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Sneakerheads Sub-culture (Conspicuous Consumption)

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30 December 2018 15:22
How does Graphic Design and other forms of visual communication relate to the
subculture that is Sneakerheads?
How does Graphic Design and more broadly, visual communication both relate and
involves itself within signifiers of an identifying sub-culture named Sneakerheads? In this
essay, I will explore why the collection of sneakers plays such an important role in our
According to the dictionary, collectables are ‘things that are considered to be worth
collecting as a hobby’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2018); which according to the Oxford
dictionary, any item can be ‘valued and sought by collectors.’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2018)
Who are Sneakerheads?
One item of interest to certain collectors are trainers also known by our American
counterparts as sneakers, which according to the Oxford dictionary, the North American
term is defined as ‘a soft shoe worn for sports or casual occasions.’ (Oxford Dictionary,
What makes Sneakerheads a subculture?
There is a subculture of sneaker collectors named Sneakerheads (sometimes stylised as
Sneakerheadz). According to the Oxford Dictionary, a subculture is a cultural group
within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the
larger culture. (Oxford Dictionary, 2018)
This makes Sneakerheads a subculture within various intertwining cultures; for they are
showing fashion taste that is different from the broader consumer culture and spending.
When researchers focus on consumer culture they mainly focus on people from a white
middle-class socioeconomic background. But marketers have discovered that different
races purchase different brands. Berger, 2009, p.61) Sneaker collecting originated in
cities heavily populated by African-American and Latino people; making Sneakerheads a
subculture of African-American culture through the differing fashion and aesthetics of
other African-American subcultures (i.e. Afrofuturism). Sneakerheads are also a
subculture of Youth culture. The Sneakerheads subculture finds its roots from the
relatively young, hip-hop culture. Oboye (2018) objectively defines hip-hop culture as ‘a
popular form of… culture that originated from African Americans on the East Coast of
the United States.’ Both hip-hop culture and youth culture are intertwined; as hip-hop
as a culture and music genre was started by African-American youths living in New York
as a counterculture to the oppressive systems put in place by (what youths could have
seen as) domineering adults (Oboye 2018). Out of both hip-hop and youth cultures,
grew its own symbolism and lifestyle. Sneaker collecting being one of them.
According to online etymology website etymonline.com, the word sneakers stems from
American English towards the end of the nineteenth century ‘so called because the shoe
was noiseless’ as if one is sneaking up on you. (Etymonline, 2018)
Collecting sneakers can be viewed as a hobby, as it is done in one’s leisure time for some
form of enjoyment. Sneaker collecting can involve locating, acquiring, storing or
displaying and maintaining the collection which is seen to be of value. Be it through
monetary or sentimental values.
When sneakers were first invented, they were made for the sole function of athletic
purposes. According to the author of the book Kicks: The Great American Story of
Sneakers. ‘the first rubber-soled sneaker was made in the 1860s for croquet’ which out
of necessity needed ‘a durable, yet flexible sole.’ (Smith, 2018)
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Where did this subculture stem from?
According to the documentary Just for Kicks (2005), the commercial interest in sneakers
arguably stems from the hip hop trio Run DMC. Run DMC were revolutionary compared
to their 80s contemporaries such as Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash and The
Furious Five, who wore rather flamboyant looks. Run DMC who were known for their
streetwear b-boy style which included Adidas trainers, carved the prototype for today's
hip hop MCs; through their street style which went on to become mainstream. The trio
released 'My Adidas' as the lead single from their platinum-certified third album in 1986
(Anderson, 2018) The single ‘My Adidas’ was made in response to (Harlem born medical
doctor) Dr Deas, who recorded and released the rather scathing commentary named
'Felon Sneakers'. Many African-Americans of the older generation disapproved of the
popularization of sneakers; and this was echoed by Dr Gerald Deas’s ‘Felon Sneakers’,
whose lyrics included derisive declarations such as:
‘You're wearing those sneakers but you lost your will'
To all my young black brothers
If you really want to win the race,
Tighten up your laces’
Nonetheless, ‘My Adidas’ prevailed to be highly popular. According to Angelo Anastasio
who was Marketing Director of Adidas from 1984 – 1991, 'the Superstar shoe was dead,
and Run DMC single-handedly brought that shoe back’ (Just for Kicks, 2005). This can be
pinpointed to the day of 19th July 1986 at their Madison Square Garden concert, where
during their much-enjoyed performance of ‘My Adidas’, Run DMC implored the crowd
to hold their sneakers aloft. According to the documentary Just for Kicks (2005), this led
to the first endorsement deal between a recording artist and an athletics company. The
pandemonium for both the single and the shoe led to eventual collaboration between
Adidas and Run DMC; with the release of Run DMC labelled sneakers and apparel. As
Run DMC were reaching new heights of fame within mainstream media, they flashed
Adidas sneakers and apparel on magazines and TV shows such as MTV (Wayback
Machine, 2009)
Following in Run DMC’s footsteps, the next generation of rappers started to shout out
(mention) and collaborate with various athletics companies. Leading to partnerships
between late 80s/early 90s rappers such as (New York rapper) Heavy D and Nike, Jazzy
Jeff and The Fresh Prince with the French produced brand Le Coq Sportif, and LL Cool J
and the now defunct brand named Troop. The growing popularity of these rappers and
their self-proclaimed 'love' for their associated brands brought about an ever-growing
cult of (not yet named) sneaker lovers.
