India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine

SOLE SISTERS

Ever since the American sneakerhead subculture was co-opted by the mainstream and luxury fashion industries, global Instagram feeds have been filled with images of Nikes, Yeezys, Balenciagas, or whichever brand has dropped the season’s It shoe. But to sneakerheads, they are more than the latest fad. A number of women are in the vanguard of the burgeoning movement here in India, and Rushmika Banerjee speaks with five of them to get some diverse viewpoints on what makes this footwear staple an aspirational commodity

PHOTOGRAPHED BY SHUBHAM LODHA
STYLING BY AKANKSHA PANDEY

If there is one product that has invariably tied the worlds of sports, fashion and entertainment together over the years, it would be the sneaker. The famous Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes were designed for NBA player Michael Jordan in 1984, the same year that Gucci entered the luxury sneaker market with the classic Tennis 84 model. Cut to 1986: thousands of fans lift their feet in unison to the call of hip-hop group Run-DMC’s My Adidas at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This is also when sneakers become one of the symbols of this anti-establishment music genre. These three milestones opened the floodgates of sneaker culture in America, the arbiter of global pop culture, and those riding the wave of this phenomenon came to be known as sneakerheads. This community doesn’t collect sneakers just for kicks; it’s not about owning all the new models or focusing only on functionality. Each pair they ‘cop’ goes on to become a part of a unique personal mythology, with an emotional value and backstory attached to it. And there are also those who buy two pairs of everything — one to stock and one to rock.

When sneaker culture first came on the scene, there was no internet or social media to update enthusiasts about the latest drops (releases); brands relied on paid partnerships with sport and music personalities to create ‘hype’. In the 2015 Netflix documentary Sneakerheadz, OG (Original; referring to the first version of a model) collectors recall a time when the brewing subculture was only for people who were in the know. Purchasing a new pair meant travelling to the nearest sports store and spending hours analysing the shoe shelves. Things took a turn with the advent of eBay in 1995, which established an underground resale market for buying and trading sneakers online.

But while the sneaker circle grew in numbers and purchasing power, styles for women were conspicuously absent from the US market. The business of advertising for women worked on the simple formula of ‘shrink it and pink it’ (and it was openly discussed even outside boardrooms). This theory was discarded around the ’80s when a significant number of women athletes came to the fore and started looking for options that were at par with men’s sneakers in terms of performance and design. They pointed out that they didn’t need separate designs for women but smaller sizes. The Reebok Freestyle, one of the first ladies-only trainers, arrived in 1982. But Nike (named for the Greek goddess of victory), which had launched Nike Women in 1978, took almost two decades to sign up a female athlete to endorse a signature line (basketball player Sheryl Swoopes was ultimately roped in to advertise the Nike Air Swoopes in 1995). Fifteen years later, in 2010, the brand collaborated with American music video director Vashtie Kola, who became the first woman to design Air Jordans (a girl’s version of the 2 Retro). The second was stylist Aleali May in 2017 (with her take on the Jordan 1).

Fun fact: certain Air Jordan editions are still considered to be grails (slang sneakerheads use to describe the shoe that is on top of their wish lists) for collectors. Their success propelled Nike to roll out the shoe in different colourways and styles for women and kids. In 1985, Jordan 1s sold at a retail price of 65 dollars. Today, Jordans have one of the highest resale values, with the most expensive ones — a pair of “Flu Game” 12s worn by Michael Jordan during Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals — being auctioned off in 2013 for a hefty sum of 1,04,000 dollars. And these are not even the costliest pair of sneakers to be sold. In an online auction hosted by Sotheby’s in July 2019, a collector acquired the 1972 Nike Waffle Racing Flat Moon Shoe for the staggering price of 4,37,500 dollars.

