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Notts Sneaker Heads Discuss the Boom of the Trainer Industry

12 March 22 words: Isabella Read
illustrations: Emily Catherine

It’s hard to imagine a time when trainers weren’t everywhere you looked. For most of us, figuring out which sneakers to wear is just as, if not more important than, the rest of our outfit. But from an engineering breakthrough of fusing canvas and vulcanised rubber together in the early twentieth century to a multi-billion-dollar global business, the sneaker industry has taken over the world in a relatively short time. And Nottingham is no exception – walk down any high-street in the city and you’ll see multiple retailers flogging the latest creps, with queues forming outside some of the biggest brands before they open on most days. Footwear fan Isabella Read talks to some of Nottingham’s biggest sneaker heads to find out more about trainer culture in the city…

If you ask anyone around the world, they’ll tell you that comfort is usually a high-priority when it comes to choosing footwear. A high-priority maybe, but not the only concern, as style can often be just as important. When trainers moved from being traditionally used for athletic activities to becoming socially acceptable in other situations, we saw the advent of athleisure – a blending of the two priorities. Trainers were the new prime choice of footwear for all walks of life.   

I’m obsessed with sneakers – the range of colours and styles can make or break an outfit, and even help individuals show off who they are, what they like and how much money they have. But I wanted to know why other people were obsessed, and how much Nottingham as a city embraced its sneaker culture. So I decided to chat to the people who know better than anyone…

The Seller

“The community in Nottingham is quite niche compared to other places like London and Manchester,” Lashon James, the twenty-year-old owner of sneaker brand store Sneakrverse in Bridlesmithgate, tells me. “However, there is still a wide range of people with knowledge and a high interest in the sneaker game.” James set up Sneakrverse after graduating from NTU, having initially started reselling online after seeing his friends make a profit doing the same. “My friends used to enter raffles for shoes and when they won, I’d see some of the unique shoes which inspired me,” James continues. “I began to gain a deeper interest in the history and design of each shoe, as well as starting to re-sell to fund my own collection.”

The sneaker industry is predicted to reach a value of £85 billion by 2026

And to collect trainers doesn’t always necessarily mean to wear them, as James explains, “I’d say around 90% of our customers buy to wear – some people have even worn the shoes out of the store. But the other 10% are the customers we supply the higher-end and more exclusive sneakers to, which they don’t ever want to wear because of their value. They tend to appreciate in value as they get rarer.” For an extreme example of this, you don’t have to look back any further than April of last year, when Sotheby’s sold Kanye West’s 2008 Nike Air Yeezy Grammy Prototype for £1.3 million.

“The future for sneakers is still growing,” James concludes. “Just this year we’ve started to see NFTs of original shoes being released by Nike, a lot more limited releases helping in markets like my own as well as opening up to a newer growing market in the Metaverse for brands such as Nike and Jordan.”

The Restorer

As well as selling and reselling, there’s a growing market for sneaker restoration. “The demand is very high,” Taz, owner of Sneaker Remix, explains. “I have restored trainers from the eighties and nineties, or clients’ favourite pairs from when they were teenagers that they never wanted to get rid of. Some trainers have sentimental value for people.”

Restoration, as Taz describes, is the process of “bringing your old trainers back to life, by cleaning them and repainting them with high quality leather/fabric dyes and giving them a make-over and a fresh look”. With clients all over the UK and around the world, he is benefitting from being ahead of the curve when it comes to sneaker restoration. “I believe I'm the only person in Nottingham that offers restorations, and would say two or three years ago I was probably the only one in the Midlands,” he tells me. “It’s a fairly new thing - before people would just get rid of their trainers after they had their use out of them and there was nothing you could really do. But now people know that there is a place where you can go and take your favourite pair of old trainers and have them restored back to life.

“At the moment we are getting a lot of high-end brand trainers such as Gucci, Dior, Off-White and Prada,” he continues. “These trainers are expensive and clients want to take the best care of them so they are regularly coming back in for refurbishment.” But despite the changing trends, some trainers are eternally admired, “The Jordan brand is always very popular for collectors. It’s the go-to brand when it comes to footwear and street fashion, so we see a lot of Jordans coming in for restoration.

The Academic

Social media made it easier for sellers to reach an audience, and for brands to gain traction. My own love for sneakers was definitely influenced by seeing people I looked up to wearing certain brands, and wanting to wear the same myself. I spoke to Naomi Braithwaite, a Senior Lecturer at the School of Art and Design at NTU and author of The History of Sneakers: From Commodity to Cultural Icon, to find out just how sneakers became such a global phenomenon. With fashion becoming more of a statement of identity than a simple choice of footwear over time, it became easier for people to get pleasure from what they were wearing. Describing the “post Michael Jordan'' era, Braithwaite explains how sneakers became more mainstream, citing the “power of Instagram” as a driving force behind the rise in popularity. In The History of Sneakers: From Commodity to Cultural Icon, Braithwaite cites research by sociologist Yuniya Kawamura, who defines the phenomenon in three waves: the seventies, with the emergence of hip-hop and the underground sneaker culture (the era of the Adidas Samba); the release of Air Jordans in 1984, which led to the widescale commodification of sneakers, the cementing of their place as a status symbol and the beginnings of celebrity endorsement; and the third wave, which has taken place over roughly the last decade. This age was shaped by digital marketing, a growth in sneaker marketing and resell culture. 

The community in Nottingham is quite niche compared to other places like London and Manchester

As her article says, the sneaker industry is predicted to reach a value of £85 billion by 2026, so I find myself wondering whether any other type of footwear has been through such a drastic transformation. “Not to the same level,” Braithwaite explains, although makes the comparison with Dr. Martens, which have similarly evolved from function to fashion, whilst retaining their “connotations of rebellion”. 

“Sneakers aren’t going to go away,” Braithwaite concludes, before predicting that the market will see “more evolutions towards sustainable approaches”. And to me, that’s a good sign. We all want to keep our planet in good shape, and the rise in popularity of sneaker restoration will help guarantee that, as the sneaker industry continues to grow, it can do so in a sustainable way. It’s just as well, because people will always want to spend money on trainers. At least, I will.

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