A Beginner's Guide To Sneakerhead Culture

Of all the fashion trends out there, none is more intimidating than dipping into the world of sneakers. Considering that sneaker pros have been living and breathing sneakers since before they were mass-market "trendy," there is a fine line between repping the trends and looking like a poser. When the most embarrassing thing you could do is reveal your entry-level status, lacing up a pair of cool sneaks can feel like more of a thing than just putting your shoes on.

While there are plenty of fashionistas sporting Nike and New Balance, there's a deeper world out there that requires you understand and appreciate a little something about the history, brands, and personalities beyond "OMG, so cute!" So, how does one navigate sneaker fandom as a newbie?

You've probably seen those mile-long lines outside of retailers when they have new releases. A devoted sneakerhead keeps tabs on new drops, monitors online forums, and maintains a collection with the dedication of a full-time job. We all have at least one friend who prefers to spend their money on a shiny, new pair of kicks more than anything else, and those die-hards who'll spend a night scrubbing away scuffs with a toothbrush instead of going out. If it's not already obvious, simply buying a pair of cool sneakers does not a sneakerhead make.

Do we have to cancel our Friday night plans just to get in on the trend? Not really. The first step is to understand that sneakers have a long and fascinating history. Sneakers are a prime example of a trend that began in the streets and then spread to the masses — as opposed to runway trends that are spoon-fed to consumers. In the early '80s, major shoe brands began to tap into inner-city markets when they realized that young people were buying the same shoes their favorite basketball players were wearing. The scene really blew up later in the decade when it became indistinguishable from the emerging hip-hop scene. All of a sudden, sneakers' value extended beyond the court.

For sneaker wearers, footwear became a status symbol. Wearing brands name-checked in hip-hop lyrics meant you were fresh and cared about style. One of the clearest milestones was the release of Run DMC's hit song, "My Adidas," in 1986. It highlights a time when sneakers went from utilitarian to urban chic.

But, at the end of the day, sneakerheads buy them because they love them. They're functional, comfortable, and come with a feeling of individuality. The hype isn't always a true representation of the people within the scene, and sneaker culture doesn't have to be overwhelming or intimidating. Anyone can join with the right amount of knowledge, openness, and enthusiasm.

With the help of a few sneaker-obsessed ladies, we've broken down what you need to know to not only get your hands on the shoes you love, but also call yourself a nascent sneakerhead. Read on to get your fix.
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A once-underground culture that grew through word of mouth has the Internet to thank — or blame — for becoming more accessible. OG sneakerheads might miss the days before sneaker-only Instagram and Twitter feeds, but newbies are thankful for the resources that are available across social media.

You can learn almost everything you need to know about sneaker culture by following the right blogs and social media personalities. Go ahead and bookmark these links:

Obsessive Sneaker Disorder: A podcast for those who prefer not to read.

OHK: Tumblr-esq approach to fashion. (Their Instagram's on point, too).

Complex Sneakers: From fashionable to functional.

Kicks On Fire: One of the most-read sneaker blogs in the world.

Sole Collector: A popular sneaker magazine.

Sneaker Freaker: Another global, print magazine to know.

Nice Kicks: A go-to for sneaker news, release dates, and culture.

HypeBeast: What the cool kids are reading.

High Snobiety: Footwear along with street wear, lifestyle, and the arts.

Freshness: Your online destination for the pulse on sneaker culture.
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Part of being a sneakerhead is finding your signature shoe — the one you love, collect, follow, and will buy over and over again. It's part of not only being able to build up a collection, but also your identity. It helps you carve out your own niche in the sneaker community. After all, you'd probably go insane if you tried to keep up with all of them.

"I'm always torn about new sneakerheads nowadays because I feel like they just follow the trends," says Brittany Barrow, Assistant Buyer and Appraiser at NYC's Flight Club. "I'm from an older generation that like to stick to our favorites. The sneakerheads I respect are those who stick to their signature. I stick to Nike Air Max 1."

"You kind of fall in love with one style," says Emily Kropp, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, with family who worked at Nike. "Even within a single style, there's so much variation. You can get kind of obsessed with finding the most hard-to-find version.

Whether your shoe is a classic or an illusive style, claim it as your own, and you'll only get better at getting your hands on it.
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Don't discount brands you may not have heard of yet. Although most stick to household names, there are many other brands that get drowned out by the mainstream. Plus, don't assume every new drop is actually a new style.

"None of the hugely popular styles are really new," explains R29's own Calvy Click, who previously wrote about kicks at Complex and is a self-proclaimed sneaker obsessive. "The Nike Waffle Racers and the Air Max 1 are styles came around in the '70s and '80s."

Those who are really on the pulse of sneaker culture know there's more to the world of kicks than the brands we all know and love. Take Native Shoes, for example, who've garnered close to 85,000 followers on Instagram and claim to be "the result of design existing in a celestial space between the past and future." Now, that sounds more intriguing than the throwback Adidas All Star that's been taking over our feeds.

