Today’s sneaker scene is comprised overwhelmingly of sneakers initially released years ago. From the current frenzies over Nike Dunks and New Balance 99Xs to cult classics like Asics Gel Lytes and Reebok Pumps, nearly every brand rereleases its bestsellers from the ’80s and ’90s as a way to stay relevant in between new models. But are carbon copy retros good for the sneaker community? Do they breed nostalgia and appreciation or complacency and hyper-consumerism? Below I explain the pros and cons of shoe companies releasing exact replicas of older models and colorways.
What Are “Retros?”
For challenging topics like quantum mechanics, international tax law, and sneaker releases, I find it’s best to begin with an example. Experienced sneakerheads: feel free to proceed to the next section.
In 1996, Reebok released for purchase Allen Iverson’s first signature shoe, called the Reebok Question. The Questions manufactured and sold to the public in 1996 were the original (OG) version of the shoe; they were OGs, not retros.
Fast forward to 2022. Despite the model being roughly 25 years old, Reebok still releases Questions for public purchase (thank goodness, Questions are fire, and I sold my 2012 Pearlized Navys in a moment of weakness). You can go on Reebok’s website right now and grab the same design released in 1996. But the Questions you can buy today weren’t manufactured or released for purchase in 1996. On the contrary, they were manufactured and released in 2022. That makes today’s Questions retros.
When a company rereleases a shoe with the same color blocking as was on the original pair, the company retros not only the model but also the colorway. However, companies frequently choose to release an old silhouette in a never-before-released color scheme. In 2012, for example, Metro-Detroit sneaker boutique Burn Rubber collaborated with Reebok to apply a previously unseen (and totally gorgeous) set of colors to the Question. While the colorway may never have released before 2012, the collaboration is still a retro because the new color scheme appears on the Reebok Question silhouette, which was initially released in 1996.
A few final distinctions: the “retro” tag is not correctly applied to “restocks” (when companies have leftover inventory and release more products a few months after an initial release). Nor does the term include successor models. For example, the Reebok Question 2 was not a retro of the original Reebok Question because the two models are aesthetically and technologically distinct.
Put simply, a retro is subsequently released, aesthetically identical remake of a shoe – often made available years after the original sneaker.
The Positives of Retros
Skip the Soul Separation
An unfortunate reality of collecting sneakers over a long period is that the soles of older shoes separate from the upper portions of the sneaker or, worse yet, crumble altogether. This year alone, I watched my Pearl Blue 9 Lows go blue in the face, said R.I.P. to my Rip Hamilton Air Jordan 22s, and, *sniffles* I can see the coup de grâce for my Pompidou Air Max 1s is already closing in. Especially for shoes that a sneakerhead has long owned, this process pains the soul of collectors – a group that is already predisposed toward nostalgic tendencies.
Sure, regluing a sole may buy a few additional months of wear, but the only real solution to this heartbreaking problem is to buy a retroed version of the shoe. Retros offer a second chance at love at first sight by giving a sneakerhead something to be excited about for both their future and past. If the retro is done right (more on this below), it breathes new life into an old sneaker love affair; it allows a collector to relive some of their most cherished memories of wearing that sneaker while (re)adding an important piece to their collection.
Cereal for Everybody!
In 2006, Nike produced 100 pairs of the Zoom LeBron 4 Fruity Pebbles for The King, as well as his friends and family. If you were one of the lucky few who managed to grab these fruity beauties on the resale market, you almost certainly shelled out serious coin (the pair most recently sold on StockX went for north of $7,000). For those of us who loved the colorway but didn’t have enough bacon for these cereal-inspired kicks, we had to wait for the off-brand Fruity Dino Bites by way of the later LeBron models.
As someone who has been salivating over these shoes for 15 years now, I was thrilled to hear that Nike intends to rerelease them this holiday season. Though the cost of an OG pair is higher than the value of my entire collection, the retro will make these shoes obtainable by offering them for an accessible price. In this way, retros democratize previously rare or immoderately priced shoes and keep the hobby within the reach and control of the average collector. In a perfect world, the price and availability of a sneaker would be such that everyone who wants a shoe can purchase it. Retros help bring us one step closer to that utopia by releasing inflated heat at everyday prices.
Old School, New School, Need to Learn Though
My best sneakerhead friend was born more than ten years before I was. He makes fun of me for being too young to understand his National Lampoon references, and I make fun of him for having listened to cassette tapes. Obviously, our respective generations shaped our individual styles as much as they determined which movies we watched and how we first listened to music. Despite this, we often find common ground over retro sneakers.
This is perhaps the most significant power of the retro sneaker: the ability to bring people from different generations together through a shared love. Even though I don’t remember watching Reggie Miller play in the Nike Air Total Max Uptempo the way my friend does, we both geeked when they rereleased in 2021. You see, we both played basketball in the shoe in high school – him in the 1997 OG and me in the 2009 retro (to be clear, my uncoordinated ass played basketball while in high school, not for my high school).