The art of collecting sneakers started gathering steam in 2005, when Nike SB (their skateboarding line) released the hyperlimited Pigeon Dunks, in collaboration with American fashion and graphic designer Jeff Staple. The launch caused a massive riot outside the Reed Space store in New York, where hundreds of people had been camping out for around five days. Sneaker culture had gone mass, and it made investors and luxury brands sit up and take notice. In 2014, when luxe athleisure emerged as the breakout runway trend, the lack of women designers, womenfriendly designs and sizes in mainstream sneaker culture finally became a topic of conversation. That same year, Puma signed on Rihanna to be the global brand ambassador and creative director for its women’s division. This move saw a steady growth in Puma’s businesses worldwide, which made the other sportswear brands re-evaluate their women’s sections in stores. In 2016, Hypebeast — the most influential online lifestyle portal for the streetwear community — brought out its counterpart for women, Hypebae. This approach helped the cause; in 2016, Adidas designed the Pure Boost X, specially engineered for female runners, and in 2018 Nike launched Unlaced, a curated online destination for female sneaker lovers. The brand also released a statement in February 2018, admitting that sneaker culture had previously been male-focused: ‘As sneakers transcended sport and initiated street-style trends, collaboration became an integral component of sneaker culture, blossoming into a symbiotic relationship between brands and external creative communities. That community has been predominantly male. However, in pushing new female voices, Nike is challenging the sneaker status quo.’

Closer to home, although sneakers have been omnipresent, the movement is still nascent because basketball and hip-hop did not influence pre-internet Indians in their childhood, and there was no cultural equivalent associated with the shoe. The growing interest in trainers brought a few disruptors into the market, and they have steered the streetwear community in India. Though both Adidas and Reebok came to India in 1995, Nike in 1996 and Puma in 2005, it is only in the last two or three years that sneaker aficionados are coming into the spotlight, thanks to flourishing Instagram pages like @sneakernewsindia and @sneakertalkindia. With nearly 11,500 and 7,500 followers respectively, these handles are also instrumental in organising events that provide introductions to street culture and hold sneaker swaps. Such initiatives have led to an increased awareness about the latest drops, fresh collaborations (Myntra, in partnership with Nike, had five sneakerheads endorsing the launch of the latest Air Max collection in April this year) and the opening of two multi-brand sneaker stores — VegNonVeg and SuperKicks — with outlets in multiple cities.

Unlike internationally, the emerging sneakerhead community in India is not as male-driven, and the line between niche collectors and mainstream fashionistas is even blurrier, particularly because of the shoe’s latest avatar as a coveted high fashion accessory. Celebrity trend-setters, fitness enthusiasts and social media influencers — Deepika Padukone (for Nike), Ayesha Billimoria (former captain of Adidas Runners, Mumbai) and Alanna Panday (for Fila) — have played a role in bringing sneakers to the fore as more than utilitarian footwear. Last February, the country’s first sneaker festival, Soledition, was held in Delhi thanks to former Adidas employee Siddharth Pal and women’s participation, according to him, was close to 40 per cent. Says Pal, “Sneakers and streetwear have always been a ‘boy-thing’, until recently, when the progressive thinking of a few brands changed the game. Now, sneakers are racing into women’s wardrobes right behind luxury handbags. Great designs and interesting collaborations have contributed to this change in a big way.” A recent collaboration by Adidas in April saw several women creators such as actor Mrunal Thakur, graphic artist Sam Madhu, hip-hop artiste Raja Kumari come together for the brand’s Nite Jogger campaign. The sporting goods giant has also signed up Beyoncé this year to develop a signature collection of products ranging from performance to lifestyle, along with relaunching Beyoncé’s athleisure line, Ivy Park. Sangeet Paryani, founder of SuperKicks, says, “I have seen a spike in women customers in the last six to eight months as compared to when we started out in 2018. Currently, about 30 to 40 per cent of the people who enter my store are women, which is very promising. It’s also got to do with the inventory that we have for them. In terms of sales, women contribute to nearly 20 per cent today; six months back, it was only 12 per cent.”

We get a closer look into the shoe closets of a few devoted women sneaker-heads from India….

Naavika Nandal, 34

SNEAKER COUNT: 20 PAIRS

Design Manager, Bhaane, VegNonVeg Apparel


Bomber jacket, by Suket Dhir; pants, Puma Thunder Desert sneakers, both Naavika’s own.
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: LEEVIEW BISWAS.

When did you start collecting sneakers?
Around five years ago.

How can brands reach out to women?
I think it’s important to first educate them about the product, its history and the culture that exists around sneakers. This is crucial because it will help women relate to them in their own ways. When I buy sneakers, I usually look at the use of different materials, textures, the fit and the fresh colourways.