The Rise of Air Jordans
However, the cult following of sneaker lovers grew to new heights with the advent of Air
Jordans. In the 1980s Nike was the lagging behind as the fourth most popular sports
shoe brand lagging behind Converse, Adidas and Reebok respectively. Prior to the
1990s, Converse was the popular shoe of choice.
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Converse was endorsed by 80s/90s basketball heroes such as Larry Bird and Magic
Johnson and was worn by most NBA players (Just for Kicks, 2005). Nonetheless, Nike’s
fortunes turned around, with the signing of a promising, young basketball rookie
(playing in his first season) named Michael Jordan. The first sneaker collaboration
between Jordan and Nike; the aptly named Jordan 1 was banned by the NBA (for not
having the colour white in the shoe). This led to an advert [9] featuring Michael Jordan
where the camera pans from head to toe, then focuses on the aforementioned sneakers
with the tagline 'The NBA can't stop YOU wearing them.' The tagline was due to a great
deal of publicity and interest around the NBA controversial banning of the sneakers. The
tagline also implicated certain desirability towards the sneakers. Jordan’s rookie (first)
year, finished with Jordan earning the honours All-Star and Rookie of the Year
respectively (The New York Times, 1985). As Jordan’s popularity and fame grew, so did
the Air Jordan 1 as they eventually sold out in the US (Just for Kicks, 2005). Due to the
increasing demand for Air Jordans, Nike then introduced the series concept (different
sneaker styles under the same name) and a new Air Jordan was introduced every
season. In the heavily black populations of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Air
Jordans became a highly popular status symbol in the streets often worn by drug dealers
and seen on certain rappers’ album covers, such as the platinum-certified Straight Outta
Compton by NWA. This can be related to Rene Girard’s theory of ‘mimetic desire.’
Why do Sneakerheads Find Value in Sneakers?
The concept of ‘mimetic desire’ is that we imitate the people we respect. According to
French scholar Rene Girard, we purchase things obtained by those we admire (i.e. those
with a certain status, or celebrities) because we wish to mimic their desires. This is
reflected in advertisements. (Palaver and Borrud, 2013)
According to the documentary Just for Kicks (2005); in the early 90s, 1/12 Americans
owned at least one pair of Jordans. As Sneakers became more and more popular, young
consumers keen on exclusivity started looking for foreign-made, out of print, generally
hard to find sneakers. They became known as sneaker hunters. When the large brands
realised how far so-called sneaker hunters would go for deadstock (out of production)
sneakers; they would bring back highly sought after 'limited edition' sneakers labelling
them 'retro exclusives' that could go for twice their original price. The sportswear
companies would hold back on production to create high demand this is a case of
conspicuous consumption.
Conspicuous Consumption
Termed by 19th-century economist Thorstein Veblen; according to the MerriamWebster dictionary, it is the situation in which people spend a lot of money intentionally
so that other people notice and admire them for their wealth. Conspicuous
consumption leads to a term named Veblen goods; this is when as the price rises so
does demand. The Veblen effect means that ‘not only the quality or functionality of any
product constitutes its value but also its price.’ ‘As a consequence, products become
more interesting for people who want to display their status through conspicuous
consumption’ (Hammerl and Kradischnig, 2018). This served Nike when selling ‘limited
edition’ sneakers as, ‘it will not be the price actually paid for a product that counts but
instead the price, other people (the perceivers of the signal, the relevant reference
groups, etc.) (H. Leibenstein, 1950) think was paid for the product.’ Conspicuous
consumption can be viewed as a form of ‘costly signalling’. Evolutionary psychologist
Gad Saad, argues that conspicuous consumption serves as a means by which men
communicate their social status to prospective mates. (Saad & Vongas, 2009)
Conspicuous consumption is a means for men to signal and enhance their status in
intrasexual competition’ (Hammerl and Kradischnig, 2018). This can be linked to Girard’s
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gratification theory of ‘mimetic desire.’
