I’m sure you’ve heard about the latest documentary about sneakers and sneaker culture. Dubbed Sneakerheadz, WearTesters was invited to an advance screening of the upcoming film in New York.
As Complex put on the event, some of the biggest names in sneakers were in attendance; Mache275, DJ Clark Kent, Jeff Staple, Hawaii Mike Salman, Joe La Puma—the list goes on. After the screening of the film, an interesting Q&A session was held between Carmen Villafane (Director of Corporate Communications at Complex), David T. Friendly (one of the directors of the film), and Jeff Staple.
I’ve included the Q&A below. I found the discussion very interesting and Jeff is super funny—the Q&A is definitely worth the five minute read. If the WearTesters readers would like to read a formal review of the film from a sneaker enthusiast’s point of view, I’d be happy to post one.
For those who want to see Sneakerheadz, it is now playing at the Village East Cinema in New York.
[Carmen Villafane for Complex]: Everyday working at Complex I’ve learned more and more about this fascinating culture and I’m sure, you guys, if you’re not that familiar that you picked up something interesting tid-bits through watching the film and hopefully really enjoyed it. So I just wanted to get some questions out there for Jeff [Staple] and for David [T. Friendly], starting with you David. You come from a crazy background in the film industry and it’s really you know…I’m excited to even be sitting next to you, in this proximity, and after talking on the phone with you everyday for the past two weeks! You were nominated for an Academy Award for Little Miss Sunshine, you worked on the Big Mama’s House franchise—why sneaker culture? Why now?
[David T. Friendly]: I’ve always wanted to do a documentary and didn’t know what I wanted to do a documentary about…I could see just instantly that there was plenty of material to do a documentary about. You might find it interesting: we shot 74 hours for 70 minutes so you have to gather so much material and if you think you’re going to get tired of the subject you’ll never finish. And I never got bored with it, I found the characters and the world so compelling that I never got sick of it. I’ve probably watched the movie a hundred times and I see people like Jeff and Clark Kent over there who’s amazing, thank you Clark for being in the movie! I just think it’s a really fertile world and that’s why I did it.
[Complex]: Great! And Jeff, what was your initial reaction when you were asked to be in the film? And watching it now, what’s your take on where is the culture is right this moment?
[Jeff Staple]: I think it’s weird ’cause people who are in the sneaker culture have been doing it, typically, since they were kids. It’s weird that somebody who’s making a documentary sort of turns like a research angle on this passion that we all have cause it’s not something that we feel needs to be dissected, researched—it’s our life, we’ve lived it and breathed it every day. It’s a little bit weird when someone wants to follow you around with a camera, especially like when I was at that sneaker conference shopping for shoes—it helped, I got the guy in the movie. It is a little bit strange that someone wants it dissected but I think David’s actually caught the sneakerhead virus, I think he caught the bug and he wanted to this!
[Complex]: You can never go back once you start, it’s a problem! You see kids camping out, this massive business now, it always but it’s magnified I think by the Internet and social media and so do you think it’s as authentic as when you first got involved?
[Jeff]: [pause] No, definitely not. [laughs] It’s not as authentic but it is a machine now and it’s a constantly churning machine. But that doesn’t mean that the product is any worse. It doesn’t worsen the product or the desirability or the buyability of the product. It’s still great designed shoes, beautiful, they look great on your feet, it’s just now it’s not this—you know we talked about it in the film a lot—this organicness of walking into a store and being like, “Woah!’ Now it’s much more of a quick dopamine hit.
[Complex]: Do you think that expanding the reach of it all, does it help?
[Jeff]: Um…yeah! I mean the reach is…it’s astronomical now. It’s amazing that it can keep growing. I do see that it constantly grows and grows. My mom is in the house here, she’s into sneakers now too and she’s finicky about which ones she wants, no longer now—she used to go to VIM or Modell’s and pick up something—it can’t be that now. She needs the Quickstrikes.
[Complex]: Do you think that there’s a certain level of people not having their own opinion on sneakers anymore because it’s just the group mentality of like, “This is the dope sneaker because everybody says it is?”
[Jeff]: Yeah that’s a huge thing. I think that was always there, that’s quite common. When you were young, if your group of friends liked something you would like something. Now, because of the Internet, your group of friends is now a thousand people. I think what I don’t personally love is all those people waiting in line that are just there to resell sneakers, they’re into the business. Not that there’s anything wrong with that because it’s their way of making money, of putting food on the table, but I think when Nike or adidas says, “We’re going to make a thousand shoes” and seven hundred of them end up on a reseller on eBay and three hundred actually ended up on kids’ feet, that’s where I think there’s a little bit of a problem. But you can’t really stop that you know?
[Complex]: At this point they’ve also created a monster because they’re only releasing limited amounts.
