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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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The popularity hasn’t slowed down. In 2010, Nike CEO Mark Parker said its basketball division earned an estimated $1.7 billion in revenue—and its Air Force 1 shoe, which debuted more than 25 years ago, continues to sell 15 million pairs annually.

Part of the rise of sneaker culture is due to the evolution of the shoe from sports use only to daily wear now.

“There are very few places in America where you can’t wear sneakers anymore,” Thompson says. “They’ve become part of the uniform of American life. We’ve become so much less rigid in our dress codes. In two generations, what was considered unacceptable clothes has disappeared.”

Shoes have also become a really important part of the male fashion statement, and sneakers are an acceptable way that men can express their love for shoes.

Brian Watson, 37, of Detroit says as a teenager, he loved Air Jordans and the way they complemented his outfits. Now, his style has matured and he wears sneakers less, but he still owns about 20 pairs of the shoes he purchased for $125 and higher per pop.

“I’ve had almost every pair known to man in previous years,” says Watson, an assembly line worker at Chrysler. “It’s more like a trip down memory lane. They’re mostly collectors’ items now. I may wear them once and put them in a box and that’s it.”

But women are a part of sneaker culture just as they are a part of hip-hop culture, says Gwendolyn Pough, associate professor and chair of the women’s and gender studies department at Syracuse University.

“Until the Lil’ Kims and the Foxy Browns, women hip-hop heads wore the same things as the guys. I remember dressing up in my Lee jeans and my pastel Nikes, my Le Tigre shirts and my sneakers just like (the boys),” says Pough, author of “Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere.“

“Athletic women and hip-hop head women want the same shoes that the guys are wearing—just in a different color.”

Angela and Vanessa Simmons, daughters of Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons of Run-D.M.C., put their own stamp on sneakers as did their father a generation before when they launched their Pastry line of sneakers for women and girls in 2007.

While the typical “sneaker head” may be between age 18 and 25, diverse clientele shop for sneakers at Burn Rubber, Gilmore says.

“We get everybody from 12 to 60 coming here,” says the manager, whose store has a YouTube series backed by Eminem called “Detroit Rubber.“ 

“Every race, color and creed you can imagine, every socioeconomic background you can imagine... we have dudes who drive Ferraris and dudes who walk or skateboard here.”

And customers are looking for brands and styles that are hard to find because they want to be unique, he says. “It’s the difference between setting the trend or being trendy.”

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