Mass Appeal: Thoughts on Storytelling in Sneaker Culture
By David Blackmon / @Jusdave3_2
Who could argue with this statement? Nike, Adidas, Asics, New Balance, and other major sneaker brands have been coasting in the creativity department. For Nike the path to sales and their consumers hearts, has consistently been nostalgia. Rereleases of prior Nike or Jordan Brand releases that bear iconic significance or some personal remembrance of a time long passed have helped Nike consistently push the needle forward. Adidas has relied on its ability to provide innovative features on its models to attract consumers. Asics and New Balance have delved into the materials bins in recent years. Playing on nostalgia, comfort, quality materials, and bright colorways have helped them stay relevant in the sneaker game.
Many people besides Jeff Staple have commented on the lack of storytelling in sneaker culture. While this may seem like a real struggle for brands when they introduce new sneakers or colorways to the market, the irony is that consumers seem to be bored or uninterested in quality stories when it comes to sneaker purchases. Jordan Brand was notorious for introducing Jordan retro models with materials and colorways that introduced little-known aspects of the Michael Jordan legacy. Retros like the Quai releases, Gatorade series, and various Jordan 11 releases all introduced new stories to the Michael Jordan legacy, but were met largely with comments like “unnecessary”, “silly”, or “uninspired” while shoes sat on shelves.
Storytelling has become more difficult as brands have grown and the sneaker culture has gone from regional and localized appeals to a worldwide market. Dropping a sneaker with a large appeal that simultaneously tells a compelling story while also being profitable (let’s not be idealists that act as if Nike or Adidas aren’t out to please their shareholders) is a high bar to set.
Brands like Adidas have tied their storytelling and creativity to their innovative aspirations. Partnering with Parley provided Adidas the opportunity to experiment with progressive materials while simultaneously linking a stimulating and compelling inspiration to several of their releases. New Balance has used its historical silhouettes to create backstories that tie-in to the brands storied history. Its recent work with the 574 and 574 Sport have helped link the lineage and reinvent gripping colorways. Asics has consistently used boutique partnerships to tell new stories. Collaborations with retailers like Concepts, Kith, Kickslab, Highs & Lows, and a slew of others have helped the Asics brand create captivating narratives with worldwide or regional appeal.
This approach to storytelling is not unique to Asics however. New Balance, Reebok, Saucony, and even Nike and Adidas have all used smaller retailers to create inspirations for new and previous sneaker silhouettes. This approach is symptomatic of the new global market in which these brands operate. Constant feedback and customer input from social media and other internet-based outlets have caused a consistent overload of wants and needs for large sneaker brands. Relying on more localized retailers is a smart way of narrowing in on not only what consumers claim to want or need, but also on what stories or ideas open consumer wallets.
Dealing with the Market
To say sneaker brands are incapable or lacking in quality storytelling in comparison to sneaker customizers is a statement with contextual implications that oversimplifies a very nuanced idea. A sneaker brand like Nike may have the resources to create a sneaker like Mache’s (@mache275) “Sons of Anarchy” Air Force 1 customs or Wally Champ’s (@wallychamp15) Warhawk inspired Air Max 90’s, but to what end? If mass-produced, how many pairs do they make? Too many pairs and the sneakers will sit, because we all know exclusivity and hype have more to do with sneaker sales than actual aesthetic appreciation. Quality materials on a large quantity shoe won’t be financially feasible. High-priced, quality, and massed produced sneakers don’t sell. Too few and people will complain about resellers, raffles, and missing out on the latest and greatest.
As a sneaker customizer your list of considerations when making or redesigning a sneaker is single-digit long list at best. There’s no backlash because you didn’t make enough for everybody. No one complains about materials, or price-points. You’re singularly focused on your creation, your inspiration, and your client. As a customizer, the freedom of artistry exists without the bureaucracy of a board or the necessity of profit. Comparing this artistic freedom to a corporate brands approach is a little unfair.
Sneaker customizers occupy a valuable niché within the sneaker market. Creating something individualized that offers an artistic rendering of a central theme is not something the larger brands can achieve with ease. Nike’s bespoke and ID programs are great, but they lack the nuanced and artistic range that someone like Dominic Chambrone (@theshoesurgeon) can provide. New Balance, Adidas, and Reebok have all offered custom sneaker programs, but the limitations of their offerings can leave consumers yearning for something more exclusive. Offering a product that is both exclusive, artistically compelling, and individualized is the pinnacle of uniqueness. This realm of uniqueness is akin to eating commissioned tapas; an experience that if recreated en masse would lose both luster and desirability.
The phenomenon of custom cleats in the major sports and player exclusive offerings is what the consumer who pursues a custom sneaker is seeking. Limited release sneakers are cool. Sneakers with great stories behind their concepts are captivating. But a sneaker that encapsulates both these ideas while achieving a singular personal connection is something that can’t be boxed up and sold by the big brands.
The New World
The internet, social media, and the elevation of the culture to a more widespread and mainstream audience have had an interesting effect on shoe offerings. Any and everyone has a platform to expel their new and interesting ideas. Customizers and other artistic creatives can showcase their creations or interpretations. As a consumer with an internet connection you can choose between three different sneakers, from three different shops, all on three different continents. The choices are immense and the number of people presenting options has increased tenfold in the past five to ten years.
Simultaneously, the number of people influencing buying decisions has increased tenfold as well. One only needs to look at recent releases from any of the big brands to see what moves shoes and compels consumers. While shoes like the Atmos X Nike Air Max 1 and 95 “Safari” produced in large quantities sold out instantly, crashing multiple sites, and listing for two to three times retail on the resell market, sneakers like the Concepts X New Balance “Lake Havasu” with its extremely limited offering and fascinating story sat in multiple sizes when initially released. The visibility of celebrities and influencers wearing shoes that offer no stories or inspiration matters more to the culture than the substance of a sneakers origin.
Ironically, Staple Pigeon’s own “Back Pigeon” SB Dunk from 2017 is the perfect example of this. The black iteration of the famed “Pigeon Dunk” was essentially nothing special. It wasn’t a new story that pulled in consumers with an imaginative narrative that revealed something deeply awe-inspiring. It merely was a play on legacy. Recreated in an all-black silhouette that hardly stepped out on a limb to unearth some thought-provoking colorway, but the masses swarmed when the shoe released. Mass hysteria over the release was everywhere despite the lack of story and limited creative effort.
Ultimately, the idea of sneaker brands not offering great stories with their shoes is not a real revelation. It’s not a real revelation because consumers prove time and again that the story doesn’t matter. Every time Adidas sells out of Yeezy’s that have a new colorway and no backstory this realization becomes less and less of a factor. When a boutique like Sneaker Politics or Bodega collaborate on a sneaker by catalyzing an anecdote of cultural or historic importance and it sits on shelves, the relevance of story becomes more and more of a moot point. Until sneaker culture demands better sneakers stories with their wallets, the ones told by big brands will continue to be few and far between.