[Jeff]: Right, which I kind of want to speak on. When you go behind the scenes at a sneaker company there’s a lot of questioning of why they only release five thousand or ten thousand of these. And a lot of times the sneaker companies—they don’t have a crystal ball that says, “We’re gonna sell twenty-six thousand eight hundred pairs of these so let’s make that many.” They’re just as in the dark about it as we are in a sense. They’re being conservative. You don’t want to make ten thousand and then only sell four thousand, then you’re sitting on six thousand in stock. You want to make a number that you’ll get rid of, that’s simple Business 101. It’s like we’re purposely trying to bait it as it says but they’re just being conservative with their business, I think.
[Complex]: So David what was an element of the film or about the culture in general that you picked up on that was the most stand out in this process?
[David]:Well first of all, it fascinated me that it was a very insulated world. It was very hard to break through initially. It was very hard to get people to cooperate. They didn’t really know who I was, whether I was authentic, whether the movie was going to be corny. Once we got people like Jeff and Clark Kent then people would say, “Who’s in the movie?” and I’d say, “Oh we got Frank the Butcher, Clark Kent, Jeff Staple”—”Okay I’ll do it.” It’s almost like a mafia where you’ve got to be introduced by somebody to get into the club.
The other thing I thought was really fascinated about the subculture was the level of knowledge and the passion. There’s a very serious attitude about information and you either understand and you’re with it and you’re in it or you’re a civilian. Which is kind of like Hollywood in a certain way when you’re working in the film business. There’s the inside world of people making movies who really understand what that process is and then there’s the outside world which is much more important—the people who go to the movies. I think that’s what I like about subcultures is that once you get on the inside you see that it’s no joke. I’ve wanted to express the fact that this is not just a story about consumerism, it goes much deeper than that. There are very few things in this world that would connect hip-hop, sport, fashion, and history. That’s kind of what you can do with sneakers; they’re a mirror into all these worlds. And the other thing that Jeff talked about a little bit is that guys, you buy a suit, you can buy a watch, you can buy a shirt, and it’s all pretty indistinguishable, one from the other, but you can really express yourself with a pair of kicks. I think that’s the fun of it. Every time you look down at somebody at wearing a really cool pair of shoes you go, “Oh he grew up in this era, this is why he’s wearing these; he’s wearing Superstars, he’s wearing Jordans;” you kind of get the sense of where they came from. There was a Rod Stewart song, Every Picture Tells a Story, and I think every sneaker tells a story.
[Complex]: Totally! For sure. I know that any pair I’ve ever bought or been gifted definitely has a story to it, good or bad.
[Jeff]: The accessibility of it too is a big thing. It’s not like watches or fine art where there’s a threshold. If you have a hundred dollars you can pretty much get in on this.
[David]: The other thing I’ve learned, which is expressed in the movie, is that you can’t just follow the trend. People say to me, “What do you think is a real sneakerhead?” and I think the coolest sneakerheads are the ones who say, “Okay everyone’s over here buying this but I’m gonna make this cool.” That’s what makes it artistic to me. They’re saying it’s forty-nine dollars I got it over at the resale bin and you can really make that shoe very cool. You can really express your own point of view.
[Complex]: You touched on something kind of interesting, I think, and that’s the location. You can kinda tell where you’re from based on what you’re wearing and you touched on that in the movie as well; the Japanese culture is completely different from the way Americans are styling their sneakers. What are so some tell-tale signs, if any?
[Jeff]: If it’s over ninety degrees and someone’s wearing Timberland boots, you know you’re in New York City. [room bursts into laughter] That is a New York City only thing! Or on the beach, Timberlands on the beach—strictly NY [laughs].
[Complex]: For sure, for sure.
[David]: We were in Japan too, this is really interesting, we went to Tokyo for ten days and we went to the Harajuku area where all the sneaker shops are. If you ever get to go to Tokyo, go to the Harajuku neighborhood, even if you don’t want to buy sneakers. You’ll see, they are passionate, passionate people. The first day we get there and we went to this little store Passover and these four guys were kinda hanging around, watching us. And I saw they all had really cool kicks on so I said let’s shoot these guys and we shot their shoes. We went to fifteen different locations and every location we went to those four guys showed up to watch us film. I thought, “That’s dedication. You guys are spending your days watching us make this documentary!” That’s the level of passion you see.
I think it’s important that we covered and didn’t run away from the violence issue. We pushed it to the back of the film because once you go there it’s very hard to come back to something frivolous about design or style but I found that to be—you asked me a question, what’s surprised me—that surprised me, scared me, and really made me…try to think about what, if anything, can be done about it. I think as long as you have live releases, the problem’s going to rear its head.
[Complex]: That brings me to my next question. The release mania and how the Internet has affected that and whether that alleviates the problem, does it cover it up a little bit, how does that go?
