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Sneaker Culture

Detroit’s crazy love for sneakers places the region front and center with shoe aficionados nationally.

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Detroit style

Today’s sneakers are as popular and as signature as yesterday’s gators.

“Twenty years ago, Detroit was known for alligator shoes,” says Chuck Bennett, a Detroit-based style expert. “When hip-hop came in, things became relaxed. Guys weren’t wearing suits. They were wearing jeans and sneakers. Now, some people make alligator sneakers. Now, Detroit is known for sneakers.”

Christian Dorsey, co-owner of Bob’s Classic Kicks, agrees.

“Detroit has always had style,” says Dorsey, 31, whose store has been open for eight years. “Sneakers replaced the gators. You used to wear different-colored gators; now it’s different-colored gym shoes.”

The popularity of sneakers started to brew with Chuck Taylors in the 1970s. Sneakers have been a staple in hip-hop culture since the beginning, and Run-D.M.C. recognized sneakers’ role in the culture in the 1980s with their song “My Adidas.“ They also had an endorsement deal with the company.

But the pinnacle moment when sneakers were thrust into superstar status was when former Chicago Bulls basketball icon Michael Jordan signed a $2.5 million endorsement deal with Nike in 1984, says Robert Thompson, a popular culture professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

A rookie, Jordan sported the shoes on courts despite a NBA dress code ban that prohibited him from wearing the signature red and black kicks. Jordan racked up dozens of $5,000 fines that season, all of which Nike paid for.

In the 1990s, Jordan went on to film a popular commercial series with filmmaker Spike Lee, expanding the  kicks’ popularity.

“These things were marketed so absolutely brilliantly. The attachment to Michael Jordan, the use of him, the way in which those many sneakers were marketed so it almost seemed like a superhero power,” Thompson says.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, shoe brands such as Nike continued to develop their marketing strategies and partner with hip-hop artists and athletes to release high-end limited editions that increased demand and prices.

Music videos and advertisements in urban magazines such as The Source and Vibe also help facilitated the growth of the culture.

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