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Sneakernomics

Sneakernomics
The sneaker. It’s a cheap canvas shoe with a cheap rubber sole—or at least it used to be.

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The sneaker. It's a cheap canvas shoe with a cheap rubber sole—or at least it used to be. Sneaker freak Hadyn Green searches for the great New Zealand sneaker

Sneaker basics are simple: a rubber sole, canvas or leather upper and solid stitching. Anything beyond that is art.

Save perhaps the high heel, the sneaker has inspired (and been worn by) more artists than any other shoe in history. Sneakers originated from basketball boots, as can be seen in the recognisable form of the high-top.

Sneaker shops have been popping up in New Zealand's main centres in recent years. They mainly cater to a younger population, eager to wear bright colours and to be seen. The latest styles and interesting designs and big, big shoes.

New Zealand company ToBe was inspired to make a sneaker from the ground up. Co-founder and All White Tim Brown sat down with Victoria University Design senior lecturer Lee Gibson and nutted through the designs for a family of sneakers: a mid-, a low- and a super-high-top.

Like any piece of art there is more to sneakers than just the shoes. Each shoe has a back story, a unique design element. Conversations at sneaker shops run much like those in record stores: this is a one-off release by a renowned street artist … this design was first made in the 1920s … this is an homage to a classic movie … this is based on a traditional Japanese tug-of-war shoe

Gibson is an avid collector of sneakers and felt that footwear was the perfect product for the company to get into. But he also wanted to un-design the sneaker, in reaction to the multicoloured, multi-logoed shoes produced by many of the major companies like Nike, Asics and Adidas.

"I was inspired by a piece of furniture called the Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It was created by imagining the lines drawn by invisible circles. I liked the idea and applied that to our sneakers. So each line of stitching follows a particular line of a circle."

Gibson wanted to create a sneaker with a simple silhouette and minimalistic design. A design that would be something "people would keep coming back to" but that they can wear in a number of different ways. The super-high-top 1.6—a reference to the height difference between it and mid-top 1—can be folded down, leading to a number of different looks.

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"I've seen a guy wearing the super-highs with shorts and turned up. I saw another guy wearing the same shoes with tight jeans and folded down. Which is great: I wanted to make something that people could customise".

In many ways this is like the idea of the iconic Chuck Taylor All Stars, a design first made by Converse in 1917 and now worn by millions of people in thousands of ways.

Mike Wilson is in charge of the business side of things at ToBe and says the team really wanted to make a "New Zealand sneaker", so they sourced their leather from Wanganui's Tasman Leather. And while the high quality meant they had some initial jitters getting the stitching right, it also gave them a huge benefit.

"The leather just bends and creases so nicely, which gives the shoes so much more character"

And that is a key part of sneaker culture: that lived-in look. Every sneaker fan loves the look of a new pair of kicks. You'll see them in stores, holding the shoes, maybe spinning it in their hands, feeling the weight and balance. Much like having skateboard decks mounted to your wall, having a pair of beautifully detailed and sparkling clean sneakers on a shelf can look fantastic to a collector.

But wearing them? No sneaker fan wants to wear brand new shoes. They want new shoes; they just don't want them to look new. A good pair of kicks doesn't have the right feel until it's got a good crease across the toes, or the right sway in the middle of the sole. This is how sneakers are like antiques: they age well and many are very collectable.

Sneaker swap-meets are not as common as antique fairs (and the attendees are a slightly different demographic), but the idea is the same. Collectors and interested buyers come to pick up something that appeals to their eye. For sneaker fans this could be a pair of 1980s Adidas Sambas or an incredibly rare pair of Reebok Alien Stompers. Or maybe simply a six-month-old pair of Asics in the right colour and with just the right fit.

There's some freaky stuff in there. I've pulled stuff out of boxes that look like silver spaceboots. And when I put them out, they are usually the first thing to go

These meets aren't small. They can be huge events held over a weekend with music and VIP rooms and separate exhibitions. Because what's the point in collecting if you can't show them off?