[Jeff]: No, I think the Internet actually makes it worse because it draws more honey for the bees to go to, there’s more people that know about. I personally think that it’s the retailer who the responsibility lays on for having an organized sale.
[Complex]: Yeah, you lived it!
[Jeff]: Yeah and we were one of the worst riots ever. It’s not Nike’s fault, it’s not NYPD’s fault, it’s my fault as the retail owner that I wasn’t organized and enough on my sh*t to get that done but I wasn’t expecting it either! But now, when people expect it, I think there’s ways to circumvent it as a retailer and some retailers are really smart and I’ve learned a lot from some of these retailers on how to do it. Nike’s job is to make as dope as product as possible, as covetable as possible. So when a thousand people want their shoes, they’re doing their job. They sell that to a store, now it’s the store’s job to make sure that it gets into people’ hands in a safe manner. That’s my take on it.
[Complex]: For sure. What about the role of social media? Obviously, it’s a huge component of any digital enterprise. For us, the Complex Sneakers channel is constantly updating and at any given time, if something’s going to drop, to the minute—you have to get it right. I’ve lived that. God knows that I’ve lived that! What is the rabid following—does it propel it more so than if it wasn’t a thing. Do people sharing their sneakers, is that something that will keep growing?
[Jeff]: Yeah it’s just sharing information, I think it’s all good. I don’t think it really makes it better or worse in any way. It’s just the more the merrier type thing. I think some people might find it disturbing because there are so many new cats in the game. I think it’s great though because you see these young kids at these sneaker cons, they’re like twelve-thirteen years old and one of those kids is gonna be the next Tinker Hatfield you know? And it was because of this propaganda—
[Complex]: Yeah that puts everyone on the same playing field.
[Jeff]: Yeah exactly! Now maybe he’s got a chance, maybe he didn’t care about shoes a year before that so I think there’s a lot of minuses but there’s definitely plenty of plusses too.
[David]: And one thing you saw there was a conflict between the old schoolers who had to go out—as Frank the Butcher calls it, “a contact sport,”— they had to actually go in the store and find the stuff or Clark Kent talking about the Black Friday where he didn’t release it, you had to go decide if you want the shoe. But the truth of it is there’s two different worlds and now it’s a digital world and I think you have to accept both and just assume it’s a changing thing. I hear this all the time, “The boom was/is over.” I think it’s as big as it’s ever been.
[Jeff]: Yeah! They keep saying the bubble’s going to burst but every year it just keeps going. You hear Nike’s annual sale reports every year and it’s like it can’t get any bigger and then 13% up—that’s it—then 20% up, it just keeps going.
[Complex]: Well their women’s business now has quadrupled or something ridiculous.
[David]: That’s a definite segment to watch [women’s sneakers] and product for them.
[Jeff]: I didn’t know this but you put that guy Skit in the movie who, when I told that story about me flying to Tokyo early on, Skit was one of the first stores I’ve ever went to to get that really, really good stuff. His first shop was an hour and a half outside of Tokyo, really in the countryside!
[Complex]: You had to try.
[Jeff]: Yeah! It was this area Kichijoju which no one’s ever heard of and to see him now have four stores—
[David]: And the guy was homeless! That’s true.
[Jeff]: You see Nike’s earnings as one thing and then you see this entrepreneur hustler who went from homeless to one store to four stores, in Tokyo, that’s an amazing story too.
[Complex]: It builds lives. I wanted to open it up to the audience, in case you have any questions.
[Noah Goldowitz]: My question can actually address all three of you, Complex especially and Mr. Joe La Puma, who I love Sneaker Shopping with—the blogs are definitely responsible, myself included, for driving that hype and driving that sneaker presence on the Internet. Do we ever feel responsible for some of the things we’ve done to push the sneakers. Nike doesn’t pay any of the smaller blogs to push their sneakers and we do anyway! Where does our responsibility [and integrity] fall in all this?
[Complex]: Speaking from Complex’s end, it’s up to us to use that information responsibly and to disseminate it responsibly and to be authentic in what we’re cosigning. If we don’t feel particularly strong about a particular product then we can’t sit there and lie. That’s a tough thing, as a media company in general, but because of people like Joe and Noah and all the guys on the sneaker team at Complex, they are super opinionated and I think that authenticity is something that sneakerheads can read very, very easily.
[Jeff]: Can I answer that question too? ‘Cause I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of what’s going on in street culture and sneaker culture is the power of the blogs like Hypebeast and Complex, most notably, and the amount of weight that they carry, even with the creators. So I know sneaker designers that on the release day they check those blogs to see how the public is reacting to it. You guys are essentially the Bloomberg / Nasdaq / Consumer Reports of this generation. Consumer Reports is a great example; they hold such power to buy your next refrigerator, when is Westinghouse gonna slip them a ten thousand dollar check to be like, “Yo, give us a good grade?” It’s just journalistic integrity.