At the end of the day, a large part of what separates sneaker collecting from blind materialism is the overarching ethos that cuts across lines of age, race, class, national origin, and even style. And a major reason why sneaker collecting can be an intercultural bonder to this degree is that retros continue to bring people together through a shared history and passion.
The Cons of Releasing Retros
“I’ve Always Liked 13s, I Swear”
To many, sneaker collecting transcends mere materialism. Rather, it’s a precisely measured and heavily contemplated endeavor, much like the curation of an art museum. Each shoe in a true sneakerhead’s catalog exists to represent a specific love or for a specific purpose. As with all things in life, we crave autonomy over our sneakers. Losing that control for reasons beyond our reach can dramatically impact the feng shui of an entire collection.
Such is the case when a company decides to retro a shoe. After hemming and hawing for half a decade, I finally (and grossly) overpaid for the 2010 Air Jordan Altitude 13s. My assumption that the shoe would not soon rerelease proved wrong, and after only two years in my collection, every fresh-faced high schooler with no understanding of the shoe’s history was wearing that beautiful black and green. Not only did the retro make me feel stupid for overpaying, but it took away the individuality I felt when I wore my Altitudes. Retros can make a sneakerhead go from feeling like a curator with a keen sense of style and history to just one more person who walked into Foot Locker in December 2017.
Things Done Changed
In 2020, I begrudgingly sold my 2006 Air Jordan 7 Flints in anticipation of the inevitable sole separation. Though I’m usually one to hold on to old darlings even beyond the point of no return, I sold my favorite 7s relying on Jordan Brand’s announcement that it would release a retro of the same colorway the following year. But much to my chagrin, the pair I received in 2021 did not engender the same emotions as my first pair; The materials weren’t as nice, and the colors didn’t look nearly enough like the pair I just sold. I quickly moved on and now find myself without any Flint 7s in my closet, wearable or otherwise.
The story above illustrates one of the major flaws with retroed shoes: when executed poorly, retros can leave collectors with a hole in their closet (and, at the risk of being too dramatic, their heart). Whether it be a color variation like the Flint 7s or an altered shape like the Air Max 1, changes from OGs to retros can change the way individuals and the culture at large perceive and appreciate a shoe.
Complacency Stifles Creativity: Consumers
Nike recently announced that it intends to retro the Air Max 97 Silver Bullet (again) in 2022. Undoubtedly, a good percentage of the people who will pay hundreds over retail still have a pair from when Nike retroed the same model and colorway five years ago. Many of those collectors also have the Swarovski, Golf, and Ultra versions, which hit retail stores between 2017 and today. Of course, it’s an individual’s prerogative to spend hundreds of dollars on the same shoe for the fifth time in five years, but is the money the real cost?
I can’t help but think of these sneakerheads as adults who still eat chicken nuggets for every meal. As they say, variety is the spice of life – and, especially now, there are many innovative brands cooking up stylish models for purchase on a near-weekly basis. Retros discourage sneakerheads from buying brands and models not yet in their closet by pacifying consumers through what is comfortable and familiar. Even if you are that sneakerhead who still only eats chicken nuggs, skip the fifth pair of Silver Bullets and at least buy the KFC collaboration with Crocs!
Complacency Stifles Creativity: Companies
Instead of innovating, major sneaker brands can fall back on their laurels and play their greatest hits album on repeat to the tune of billions of dollars. The most obvious example is Jordan Brand, whose retros are exponentially more popular than its new models. Despite the brand’s preeminent standing within the sneaker scene, most would agree that newer Jordans don’t even carry the same weight as other hoop shoes of the modern era like Kyries and PGs. With due respect to Irving and George, they’re nowhere near MJ’s level of talent and cultural import. So why do their new shoes outshine Mike’s?
The answer lies in each brands’ appetite for creativity and innovation. Jordan, with its ability to rely on revenue from the ubiquity of its retros, releases comparatively conservative designs and colors on its new models. On the contrary, Kyries and PGs and brands like Puma and New Balance have pushed the envelope in terms of marketing, colorway inspiration, and release strategies to carve out places in the performance and casual basketball sneaker markets. Were it not for the copious amounts of retros it releases to pad its books, perhaps Jordan Brand would be trying out Rick and Morty-themed Jordan 36s. Instead, JB will surely soon announce plans to release its 37th pair of 1s this year. Sadly, we will never know what we’re missing out on.
So…Do Sneakerheads Need Retros?
Like school needs teachers, Kathie Lee needed Regis, and Kanye needs Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, retroing sneakers is not without externalities. But given the choice between having them and not, the answer is obvious. Can you imagine *contemplates if life is worth living* never being able to buy a pair of white-on-white Nike Air Force 1s again? Without retros, the current New Balance craze wouldn’t exist. And you’re telling me the only Air Maxes in my collection would be 270s? No thank you. Sneakerheads are blessed to have retros, and we should re-up every time.