"I love the old Stan Smiths and other classics, but there's some interesting innovation with new materials that are extremely lightweight and feel almost like slippers — like Natives — with pretty fire silhouettes, too," says Kropp.
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Unfortunately, the sneaker scene is still seen as a man's world. There aren't many places that are specifically for women, and that can be seen in the sizing.

"For the most part, the trend is moving toward inclusivity, but every so often, when I find a shoe I'm excited about, the smallest size is a men's 8 or 9," says Kropp.

Working at Flight Club, Brittany's seen firsthand the turn the sneaker community has taken: "Boys' size 5.5 (which is women's 7 or 7.5) is selling out as much as a men's shoe would and for a pretty penny, too."

Fortunately, retailers are becoming more aware of the buying power of female customers and try to better cater to them.

"The scene has improved a lot compared to eight years ago when I first started getting into sneakers. Back then, the only women's releases were pink and purple, Barbie-fied versions of Nike's best styles," explains Kropp. "Brands have definitely heard the feedback that women want more options — or, at the very least, to have their size of new releases."
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Sneaker culture is more competitive than ever, thanks to the Internet, and everyone wants to get their hands on the latest releases. In this environment, things can obviously get kind of crazy.

"Shoes used to be coveted by small groups of people, and no one understood why we were going so crazy over shoes," Barrow said. "Now, it's easier for people to keep up with releases, and the sneaker phenomenon makes them seem more limited. People will do anything for a shoe."

Some companies are taking advantage of the web's unique capabilities, and that's not always a good thing.

"A few years back, with the return of Jordan culture, that style became harder to come by, and Nike started to make Jordans more exclusive via a Twitter release system," explains Kropp. "You had to message their Nike account to get a spot on the release list."

Kropp tried to score a pair using Nike's Twitter release system, but after a dozen or so failed attempts, she gave up because the demand was too high.

"A lot of sneakerheads are getting sick of the rigmarole of new releases and are figuring out new ways to get the hot releases or looking for different styles that don't have quite as much hype," says Kropp.
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As with any investment or collectible, there's a risk of counterfeits, especially as knock-offs get more sophisticated.

"I've been dealing with the 'black market' of sneakers for a while now," says Barrow. "It used to be a lot easier to tell real from fake." She explains that it's all about zeroing in on a model you care about and learning its design from top to bottom.

Thanks to the Internet, there's a ton of information available on how to tell if a sneaker is authentic. Although some bootleg characteristics aren't always obvious to the naked eye, experts say to ask for tips, do the research, read reviews, and always trust your instincts.

"My rule of thumb when it comes to eBay is to look at how many sales a seller has," Kropp explains. "If it's less than 25, that's a red flag. The sellers you know you can trust have tons of ratings and reviews. Click in and see if anyone's calling them fake."

When you're spending hundreds of dollars on something, it's common sense to be careful. While Barrow doesn't recommend believing verbal authentication too easily, there are sites that list trusted retailers, like the Legit List.
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One of the most exciting things about today's sneaker trend is the rise of designer and celebrity sneaker collaborations. Everyone from Rick Owens and Riccardo Tisci to Pharrell and Kanye West has designed their own pair of kicks, but the reality is that they don't come cheaply.

"It's fun to see designers doing collaborations, but for me, it's more like window shopping since they tend to be out of my price range," says Kropp.

If you do decide to drop a pretty penny, don't expect these kicks to increase value. Kropp explains, "Even if you take really good care of your shoes, or don't wear them, the materials will degrade over time.

While these collabs have an undeniable cool factor, a true sneakerhead is better off spending money on something you'll actually wear.
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The keys to building a sneaker collection are organization and maintenance. You'll need to figure out a way to keep track of your signature shoe. Some build relationships with consignment store owners while others follow style blogs.

"Every sneakerhead has their own process for keeping tabs on the shoes they care about," says Kropp. "I have a running watch list on eBay of the styles I like to follow."

Once your pairs start piling up, you have to organize, preserve, and store them properly. Some sneakerheads keep the boxes, but there's a chance they can get icky or even attract mice. Fortunately, there are plenty of other solutions available.

"The Container Store is a sneakerhead's dream," admits Barrow. Whatever storage method you prefer, make sure it includes routine cleanings.
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Any fanatic will tell you it's more about passion than popularity. Be real with yourself about what brands or styles will suit your wardrobe and lifestyle in the long run. The shoes your choose need to have meaning and connection to you, whether it's because your dad wore them growing up or it's what you've worn since grade school.

"Stick to the shoes that mean a lot to you — not the ones your boyfriend likes or Kim Kardashian wears," Barrow says. "It may not be the sneaker everyone's saying is the one to buy, but I respect somebody who has a hundred pairs of Air Forces. If those mean something to that person, that's more respectable."
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