Who is your sneak-spiration?
Hip-hop artistes. I love the music and think that artistes such as A$AP Rocky, Pharrell Williams and, above all, Kanye West, have such amazing personal style and a strong sneaker game, which is quite inspiring.

Your views on female representation in sneaker culture?
I don’t think sneaker culture is gender biased; in fact, it is a unisex and global community. If you love your sneakers, it doesn’t matter whether you are a guy or a girl.

An instance when you styled sneakers in an unusual way?
If given a chance, I would wear sneakers with everything. I love my graphic T-shirts as much as my sneakers, so when I dress up, it is either of the two. My most unusual look was the time at a friend’s wedding when I got rid of my heels and wore a pair of sneakers under my sari.

What factors have influenced the popularity of sneakers among Indian women?
According to me, there are three factors. First, there is better accessibility with the introduction of a wide variety of sneakers in India by brands such as Nike, Adidas and Puma. Second is the athleisure trend that has picked up globally and is a major hit with Bollywood celebrities — Bollywood is one of the biggest influencers in the Indian market. Third is increased awareness. With some exclusive sneakers releasing in India, people have now become more aware of the hype that surrounds them.

Is mass consumerism diluting the OG sneaker community?
Passion is converted to hype because of the power of influence and publicity. Ten years ago, the culture seemed more significant. Now, sneakers are like a status symbol. It’s not about the love for the shoe anymore; it’s about the hype.

Do you feel India needs region-specific designs? Definitely! It will help the people to connect to these brands more and also create a distinctive sneaker history.

First and last pairs bought: Adidas Originals Superstar 80S Metal Toe, Nike Air Max2 Light University Gold. Next on the list: Nike Air Jordan IV Retro Bred (2019).
Favourite sneaker: Air Jordans.
Grail shoe: Nike Air Jordan IV Retro White/Cement (1999).
Best places to shop: VegNonVeg in India and internationally, I go to atmos Japan, Goodhood and Sneakersnstuff. For online purchases, I prefer StockX.

Bhavisha Dave, 35

SNEAKER COUNT: 63 PAIRS

Co-founder, Capsul
(over 30 are limited editions/collabs)


Top, pants and Undercover X Nike Daybreak Blue Jay sneakers, all Bhavisha’s own.
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: GARGI SHAH.

What drew you to sneakers?
Growing up, I had always been into sports, and sneakers were a central part of my wardrobe. I have an eye for interesting, pop-coloured sneakers — I was known for wearing bright red ones in engineering college. The oldest pair that I own are from 2010 — Puma Pop Art 917s — which have an upper inspired by a popular video game. Also, gold sneakers are my weakness.

How can brands reach out to women?
Up until a few years ago, women who loved sneakers had to buy men’s styles but in smaller sizes. But in 2015, Puma, in partnership with Rihanna, launched the Fenty Creeper — a women’s sneaker that men wanted to get their hands on. Nike, too, recognised the potential of the women’s market and released some programmes specifically for women sneaker lovers, including a series of reimagined Air Force 1s and Air Jordan 1s (my favourite being the Jester XX) in 2018, as well as Nike Unlaced. So, while steps are being taken to address the gap in the market, the focus should be on introducing stylish sneakers with great stories that cater to all, irrespective of gender and shoe size.

Do you own any limited-editions?
The Puma X Soyuzmultfilm, the brand’s collaboration with a Russian animation studio, to celebrate 50 years of the Puma Suede. The upper features one of the hand-drawn cartoons from a Soviet-era animated short film version of Winnie-the-Pooh’s first chapter. The Aleali May X Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG Viotech, also called the Court Lux — I just had to get my hands on one of her designs. The sneaker is a nod to a 2013 SB and has incredible colours like bordeaux, sunset tint, light armory blue as well as removable faux fur on the tongue.

How do you keep yourself updated?
India is a very exciting market for both sneakers and streetwear. There are WhatsApp groups where people discuss sneaker drops 24/7. I also get my information from Highsnobiety and Hypebeast and by following streetwear brands and international stores that collaborate with sneaker brands regularly, like The Chinatown Market, The Hundreds and Undefeated (UNFTD).