What role does Graphic Design play in the Sneakerheads subculture?
The Sneakerheads sub-culture relates to the broader Material culture. According to the
book What Objects Mean: An Introduction to Material Culture, 'material culture is the
world of things that people make and things that we purchase or possess, so it is part of
our consumer culture.’ (Berger, 2009) In What Objects Mean, Berger, quotes Henry
Pratt Fairchild who in the Dictionary of Sociology and Related Sciences, defines culture
as 'a collective name for all the behaviour patterns socially acquired and transmitted by
means of symbols... cultural achievements are embodied by which intellectual cultural
features are given practical effect. (Fairchild, 1984 p.80)
This definition by Fairchild idealises that culture is based on communication and
maintains that objects and specific markers are the embodiment of various cultural
values. This means that culture is symbolic in nature. The Sneakerheads sub-culture has
specific cultural markers to help ‘set in concrete’ its existence. These cultural markers
include but are not limited to: popular brands of sneakers have developed into
collectors’ items, such as Air Jordans by Nike, Nike Air Max, Nike Air Yeezy and Adidas
Yeezy (separate collaborations between the aforementioned brands and hip-hop artist
Kanye West). Other significant markers of the sub-culture include limited edition or
exclusive sneakers (sneakers with a controlled and reduced number of shoes placed on
the market by the brand), Sneakerhead slang inspired by hip-hop and skate culture,
Sneakercon and other conventions and meetups where sneaker collectors can acquire,
sell, and view sneakers and burgeoning trends inside the sneaker community.
To analyse objects within material culture, we need to use the methodology that is
Psychoanalytic Theory. To analyse Sneakerheads, we must consider the importance of
symbolism. In the book Psychiatric Dictionary, symbolism is defined as: ‘The act or
process of representing an order or idea by a substitute object, sign or signal.’ (Campbell
and Hinsie, 1996 p.734)
The symbolism within the Sneakerheads sub-culture can be analysed through semiotics.
According to Berger, 'from a semiotic perspective objects are signs or signifiers' Charles
Sanders Pierce has a trichotomy, saying there are three kinds of signs that signify by:
[18] Iconic signs that signify by resemblance such as the Jumpman logo (the trademark
logo on Air Jordan sneakers) that are an imitation of Michael Jordan’s signature dunking
style in the NBA which cemented him as a legend. Indexical signs that signify by cause
and effect – in our case the killings of young black men and teenagers over popular
sport shoe brands such as the sneakers comparable to Air Jordans; there is a causal
connection as these killings are driven by a materialistic consumer culture. Symbolic
signs, whose meaning must be learned and generate meaning to others; When we think
about sneakers we should consider whether the shoe is high end and thus desirable,
and how it compares to sneakers offered by other brands. This is done through
In Raymond Williams’s book Problems in Materialism and Culture, ‘Advertising is, in a
sense, the official art of modern capitalist society’ (Williams, 1980 p.184) he reasons
that this is because ‘it commands the services of perhaps the largest organized body of
writers and designers.’ Williams laments that advertising reflects material and consumer
culture, for he renders ‘it impossible to look at modern advertising without realising that
the material object being sold is never enough’ (Williams, 1980 p.185). This means
advertising is a commodity to conspicuous consumption.
Berger asserts that 'advertising teaches us to be "discriminating" consumers and to
recognise what brands go with what kind of people’ (Berger, 2009, p.59) For example
we subconsciously judge people for what type of brands they are wearing. Many of
these products have logos and other markers that people can see to aid both the
process and conspicuous consumption. The reasons for conspicuous consumption are as
follows: to have beautiful things (Berger, 2009, p. 71); in our case, the psychological
reward of instant gratification Sneakerheads get from obtaining desired sneakers within
their possession. It gives them an air of success amongst their peers. This relates to
Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption led by the desire of aspiration. Diversion
and distraction - advertising of Air Jordans pushes consumers to escape and enhance
their mundane state of being by encouraging them to purchase not only the object but a
sense of strength and power this can be seen in numerous Nike adverts starring Michael
Jordan. To imitate models that we respect - we buy Nike and Air Jordans due to our
‘mimetic desire’ to be like spokespeople who appear in adverts for their associated
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Image analyses of the Sneakerhead subculture relating to mimetic desire and
conspicuous consumption.