And quite honestly, I think when Hypebeast opened a store, I told Kevin this—the founder of Hypebeast—”You’re entering into murky waters now because now all of a sudden I’m reading Hypebeast and they’re saying curatorially ‘This is dope, we say this is dope’ all of the sudden and ‘Shop now!'” So wait, do you think this is dope or are you just trying to move units now? So do I believe you as the editorial voice or as a store?
[Noah Goldowitz]: I agree with you one hundred percent! As a journalist, at WearTesters we are the Consumer Reports, I always feel iffy about at the end of an article where I voice my opinion or don’t voice my opinion I say, “You can go buy this sneaker here.” For me, that was always the murky part, especially in sneakers. I’m so glad you brought that up!
[David]: Clark Kent had something to say.
[DJ Clark Kent]: I would actually like to protect the websites and the reason why I say that is because if these companies didn’t give you the information you’d have nothing to speak about—
[DJ Clark Kent]: And this hype would have never been created. It’s all ’cause of information. If you don’t have the information you just have to find sneakers. So it’s not their fault, it’s not Hypebeast—
[Jeff]: Because they’re getting the press release!
[DJ Clark Kent]: Nike figured, “Oh wow they’re gonna talk about us for free so we’re just gonna give them the information.” If there was no information, there would be no hype. The problem, the problem, is information.
[DJ Clark Kent]: That’s all I can say.
[Joe La Puma raises his hand] [David]: This is Joe La Puma who hosts a great show! [audience claps]
[Complex]: He’s the host of Sneaker Shopping.
[David]: He helped out with the movie and we thank him.
[Joe La Puma]: I also think, just to your question, who deciding what is good and what isn’t could be open to anyone. I may like a shoe and the sneaker team may not like it. That’s why, with our lists, we get in trouble because people say, “How could you feel like that?” If everyone saw the hours that we debate over them, it’s not that twelve people in the room are like, “This is the number one sneaker of the year!” I mean you’ve probably seen it with our sneaker round table debates. Everyone has different tastes and that’s what’s really good about sneakers, where some of the sneakerheads editors are more into toned-down sneakers and I’m more into loud sneakers. But I think we do have a job to report on news because someone cares about 90% of the shoes that we’re reporting on.
[David]: Anybody else?
[Audience member]: What would you think of the idea of sneakers just dropping? No release date, no warning, maybe a warning of the month—
[Complex]: Kind of like a secret Beyonce album?
[Hawaii Mike Salman and DJ Clark Kent]: You mean how it used to be?! [audience laughs]
[Hawaii Mike Salman]: Like in real life before the Internet f***ed everything up!
[Audience member]: Well that’s what I’m saying.
[Complex]: It’s kinda like when people say, “I miss the old New York.” Yeah, but we’re a little bit…safer now, maybe?
[Jeff]: We can’t go back to that unfortunately. I would actually love to go back!
[Complex]: At the scale that the sneaker culture is now, it can’t happen.
[David]: It’s ironic to me because what you’re talking about is also the issue for something like a documentary about sneakers because the words that I keep talking about lately are “clutter” and “destruction” and there’s so much clutter, there’s so many movies, so many things that could divert your attention. Then you have to find a way to disrupt the audience to come to see your product and I think it’s the same with sneakers; if you just blindly drop them in there, there’s too many other sneakers that are getting tons of hype on the Internet and social media you suddenly feel like you’re behind.
[Jeff]: Totally! If all sneaker conglomerates and CEOs got together and said, “Alright, we’re not gonna tell Complex what our next season looks like, can we all agree on that?” Asics is gonna walk out of the room and be like, “Yeah, we’re not doing that! [laughs] We’re gonna take advantage of this!” So greed comes into play, everyone wants to get that edge so you’re right, it’s cutting through the commotion.
[David]: It’s pretty tough to break through.
[Audience member]: Mostly for Jeff, how do you tell—in the old days you would know that you had a sneaker because it was a PF Flyer or a Keds or a Converse and it was canvas and had a rubber sole. When you look at the Buscemis up there and it’s leather and metal, how do you know you’re looking at a sneaker?
[Jeff]: Oof very good question! We had that talk right outside Clark, about sneakers going into the definition of “footwear” and just shoes. Eventually, if Buscemi keeps going he’s gonna end up in Florsheim [audience erupts in laughter] right?! I mean no disrespect but those are getting into some real gentlemanly shoes. The definition is just so broad now. As long as it gets on your feet it doesn’t really matter what you call them. Some shoes—some sneakers nowadays look almost like house slippers, I mean the ones I’ve got on just look like socks, they don’t even look like sneakers anymore. I think the definition is just getting broader—of what a “sneaker” actually is. It’s definitely not something that you have to play sports in, that’s for sure. [laughs]