Your views on female representation in sneaker culture?
It’s picking up. Now that sneakers are gradually being accepted as non-unprofessional attire, more people are drawn to them, especially since they’re so comfortable and fashionable at the same time. There’s so much you can express with your sneakers. Additionally, sneaker culture also extends to streetwear which is still a niche space and very exciting. Both help you to announce your affinities and identify your tribe, irrespective of the boundaries that divide society. And, it’s much easier for women to stand out if they’re into streetwear and sneakers, since they’re still so new, particularly here in India.

An instance when you styled sneakers in an unusual way?
I wore sneakers with a dress for my marriage signing at the registrar’s office. We didn’t do a full-blown Indian wedding, so this was the most important day of my life, and I included sneakers in it.

Is mass consumerism diluting the OG sneaker community?
Sneakers are collectibles. I don’t look at consumerism in the sneaker industry the same way as in the fast fashion space; people who’re building sneaker wardrobes are probably creating an asset class for themselves. Those who flip sneakers, buy them with the intention of making profits off them. It means that these sneakers are probably kept in — or very near to — ‘deadstock’ condition. Buying sneakers should come with an understanding of collecting; it’s not just about consuming and discarding. Just because copping is easier today, in the sense that you don’t need to travel somewhere specific and queue up, doesn’t mean it’s always possible to cop the coveted, hype sneakers that can turn you a fat profit. I don’t see any dilution happening — just different ways to participate.

What factors have influenced the popularity of sneakers among Indian women? Sneakers, today, are omnipresent. They’re well integrated with high fashion, both on the runway and off, by sneaker brands that leverage some of the biggest fashion moments to drop new kicks. The fact that it is now okay to prioritise comfort over the previously compulsory elements of ‘power dressing’ such as heels, has also allowed sneakers to become more ubiquitous, as have the relaxed clothing policies at workplaces.

First and last pairs bought: Action Shoes, Undercover X Nike Daybreak in midnight blue.
Next on the list: A new colourway for Undercover X Nike Daybreaks.
Favourite pair: I buy sneakers because of the stories they tell. For instance, the Nike Dunk SB High FLOM (For Love Of Money) designed by my favourite graffiti artist, Futura.
Grail shoe: Nike SB Dunk Low Stüssy Cherry, because Stüssy is a brand that I respect for creating the category of an expressive and powerful streetwear style.
Best places to shop: Overkill in Germany, UNDFTD in Los Angeles, Wunder in Istanbul and KM20 in Moscow.

Shivani Boruah, 30

SNEAKER COUNT: 60 PAIRS
(approximately)

Content and Community, VegNonVeg


Tunic, jacket and pants, all from Bodice; Adidas X Yeezy Boost 700 Inertia sneakers, Shivani’s own.
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: GARGI SHAH.

When did you start collecting sneakers?
Being a tomboy and a music enthusiast during my teenage days led me to sneakers early. While that can’t be termed as ‘collecting’, I have been wearing sneakers ever since. I began collecting around mid2016, starting with a few basic pairs. That’s also when I started my blog, thevelvetradio.com, which is where I review sneakers.

What do you look for in a sneaker?
Women have varied tastes. Some love pink accents while others want the same sneakers as men. It is great to see that brands in India are bringing in a lot of sneakers especially for women and making men’s sneakers in women’s sizes too. When I buy a sneaker, I look for comfort, the story, the colourway and the ‘on feet’ feel. I also look at the multiple ways I can style a particular pair of creps (slang for trainers).

Who is your sneak-spiration?
Back in the day, music was a major inspiration — punk, rock, metal and hip-hop — and there was this thing where I’d want to look like a certain artiste from a video or an album. So, I’d explore more about them and the kicks they wore, which introduced me to a new world and got me hooked onto sneakers.

How do you keep yourself updated?
I think we are privileged as a generation because the internet has so much information readily available. There are multiple online platforms like Sneaker News, Highsnobiety and Hypebeast. Also, social media has made it even easier to bring the global community together.

Is mass consumerism diluting the OG sneaker community?
Currently, with sneakers being a major trend, I see people who buy sneakers just for the sake of looking cool and a lot of competition to grab that ‘rare pair’. So, though trends come and go, which implies that this might not last for a long time, the OG sneakerheads have been around all along, and they will continue to be there regardless of whether sneakers are in fashion or not.

