Reviews — From the September 2015 issue

Joint Ventures

How sneakers became high fashion and big business

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Discussed in this essay:

Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture 1960–1987. Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Bobbito Garcia. Testify Books. 280 pages. $40.

Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, by Elizabeth Semmelhack. Rizzoli. 256 pages. $45.

Sneakerheadz, directed by David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge. Friendly Films/Jump Films, 2015. 70 minutes.

Say you were a city kid growing up in America. Say you wanted to show off your grace and speed, your skills and creativity, your vision and stroke and raw power. You wanted to break laws and defy gravity. But you needed ankle support, and it was helpful to not burn the hell out of your soles. A good basketball sneaker mattered.

In 1923 Converse put the name of one of their salesmen, a balding white guy called Charles “Chuck” Taylor, on the side of a sneaker, but the Seventies saw corporate America finally acknowledge urban influence, the city game. Black players started getting paid to endorse basketball shoes: first Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, jazz fluid and unstoppable, with his picture on the tongue of an Adidas high-top; then Knicks guard Walt Frazier rocking low-top suede Pumas; then high-flying, superbly Afroed, ferociously goateed Julius Erving, who wore leather Converses with dr. j printed above the outsoles. Most sneakers of the era looked similar: leather or canvas or mesh, some with ankle support, always a layer of colored, vulcanized rubber for the sole. Nevertheless, your kicks announced your style, the fact that you belonged to a particular world, or at least that you wanted to belong.

Dunk Low Pro SB Pigeon, 2005, by Nike x Staple Design. Photograph by @insighting. Courtesy American Federation of Arts

Dunk Low Pro SB Pigeon, 2005, by Nike x Staple Design. Photograph by @insighting. Courtesy American Federation of Arts

In 1982, Nike introduced a leather high-top with a sole whose thickness and cushioning were unprecedented in a basketball shoe. The company called it an Air Force 1 and put a little strap around the high ankle. It looked like a boot you’d wear in outer space. It stayed in production for a year, then, like most sneakers, it was retired. Until 1984, anyway, when three Baltimore retailers — they called themselves the Three Amigos — phoned Nike. Turns out, young men were still coming in and asking for Air Force 1s. The Amigos wanted more shoes, and to get them back in production they agreed to Nike’s shakedown: they ordered 2,400 pairs of sneakers and paid for them in advance. Before long, Nike was sending a monthly shipment of Air Force 1s, with a different color scheme each time, to Baltimore. Customers from Philadelphia and Harlem started making regular trips in on I-95, and they were soon joined by reps from a Bronx store known as Jew Man’s, who bought up the Amigos’ deadstock — untouched, unworn, unsold sneakers. In New York, when someone asked where you got your Air Force 1s, the answer was, inevitably, “Uptown.”

If you were really in the know, however, if you were a certain sort of New York kid — the kind of basketball junkie who scoped Sports Illustrated each week for pictures of rare shoes on college players, who traveled with an extra toothbrush and tube of toothpaste to keep your kicks unscuffed — then, eventually, you learned that for serious heat you could also head downtown, into SoHo, to a building on Broadway and Spring. You’d take a freight elevator up to the third floor, where you found the wonderland that was Carlsen Imports. “It was the closest thing to an orgasm a preteen sneaker hound could experience,” says John Merz, a.k.a. Johnny Snakeback Fever.

“Not everyone knew. Now people speak of it in hushed tones,” says Jazzy Art, another early collector. “They always had squash sneakers on display, and hot joints tucked away.” You asked if you could rummage through back shelves. You dusted off old boxes. Yo, how much for these?

This was early sneaker culture: word of mouth, whispered trends, mom-and-pop shops, and that most undefinable and fleeting quality — cool. The travails of Johnny Snakeback Fever, Jazzy Art, Mark Money, and more than a few other excellent nicknames are brought together, like a webbing of loose laces, in Bobbito Garcia’s Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture 1960–1987. The book’s endpapers show a crowd at Rucker Park, in Harlem, transfixed by the action on the court. The pages between offer an unholy amount of photographs, advertisements, and sneaker catalogues: all the colors of Puma Sky IIs, which were famous for having two Velcro straps at the ankle; the riches of bedroom sneaker collections (a.k.a. quivers); a creased Xerox with the typed-out summer workout schedule of the famed DeMatha High basketball team; shots of lithe young ballers in short shorts (socks pulled up high, stripes bright and thick); guides to sneaker customization (“He broke out aluminum Rustoleum, taped off the black stripes, and he sprayed the entire shoe metallic silver”); and an illustration of the jelly roll — when you roll your socks up in the bottom of your sneakers to fill them out.

Garcia’s book shows an evolution that starts in the Sixties with versions of simple canvas sneakers. Street legend Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland remembers wearing Converse, and that “dragging your foot going for a dunk would wear them out real fast.” Greg “Elevator Man #2” Brown says, “If you were a serious ballplayer maybe you could pull off some skippies like the Decks by Keds, but no way could you wear P.F.s [P.F. Flyers] on the court. No way!” We move into the Seventies, when a bystander first saw a pair of leather basketball sneakers: high-top white Adidas, worn by Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond when he scored fifty-five points in a one-on-one game in Rucker Park. If someone stepped on Hammond’s sneakers, he’d stop in the middle of the game and rub away the scuffs. In the Eighties, the first generation of beat-boy crews leaps in, spinning while balanced on one hand, posing for Polaroids in puffy jackets with bandannas covering their mouths. Garcia includes a photograph of one kid, mugging in square glasses and a mustache that won’t quite grow in, pointing to a Fila cap and to his matching kicks.

There is a family-reunion feel to this book, a sense that it was made by sneaker freaks explicitly for sneaker freaks. In the same way that going through old photo albums is better when a family member can fill in the appropriate memories, Where’d You Get Those? is at its best when commentary provides context. We hear from Blitz, a.k.a. Z, who lost his cherished Nike Franchises to a friend in a pinball game, only to see his friend’s dad wear them to mow the lawn the next day, their leather splattered with dead grass. “The sneaker was taken so far out of its intended sphere that it was truly an insult,” a third party recalls. “They were in a universe they never expected to be in. . . . I believe Z started to cry.” The book also quotes Michael Berrin, a.k.a MC Serch, whose crew, 3rd Bass, hit steady rotation on MTV with their song “The Gas Face.” Serch was rocking his Air Force Zeros on the subway when he heard a rustle by his foot. “I turned around and it was a derelict bent down over my sneakers,” Serch says. “And he kissed them! He got up and told me that they were the first pair of sneakers he played in at Lincoln [High School], and that it was the greatest year of his life. That was the nuttiest shit.”

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’s novel Alice & Oliver will be published in February by Random House. His article “Rake’s Progress” appeared in the March 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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