ways, it is a better value system for buying shoes, although there is nothing quite like lacing up some Reebok Questions to feel like the Answer.
The new trend taking over Japan is a more futuristic appearance, which has in turn influenced sneaker fashion: people are wearing more high tech, unique looking sneakers, which means other brands such as Saucony and Asics are on the move. However, they are nowhere near the top dog. As many Japanese sneaker resellers will attest to, the longest running popular sneaker in the country is undoubtedly the Air Max. Coming in a variety of silhouettes and colors, the Nike Air Max line suits Japanese fashion perfectly. The earlier silhouettes like the Air Max 1 or Air Max 90 satisfy the albeit dwindling vintage craze, while the Air max 95 and 97 match the high tech scene that is quickly replacing it. Even outside of trends, the shoe crosses boundaries due to its comfort and diverse colors and shapes allow people to personalize them for their own style. The sneaker is so popular, that when Nike approached Japanese brand Atmos to create the first sneaker collaboration with a streetwear brand, Atmos founder Hommyo Hidefumi chose the Air Max 1 to be his first silhouette (to read more about Hommyo and his connection to Philadelphia, click here).
This wave of Tech Wear sweeping Japan has also assisted Nike’s top competitor, Adidas, grow in the area. Adidas recently developed Boost technology has seen an influx of new, comfortable, sleek running and lifestyle shoes that mold to the Tech Wear style perfectly. They match so perfectly that Ultra Boosts and NMD’s are becoming as common as Air Maxes within the trend.
Now, what catches my eye most about Japanese sneaker culture is the attention to detail. Before the rise of Nike, before sneakers took off in pop culture, the biggest question when it came to buying a pair of “gym shoes” was the style of the shoe and quality of materials used. While the U.S. has distanced itself from quality in favor of hype, Japan has stayed true to sneaker culture roots. If the shoe is not well put together, the shoe sits on the shelf. American sneakerheads will build their outfits from the shoes up, while Japanese sneakerheads will only buy a shoe if it matches their outfit. While I love wearing shoes to feel like my idols, I believe that many Americans could benefit from taking note of Japanese style: keep your fit in mind when buying shoes, so that when you wear them, they don’t wear you.