What factors have influenced the sneakerhead community of Indian women?
Like me, I know a couple of female sneakerheads who are influenced heavily by music. Creps are no longer restricted to training in India, and women have adopted sneaker culture as a lifestyle. Also, many women are switching to sneakers for their workwear wardrobes as they are more than just a style statement.

Do you feel India needs region-specific designs?
Absolutely! International brands can leverage a preexisting global consumer base, and collaborations with Indian labels or local designers would be good for the community as a whole because they could be a great way of putting Indian artistry on the map, not to mention a source of motivation for aspiring designers or artists. So, I believe that there need to be more collabs, like the Fila X NBNW, between creative minds belonging to various disciplines.

First and last pairs bought: A pair of canvas shoes, Adidas Originals by Alexander Wang AW Wangbody Runs.
Most paid for a sneaker: Approximately 27,000 rupees.
Next on the list: Rick Owens DRKSHDW Ramones.
Grail shoe: Yeezy Boost 350 V2s — Oreo or Zebra.

Haya Rukiya, 29

SNEAKER COUNT: 20 PAIRS

Marketing Manager, Capsul


Hijab, pantsuit and Nike Air Max 95 Plant Colour sneakers, all Haya’s own.
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: GARGI SHAH.

When did you start collecting sneakers?
I never consciously decided to collect sneakers. I have owned multiple pairs of Nikes since I was a kid, and one of the main reasons was my heavy consumption of American pop-culture (through cult movies like Back to the Future, Space Jam and Forrest Gump) and involvement with athletics. Also, they just look wicked cool.

What do you look for in a sneaker?
To begin with, I think brands in India need to stock more models in a broader size range for women. For me, the priority has always been comfort. I’m a simple girl with simple tastes. I like canvas, lowprofile and thick soles — my favourite being the Nike SB Zoom Stefan Janoski.

How do you keep yourself updated?
I follow the sneaker brands’ websites as well as online sneaker and lifestyle pages such as Complex, Highsnobiety and Hypebeast.

Your views on female representation in sneaker culture?
There can always be more!

An instance when you styled sneakers in an unusual way?
I do it almost every day. It is fairly common for me to go on a girls’ night-out dressed to the nines, with my beaten Nike Air Force 1s on my feet.

Is mass consumerism diluting the OG sneaker community?
I can’t exactly comment on that point, but I do feel that the current situation within sneaker culture, given the frequent drops, online trade and the disposable youth income, has warped our sense of the value of money. It is not uncommon to find people dropping 15,000 rupees on a pair of shoes, without a second thought. And about diluting the OG sneaker community — there ain’t no school like old school.

What factors have influenced the popularity of sneakers among Indian women?
When celebrities started styling sneakers in unique ways, it showed the population that a sneaker is not just limited to an athletic or hip-hop aesthetic.

Do you feel India needs region-specific sneaker designs?
I wouldn’t say ‘needs’, but it would be cool to see local representation. It would make the product a lot more relatable.

First and last pairs bought: Chunky white Nikes, Nike Air Max 95 QS Plant Color Collection.
Next on the list: Nike Air Max 270 React Bauhaus.
Favourite brand: Nike. The Swoosh is reminiscent of childhood memories.
Grail shoe: The Nike MAG, inspired by the ones Marty McFly wore in Back To the Future II.
Best places to shop: The Nike India and international websites.

Radhika Prasad, 28

SNEAKER COUNT: 8 PAIRS

Advocate in law


Tunic, from Lovebirds; pants, Nike Air Max 1 Anniversary 2017 Edition White & University Red sneakers, both Radhika’s own.
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: JEAN-CLAUDE BIGUINE, INDIA.

When did you start collecting sneakers?
I don’t collect sneakers. I actively resist the impulse to possess every sneaker that fascinates me. My favourite thing to do as a sneakerhead still is to simply read Sneaker Freaker magazine. Their section Material Matters takes a deep dive into various sneaker materials and evolving cushioning technologies, which I find extremely enjoyable.

