- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

In an era when actress Mischa Barton is modeling sneakers that rock poster artist Eleanor Grosch designed for Keds, whose PRO-Keds line was favored by basketball legends in the ‘70s and whose recent reinvention came courtesy of hip-hop impresario Damon Dash, it seems obvious: Sneakers are, well, making moves.

Somehow, this one little piece of attire has hurdled over barriers that normally divide ages, races, classes and professions. It’s formed a sneaker nation, united by a common sole.

At the same time, the popularity of athletic shoes has yielded thousands — if not tens of thousands — of sneaker models, allowing for individuality in this shoe-centric state. It seems appropriate that a good chunk of the $30 billion the sneaker industry rakes in per year comes from the U.S., where our currency says e pluribus unum. It’s true; from many, the sneaker nation creates one.

By most accounts, modern-day sneaker culture burst off the blocks around a quarter century ago with the advent of the Nike Air Force 1, and hit a sprinter’s pace with the 1985 debut of the Air Jordan. The latter set the standard for the current combination of fashion, function and famous ambassador.

During that early period, athletic shoes also earned top billing in subcultures, many of which were also just starting to seep into the mainstream. Sneakers were the toast of hip-hop (Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas”), a staple of skateboarding culture, and a facet of the punk aesthetic, for example.

Shoes became more than just a style statement; they were an important symbol of one’s allegiances. “I like Mike,” they said. Or, “I rock a mic.” Or, “I think people that do are super-fly.”

Companies capitalized on the increased visibility of “fresh kicks,” and funneled more resources into advertising, technological development and design. They learned that limited-edition runs and constantly switching-up colors, textures, etc. could keep consumers coming back for more. And more.

Sneakers got so hot, in fact, that people started keeping them “on ice.” Real collectors bought two or even three pairs, keeping one to wear and one to store for a rainy day or the highest bidder. Around these fanatics, who were willing to pay hundreds for something potentially worth thousands in the future, the market for new, vintage (older original releases) and retro (updated versions of classics) shoes exploded.

New media outlets gave the movement an extra push. Cable stations from ESPN to MTV gave more personalities a platform to discuss and display fashion. Later, the Internet provided unlimited access to information about new sneaker models and stores.

This brings us to today, when major brands like Nike and Reebok are competing with countless boutique companies, such as A Bathing Ape and Creative Recreation.

You don’t have to be a sports legend to hawk athletic shoes anymore. Lily Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and the daughters of Run-D.M.C.’s Reverend Run have all attached their names to sneaker lines or models.

John Mayer would love to join their ranks. He’s among the famous “sneaker heads,” or shoe aficionados.

For people like him, there are sneaker magazines, books, blogs, TV shows and DVDs. Competitions, nightclub events and gallery exhibits. Sneaker-inspired IPod and laptop skins and high-priced shoe-shaped jewelry.

Here in the District, sneaker boutiques are mushrooming, and many of them describe having regulars that shell out loot for shell-toes and the like as often as once a week. Heck, some of the owners even have whole bedrooms filled with shoe boxes that number in the thousands.

So why have sneakers caught us by the toe? Because they’re cool, comfortable, or have celebrity cachet? Maybe. But the most frequently cited explanations refer back to our beloved e pluribus unum.”

“It’s about individuality,” says DJ Underdog, 28, co-owner of Georgetown sneaker boutique Major. “That’s mainly it — the fact that you can get something someone else doesn’t have.”

In Major, for example, there are plenty of kicks that aren’t exactly in every store on the block — like the women’s Day-Glo neon 25th anniversary Reebok Freestyles (around $65 to $75). Those who are particularly intrepid and inquisitive might even land something off-menu that’s kept hush, hush — and only in the storeroom.

Those searching for a still rarer find can customize their own “trainers” at most of the major brand Web sites, including Nike, Reebok and Puma. Better yet, they can comb resale sites loaded with gems from the past, such as www.flightclubny.com, the online presence of the New York City sneaker consignment shop Flight Club.

Diallo Sharif Bryan, a 31-year-old DJ and founding partner of the Georgetown footwear and streetwear store Kickballers, explains that buying sneakers these days also helps people buy into something else: a lifestyle.

“Our parents used to go to college, maybe grad school, then they’d work for a company for 35 years, start a 401(k), retire and that’s it,” he says. “We want more out of life. The sneaker, in terms of what it represents, is that independent spirit. It’s about going out and doing something on your own.”

For his co-owner Neran Dhas, 28, this meant camping outside a Manhattan sneaker store for days in the winter of 2005 (his girlfriend kept him fed and hydrated) in hopes of getting one of the 150 pairs of Nike Dunk SB Pigeons. He eventually got to pay his $250, and walked away in the midst of a shoe riot that made the papers.

Worth it?

“Oh yeah,” he says. “I was a part of history.”

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