The image shown is an excerpt from the May 14, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated. The
double spread displays a white, chalk outline on what appears to be either a pavement
or road, with a pair of trainers with an uncanny resemblance to wildly popular the Air
Jordan 1 where the outline of the feet should be. On top of the chalk outline is the word
‘senseless’ in the colour red. The image above was illustrated by Mirko Ilic to
complement the article ‘Your Sneakers or Your Life.’ The chalk outline is to highlight the
unnecessary killings of young black men and teenagers of popular sport shoe brands
such as the sneakers comparable to Air Jordans in the image. Stamped over the chalk
outline is the word ‘senseless’; this is a rather emotive word that has been used to back
up the writer’s opinion in the article that these killings over materialistic items are
simply in vain. The word ‘senseless’ has been written in red which is well known to
symbolise the colour of blood which further suggests death. The word is also appearing
to be in a realist sans–serif ‘copier looking’ typeface like Franklin Gothic Condensed,
which is often seen in newspaper headlines. The first paragraph reads ‘In America’s
cities, kids are killing kids over sneakers… favoured by drug dealers. Who’s to blame?’
This excerpt suggests that one of the reasons for the violence is the way the sports
apparel companies market their sneakers transforms sneaker releases into consumer
feeding frenzies, especially for Sneakerheads (Telander, 1990 p. 59). For consumers
(Sneakerheads especially) the attainment of a prized possession (in our case sneakers)
reflects our aesthetic values and in the case of conspicuous consumption, our status. As
I previously pointed out, consumers have a ‘mimetic desire.’ They obtain (in extreme
cases steal) a desirable object in order to ‘imitate’ their role models, in this case, drug
dealers who are in turn imitating the desires of Nike spokesman Michael Jordan.
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In the 2002 song ‘Air Force Ones’, then popular rapper Nelly, raps about ‘copping’
(buying) Nikes popular shoe the Air Force Ones. Throughout the music video, you
witness the free promotion of both the specific shoe and the brand Nike both through
the lyrics and the visuals. You also see certain aspirational images common in 2000s hip
hop. Such as vast display cabinet of Air Force Ones to denote opulence, wealth and
style. This relates back to the gratification theory that can be applied to the conspicuous
consumption witnessed in the music video. For Sneakerheads (one who collects
sneakers), there is a certain gratification and psychological incentive consumers
(especially Sneakerheads) get from attaining desired objects. This emanates a sense of
Nelly himself flashes the ‘Air Force Ones” shoe to show how easy it is for him to ‘cop’
(attain access) to the highly sought after shoe. This and the showing of beautiful
voluptuous women relates to the gratification theory that is ‘affirming aesthetic values’
(Berger, 2009, p. 60). The rapper Nelly showing pride in being able to ‘cop’ the highly
prized ‘Air Force One’ sneakers, is a reflection of the desires of the Sneakerheads
subculture and the broader consumer culture. The essay ‘In Defence of Shopping’
argues that the objects we possess are culturally tied to our lifestyles (Douglas, 1997
The name of the Nike designed shoe Air Force 1s is a reference to Air Force One, (the plane
that carries the President of the United States). This can convey the ideas of flight and lightness.
Designed by Bruce Kilgore, the shoe has achieved both cult status and commercial success. One
identifying characteristic of the Air Force 1 shoe is a small medallion secured to the bottom of the laces.
The markers of fashion can have a direct impact on people (Koenig, 1973 p.51). This small medallion is
perhaps to replicate the style (a signifier) of the early 2000s hip-hop culture aesthetic (that the
Sneakerheads subculture is so closely associated with) and its values.
As seen in the music video, the original and most iconic colour of the Air Force Ones are
the monochromatic white on white. The colour pure white is seen to portray the
positive virtues of lightness, truthfulness, brilliance, perfection, and cleanliness. The
colour white is also associated with gods (Adams & Stone 2017 p.30-31). This is a form
of visual communication, as the interpretation of colour (especially neutral colours such
as the colour white) is a powerful form of collective thinking and interpreting amongst
the masses. ‘Colour symbolism is often a cultural agreement (Adams & Stone 2017
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p.24).’ This means that colour theory has a direct emotive impact on people
As has been previously stated, the semiotics behind the attainment of shoes plays an
important role in the psyches and identities of Sneakerheads. As has been noted, the
factors that promote this idea includes, gratification theories such as: the psychological
incentives Sneakerheads get from attaining prized possessions, the enhancement of
power and happiness, plus a certain attitude that Sneakerheads believe can be
purchased through sneakers, the ‘mimetic desire’ of models we idolise or respect as
reflected by Michael Jordan in Air Jordan advertisements, and that the sneakers that
Sneakerheads possess can be viewed as cultural markers and signifiers of Sneakerheads
values and beliefs. All of these points can play a rather important role in the personal
identity of a Sneakerhead. For further research, I could use Marxist theory to consider
the role sneakers play within the sexual identities of men and how capitalist advertising
companies profit from the fears they help generate amongst men.
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