How do you keep yourself updated?
I like to read publications such as Sneaker Freaker and Sole Collector, as I trust them to have the most accurate information. I also look at websites like Sneaker News, Nice Kicks, Highsnobiety, Hypebeast, Hypebae, and sneaker and streetwear industry news on The Fashion Law website. I use the Droplist app to stay abreast of releases worldwide and follow the Instagram pages of Sneaker News India and Sneaker Talk India. A few Instagram accounts, like @zsneakerheadz,
@how.to.cop, @wavegod_thelegend, post first looks of muchawaited releases. The podcasts that I listen to include the Business of Hype hosted by Jeff Staple, Outside the Box by Tiffany Beers and Shoe-In.

Your views on female representation in sneaker culture?
It’s slowly improving. More women designers, musicians and sports professionals are being given endorsement and campaign deals. Reebok and Adidas have focused on this aspect, as seen recently in their campaigns for the Aztrek, Falcon and Arkyn models. Reebok produced a podcast miniseries titled Flipping The Game, hosted by Scottie Beam, which spoke about how women sneakerheads are demanding more from brands and breaking barriers within sneaker culture. The most significant development is brands handing meaningful control over the design process to women collaborators. The Nike LeBron 16 for women was designed by four black women. This is a reflection of having hired women in key decision-making positions. According to a Time magazine interview with Amy Montagne — a Nike VP who was promoted to general manager of global categories after serving as general manager of Nike Women — the brand is strategising to grow its women’s business from 6.6 billion dollars to 11 billion dollars by 2020. It took a nine-year-old girl writing a letter to NBA player Stephen Curry requesting that his Under Armour Curry 5 sneakers be available in girls sizes, for them to include a Girls Basketball Shoes category on their website. We should see less of these oversights in the third decade of this millennium.

Is mass consumerism diluting OG sneaker culture?
Many sneakerheads believe that since a sneaker is akin to a piece of art with its own design story or cultural significance, collecting them is not rooted in consumerism. I find it difficult to share this perspective; I absolutely understand the impulse to collect sneakers, but buying more sneakers than you will possibly use is definitely rooted in consumerism, and its okay to recognise it as such. The value of certain sneakers that have generated hype and were made available in limited numbers or through exclusive channels does appreciate for a short period, but I am yet to understand this as a principal or sound financial move. I intend to read Dylan Dittrich’s book Sneakonomic Growth: Scarcity, Storytelling and the Arrival of Sneakers As an Asset Class to perhaps gain some insight on this. OG sneakerheads in the country are still hunting down limited-edition pairs on eBay, like they’re used to doing. They not only covet sneakers that were produced in very limited numbers but also procure them more slowly and with far more effort — the thrill is in the process of hunting down a pair and getting a good deal.

Have you faced any biases when it comes to the sneakerhead community in India?
No, the community I know is fun, creative and supportive. I don’t work in the industries around this, so I haven’t had any experiences specific to that. I hope that the women, who do work in the existing and emerging businesses in this field, are paid equal to their male counterparts for similar work experience and have recourse within corporate structures for any gender-specific issues they might face, especially those that are required by the law already. It is important for people to feel safe as they work, knowing that they have competent redressal systems in place to turn to within these structures.

Do you feel India needs region-specific designs?
Definitely! My favourite release this year is the Fila India X VegNonVeg Masala Box Mindblower that takes inspiration from the spice box found in every Indian household. We need more design stories that speak to us. Cravatex Brands Limited, the Indian company that is licensed to sell Fila in India, has a design and marketing team that makes it a point to be clued into what sneakerheads here want. In collaboration with actor and anchor Rannvijay Singha, they’re also encouraging artistes from around the country to customise sneakers which are then critiqued on his YouTube channel. They’ve recently acquired the rights to manage the India operations of skate wear brand Vans from its global owner VF Corporation, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they enlist the sneakerhead community in expanding its market in India.

First and last pairs bought: Puma Eco OrthoLites, Nike Air Max 1 OG Anniversary edition.
Next on the list: Nike SB Dunk High Dog Walker.
Favourite pair: Nike SBs of the 2000s.
Grail shoe: Nike SB Dunk Low Pro Paris.
Best places to shop: SuperKicks and VegNonVeg. I don’t buy sneakers often, but I’d definitely look to resellers I trust like HomeCourt India, The Mainstreet Marketplace or VJ Kicks.