Colorways, Hypebeasts and Influencers: Bay Area Teens Talk Sneakerhead Culture

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A floor to ceiling shelf displays row after row of sneakers, neatly placed inside clear plastic display boxes.
Many sneakerheads display their collection of shoes in clear boxes to keep their collectibles safe and fresh. (cerro_photography/iStock)

As part of KQED's Youth Takeover Week, when the voices and reporting of Bay Area young people take over our airwaves, Bay Curious is digging into sneaker culture. Student reporter Arline Villagres explores why some of her peers love to collect and resell in-demand sneakers. And, Victor Rodriguez explains his connection to the world of online influencers and his journey to understand what that lifestyle is like for young people.


Transcript

Olivia Allen-Price: If you walk into my house, one of the first things that you'll see is this rack of sneakers — running shoes to be specific.

Olivia counts: three four five six seven eight nine 10.

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Olivia Allen-Price: Running is a big part of my life and this collection of well-worn, sometimes muddy shoes, they are my tools. Now I'm not actively running in a lot of these shoes anymore, but I have a hard time letting go of some of my favorite old pairs. I'm a person who likes sneakers. But I am not, as I learned in today's episode, a sneakerhead.

Joseph Marin:  Top three shoes that I own, I have to go with the Union Nike Dunks, the Patent Bred 1s and the Syracuse Nike Dunk Highs.

Olivia Allen-Price: That's Joseph Marin. He's a senior at John Henry High School in Richmond, California. For him and other sneakerheads shoes are about fashion culture status being a part of something bigger.

Joseph Marin: I think it says a lot about a person's character.

Kevin Cervantes:  If you ever see a grandpa with sneakers, you'd be surprised. And then I'd compliment him.

Olivia Allen-Price:  And sneaker culture has exploded in popularity around the world in recent years. In 2020, it was a $79 billion market globally. This hobby is big business, in part because for collectors, it can be kind of addicting.

Kevin Cervantes: I own between 70 and 80 [pairs].

Olivia Allen-Price:  Today on Bay Curious, we're taking a closer look at sneaker culture with the students at John Henry High School in Richmond, California. How it works and why it matters. Then we'll turn to the topic of social media influencers and what their lives are really like. This episode is part of KQED's Youth Takeover week, when the voices and reporting of young people take over our airwaves. I'm Olivia Allen-Price, and this is Bay Curious.

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Olivia Allen-Price: Whenever I see someone on the street wearing a pair of gleaming white sneakers that look pristine, like they've never been worn before, I wonder to myself how do they keep them so clean? Luckily for me, a local student is here to show me the ropes.

Arline Villagres: My name is Arline Villagres. I'm a senior at John Henry High School. I live in Richmond, California.

Olivia Allen-Price: Arline let me tag along as she dove into the sneakerhead world with some of her classmates.

Joseph Marin:  Just a little soap and water will usually get the job done, something like a stiff brush to scrub the soles out. My name is Joseph Marin. I live here in Richmond locally, and I'm a reseller business when it comes to sneakers.

Olivia Allen-Price:  We talked with two students who love sneakers. Joseph Marin and Kevin Cervantes. Arline started by asking Kevin some of the basics.

Arline Villagres: In your opinion, what is a sneakerhead?

Kevin Cervantes: A sneakerhead is someone who collects sneakers and someone who keeps up with release dates, sneaker information, who goes to in-store raffles.

Olivia Allen-Price:  Kevin is a sneakerhead. He says he spends 75 percent of his time obsessing about the hottest new shoes.

Kevin Cervantes:  My dream shoe is probably the Dior Ones, which released, I think last year during quarantine, and retail was around like $7,000. Resell was around $20,000.

Olivia Allen-Price: Twenty thousand dollars! I was not kidding when I said these shoes were big business. Now that's just Kevin dreaming. He is still in high school, so he doesn't have that kind of money yet. He pays for his shoes with money from his weekend job.

Arline Villagres: So what attracts you to a pair of shoes?

Kevin Cervantes:  What attracts me to a pair of shoes is the colorway. The colorway has to be one of them.

Olivia Allen-Price: Colorway. Sneakerhead culture has its own vernacular. Colorway is pretty basic. It's the colors used on the shoe. Kevin told us his favorites.

Kevin Cervantes:  Black and white, has to be one of them. And then red, the main colors like red, orange, blue and cream. I'm into neutral colors right now.

Arline Villagres:  So do you think of sneakers as art?

Kevin Cervantes:  Sometimes I do just because I have a couple of sneakers that I purchased, but I don't wear. And just because I like to look at them in my room just knowing that I have it, I just put it up and then just look at it and I think of it as art.

Olivia Allen-Price:  Of the 70 or 80 pairs of sneakers that Kevin owns he only wears a few of them regularly. The others are for special occasions or just to collect.

Kevin Cervantes:  I have a shelf. It's a shelf that's from the bottom to the ceiling of my room. They're in rows, and whenever you walk in my room, you just see the back of the shoes.

Olivia Allen-Price:  He even forgets about some of the pairs he owns. They're stored safely under his bed out of sight. And when he cleans his room, he'll stumble upon them again. It's almost like seeing them for the first time.