The interest in vintage sneakers has led to a number of companies reviving old models. Onitsuka Tiger—a Japanese company whose designs are based on traditional Japanese art aesthetics and natural elements, most famously its octopus tentacle soles—recently re-released its famous basketball boot from the 1960s. Nike often has new versions of its Air Force Ones and Air Jordans, and Adidas has kept many of its original 1970s and 80s football trainers in production.

Around New Zealand, stores devoted solely to selling sneakers have been quietly opening in the major centres, competing with the skate shops and chain stores. "You're judged by the company you keep," says Wilson, so the selection of brands where ToBe sells its shoes is important.

The inside of Wakefield Hotel on Wellington's Cuba Street is pretty bare. The store has a set of shelves along one side and racks of clothes on the other. In the window are some old Coca-Cola crates used to display new products. "I often get asked where I got the crates from," says owner Hemi Pou. "I just had them lying around at home."

Pou likes to keep his shop bare and let the products do the talking. His wall of sneakers is colourful, without being ostentatious. This is because he's aiming at what most people would not consider the target market for sneakers: urban professionals. "There are tonnes of places around with streetwear for teenagers, then up at the other end there are the suits. But nothing in the middle, that casual but dressy stuff. Y'know, for my age group!" He flashes a big smile. "And Cuba Street too is full of young professionals, designers and business owners, and those people come here even if they don't work down here."

Looking around the shop there is a lot of black and white but in between there are splashes of colour: blues, greens and reds. "If I had my way they'd all be black." Pou knows his customers, the people who love the same things as him. So he sells samples—shoes the various brands might, or might not, bring to the market, and that are generally much cheaper.

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From left: Chuck Taylor All Stars, Nike Air Jordans, Adidas Sambas, Onitsuka Tiger

"There's some freaky stuff in there. I've pulled stuff out of boxes that look like silver spaceboots. And when I put them out, they are usually the first thing to go."

Most of the samples are from Onitsuka Tiger. The local Onitsuka reps know the products they sell in other stores are not the type of thing that will sell in Wakefield Hotel. There are sneakers that look like boat shoes, bright green running shoes, and black asymmetric tennis shoes with embroidered gold tigers. Sometimes these shoes are never seen again. They are the footwear equivalent of being allowed to buy a concept car.

These shoes can best be described as fashion sneakers, and they are perfect for the new breed of urban professionals. The black dress shoe still exists, but it's a sneaker hand-made in New York from black Japanese denim. They go nicely with your black cardigan and brushed metal Macbook Pro. I have yet to meet a web developer who doesn't at least own a pair of Chucks.

But like any piece of art there is more to sneakers than just the shoes themselves. Each shoe has a back story, a unique design element, a real history. Conversations at sneaker shops run much like the ones overheard in record stores: this is a one-off release by a renowned street artist … this design was first made in the 1920s … this set is an homage to a classic movie … this one is based on a traditional Japanese tug-of-war shoe. All true stories and all adding to the depth of the shoe. This isn't a cheap throwaway from a bulk bin, nor is it a mass-produced plastic shell filled with gels and shock absorbers.

Anyone coming in to Pou's shop gets a big smile and a cheerful hello. They can also point to any shoe and get a full background on it, especially if they point to the ones he's wearing. But unlike the staff at Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity, the details aren't a game of one-upmanship. Instead they are stories that tell you as much about the wearer as they do about the shoes.

And like record shops, this intimacy with the product means that customers feel closer to the seller: it's a mom-and-pop sneaker shop.

"People come in and they see me or my family, and they know that the money is going to them, not some big corporation," says Pou.

The brands know this too. In Wellington alone, as well as Wakefield Hotel and Loaded, which specialises in brighter, more youth-friendly streetwear, and Good as Gold, which stocks ToBe, there are the Nike and Adidas concept stores. When ToBe launched it opened pop-up stores in Wellington and Auckland. Originally ToBe went with a rather controversial advertising campaign aimed at Converse, which it quickly took down, but the seed of interest had been planted.

And that's all it takes for sneaker fans. It's a rabid culture always searching for the next thing—either something that can be shown off in bold colours, a rarity they unearthed at a swap meet, or a revised, re-released artist exclusive. And while everyone's tastes are different, if the shoes don't have that story, then it's all style over substance.