Stories in Soles: Sneakers at Stuy

Where has sneaker culture planted its feet in Stuyvesant’s student body?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Yile Tong

The invention of sturdy footwear to navigate the world’s abrasive features and rough grounds was  revolutionary. Though the first to don shoes weren’t doing so to match outfits or make brazen cultural statements, nowadays, footwear has found a solid place in modern culture, encompassing both a desire for functional quality and creative artistic expression. The sneaker industry in particular has evolved to supply the demand for both comfortable and fashionable footwear.

In the late 20th century, the expansion of hip-hop and athletics within African American communities gave rise to a prolific sneaker culture. In an interview for Wilson College News, Dr. Delisia Matthews, PhD in Consumer, Apparel, and Retail Studies, explained, “If you look back at when sneakers became very popular from a style perspective, it wholeheartedly includes black culture. And I think that is because when you look at the roots of the sneaker culture, it definitely came from hip-hop culture. One of the first songs that I think aligns with this is the song “My Adidas” by Run DMC, which came out in 1986. Thereafter, the Adidas Shell Toes became very popular because the style embodied the music and the culture.” Individuals thus embraced sneakers as a fixture of popular culture. This was especially apparent in the against-the-grain mindset of sneaker choices in late 20th-century athletics, notably basketball, which was heavily influenced by icons such as Michael Jordan. In regard to the origin of Michael Jordan’s famed sneaker brand, Dr. Matthews explained, “The Jordan 1s came out in 1985, but you know that when he actually wore those sneakers during the initial games, he continuously got fined. At the time, there was a certain colorway that was standard for all basketball shoes, and you were required to wear those standard colors. And he said, ‘No, I’m going to wear my shoes.’”

The dynamic and extensive history behind sneakers is part of why so many people are attracted to the shoes. Junior John Chandler III stated, “The banned Jordan 1s, that dropped in like ‘95. [...] Some sneakers like that have history behind them, and that just makes it even more special.” 

Fast forwarding from sneaker origins to now, some fashion-forward Stuyvesant students continue to embrace sneaker culture. Many are a part of the “sneakerhead” community, a group with a shared passion for collecting and admiring sneakers.

For sophomore Maisha Thakur, the beauty of sneakers lies in their diversity, as they allow for bold and distinctive personal statements. “[I like] finding stuff that not everyone else is wearing. There [are] a lot of Vans, a lot of Converse, a lot of Air Force 1s,” Thakur said. “Those are nice shoes obviously, but I feel like sneakers have to say something about who you are.” Thakur remarked that sneakers are a memorable part of interacting with someone: “I recognize people by their shoes,” Thakur added.

This sentiment was echoed by the President of the Stuyvesant Fashion Club, senior Marcus Meshechok. “Fashion, sneakers, the way you dress is the way that you curate your physical identity,” Meshechok said. “It’s how you’re perceived; it’s how the world interacts with you, how the world perceives you. It’s definitely more than just a simple clothing choice.” 

However, associating certain sneakers with personalities or aesthetics can also form “sneaker stereotypes.” It isn’t difficult to come across a meme or comment on social media poking fun at supposed sneaker caricatures. For example, Chandler asserted that people who wear Black Mid Air Force 1s are immediately judged within the sneakerhead community, and these stereotypes can especially be harmful if certain sneakers are more commonly worn in specific communities.“I think that the stereotypes mainly might come from the fact that, you know, the people who are raised in certain environments tend to choose the same type of fashion to follow. [...] A really popular shoe around my neighborhood is the Air Force 1s, specifically Black Mid Air Force 1s, and if somebody does something bad wearing those shoes, [it] gives it a negative connotation, but that doesn’t speak to everyone wearing the shoe,” Chandler said. He also added that though these stereotypes have become comedic social media phenomena, joking about them perpetrates a false narrative. “Like I said, though, I don’t think the stereotypes are true. They’re funny to laugh at, but they’re not really based in reality,” Chandler explained.

Social media does more than just promote stereotypes, however. Sophomore Yelena Agadzhanova mentioned how social media trends have standardized the sneakers people wear at Stuyvesant. “There [are] a lot of people wearing the same type of shoes,” Agadzhanova said. “I haven’t seen that many people with shoes that really pop to me, because you know everyone just follows trends and what’s popular.” 

Meshechok elaborated on the impact social media has on sneaker culture. “A ton of Instagram fashion meme pages became super popular—and that’s what got me into fashion. [...] I assume it happened to thousands [or] tens of thousands of other people,” Meshechok said. 

Chandler also noted that as sneaker culture becomes more mainstream, the motivations behind sneaker-making evolve. “More people are becoming aware of fashion in general, and they’re wanting to stand out from their peers. I think originally, [sneaker culture] started to pop off as an anti-authoritarian [...] thing over time that’s created its own identity for itself within the fashion world. [..] It’s like a field now, and there [are] innovations being made,” Chandler said.

Meshechok also noticed that the sneaker industry has changed to cater to the newly emerging market of the fashion-minded youth. One specific change that Meshechok mentioned was Supreme and similar streetwear brands and their decline in prominence after quarantine. “Before the pandemic was the peak of streetwear and sneaker culture because the two go hand in hand. And so at Stuy as well, I remember freshman year I noticed a lot of people wearing collab[oration] and hype sneakers that you don’t really see [on] people anymore,” Meshechok explained. Meshechok elaborated by stating that Supreme and Off-White built their success off of making their logos iconic symbols consumers could reach for without much thought. “Having the time to think about the stuff you buy is a luxury, and so with an Off-White hoodie or a Supreme hoodie, you see what’s special about it, right? It’s the logo,” Meshechok reflected. “You don’t need to think about it too much, you don’t need to know a ton about the brand to buy it, you can just go for it.” Meshechok stated that the pandemic provided the time necessary for students to become more conscious of their purchases, which is perhaps why students began to look past these brands post-pandemic.

Sneakers have a place beyond discussions about fashion, though. Chandler, who grew up surrounded by sneaker culture in Harlem, says sneakers hold sentimental value for him. “When I was little, I used to camp outside of this one sneaker store that sells replicas,” Chandler shared. “They’re not even real shoes, but I would be camped outside of there thinking that the shoes there are so cool without knowing that they’re fake, and I’d just be waiting to buy them with the money I got from the summer.” He remarked that he was motivated to purchase the shoes because he wanted to express admiration for his idol, Michael Jordan. “When I was a kid [with]  other kids who also grew up around sneaker culture, we wore the shoes that we wore because we wanted to be like the people who made them,” Chandler said. “When we wore J[ordan]’s, we wanted to be as successful, as hardworking, as [...] good of a person that Michael Jordan was. [...] The personality of the person behind the shoe molds the shoe itself.”

While sneakers are useful to prevent painful blisters and splinters, they are more than just shoes—sneaker culture reflects greater social, political, and cultural trends. From its hip-hop origins to its influence on social media, the nuances of sneaker culture are far from static. So, before you tie your laces, take a moment to appreciate how the sneakers on your feet came to be.