Kevin Cervantes:  When I take it out. I like to smell it because especially for sneakerheads, every new pair of shoes has its own unique smell. And I just I just like the feeling of it too, because the quality is amazing.

Olivia Allen-Price:  Just like someone might collect baseball cards, bottles of wine or vinyl records, sneakerheads find a sheer joy in admiring something they think is beautiful or valuable. For Joseph Marin, the John Henry High senior with his own sneaker resale business, there's just as much thrill in reading the hype machine, a.k.a. the market, just right so he can buy shoes at retail prices and sell them when the price has gone up.

Joseph Marin:  It was 2015. I camped out for my first Jordan 9 Pantones, and I noticed that a lot of people were highly demanded for the shoe. So I decided why not make some profit off his shoe and resell it to make a little bit more money?

Olivia Allen-Price: Joseph says vintage sneakers are in right now.

Joseph Marin: Usually retro shoes are the best shoes to invest in because they're highly demanded for as opposed to new colorways. If it connects back to the original colorways that came out back in the days.

Olivia Allen-Price: Talking to Kevin and Joseph, it's clear that sneakers are a mode of self-expression. They each collect certain brands and styles, but I didn't really understand at first why certain sneakers get so popular. Like, what is it about the specific shoe? Kevin explained.

Kevin Cervantes: Whenever someone famous like, the Kardashians or Kanye West or like just big influencers wear shoes, it makes the hype for the shoe go up and then everybody else wants to shoe as well.

Olivia Allen-Price: Influencers. A lot of tastemakers in the sneaker world have huge online followings. People looking to them for inspiration, advice, to see what's cool. Influencers have always been around. Maybe it was the girl in high school who people look to for fashion ideas, or the elite athlete who's training you wanted to copy. In a 2019 tweet, Pope Francis even called Mary, mother of Jesus, an influencer of her day. What has changed is how big these influencers can get online and how quickly their message can spread. That's what we're going to talk about next. Senior Victor Rodriguez has been thinking a lot about the life of internet influencers, people with big followings on platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram and their impact on him.

Victor Rodriguez: Since I saw that like a lot of people on TikTok were having middle parts I decided I would try it out and see how it works. And now I only wear my hair parted like that.

Olivia Allen-Price: Victor says influencers have a lot of power. If he's changing his hairstyle because of what's popular on TikTok, what else are they influencing?

Victor Rodriguez: When I was in fifth grade, I watched this group called FaZe Clan. They all moved into a house together and they just make videos and play video games for a living. And when I was a little kid, I wanted to do that so bad, and I just I almost started making YouTube videos for a little bit and see how that goes. But it never went off, so my dreams were demolished.

Olivia Allen-Price: Now, Victor sees kids his age or younger with huge followings on TikTok, millions of views on silly videos making fun of teachers…

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Olivia Allen-Price: Or doing little skits…

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Victor Rodriguez: During quarantine, everyone was just on TikTok and everyone was making videos and trying to become popular.

Olivia Allen-Price:  He thought back to his own attempts to become internet famous and kind of wished he'd stuck with it. But he also wondered how high school students balance it all. He reached out to some influencers he likes on TikTok to see if becoming famous had affected their schoolwork.

Victor Rodriguez: I think what surprised me most was that they're all doing good in school. I thought that they would fall back in school because they saw that I'm getting two million [folllowers], so I just drop everything and just pursue that. But surprisingly, none of them has fallen back on their work or anything.

Olivia Allen-Price:  Victor was also curious about their mental health. He's seen how mean people can be in the comment section.

Victor Rodriguez: They're young. They're like 17-16. I thought people are just going to be bullying them in the comments saying that they aren't funny. Surprisingly, no. People are nice in the comments. I think it's just that their TikToks were good ideas.

Olivia Allen-Price: Ultimately, Victor came away from his interviews, impressed with the amount of work it takes to be a successful influencer. These teens were dedicated and organized. It takes a ton of work to produce a funny Tik Tok video every single day. But he also noticed that these influencers had backup plans.

Victor Rodriguez: It's not worth just dropping everything and just pursuing that for a living because you don't know when your trend is going to stop.

Olivia Allen-Price:  He now knows that being an influencer is not the fun, chill job that he might have imagined.

Victor Rodriguez: You have to be determined to do it because there's going to be ups and downs and it's not just a straight line for you. There's going to be crossing roads and stuff like that for you.

Olivia Allen-Price:  Wise words, Victor. What in life is ever as easy as it looks?

Special thanks this week to Arline, Kevin, Joseph and Victor for their research, reporting and collaboration. Also, thanks to their teacher at John Henry High School, Ken Kusactay. It was so fun to work with you all.

Thanks to KQED's Amanda Vigil, Emiliano Villa, Jessica Placzek and Kyana Moghadam for helping make this episode possible. If you want to hear more stories made by young people from across the Bay Area, visit the Youth Takeover page.

Bay Curious is produced by Katrina Schwartz, Brendan Willard, Sebastian Miño-Bucheli and me, Olivia Allen-Price. Our show is a production of member-supported KQED in San Francisco. I'll see you next week.

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