Our first real taste of Poland's sneaker scene was last year during Sneakerness Warsaw, and while the Polish capital may not be synonymous with sneaker culture, it was evident that local collectors and sneaker fans in attendance weren't short on enthusiasm or awareness of the culture in a broader sense. As we've learned from Gosha Rubchinskiy unexpectedly lofting Moscow into the limelight in recent months, sneaker and streetwear culture aren't limited by geographic confines, and surely many other local scenes remain undiscovered.
While socioeconomic factors have contributed to the evolution of Poland's culture, and also shuttered the availability of many foreign brands in Poland, in the end, the internet has been a deciding factor in bringing the sneaker craze east.
We talked to three longstanding members of Poland's sneaker scene to find out what makes it different from other cities around the world. Here's what we found out.
To start, describe your role in the Polish sneaker scene, when did you start being interested in sneakers?
Robert Serek, Creative Managing Director at VICE Poland, Director at Sneakerness Warsaw: I've never thought of myself as a sneakerhead. I've never camped out, or collected sneakers for their historic or financial value.
I opened my first boutique in 2004, Warsaw's COMME des GARÇONS Guerrilla Store +4822, which sold a great selection of vintage and regular CDG collections. Later we added a Nike account, and I still have my favorite pair of sneakers from that shop - an all-black pair of Junya Watanabe x Nike Dunk Highs. In the next two years, we moved the Guerilla Store +4822 around the city, as the concept was to change the location every 12 months. Later we opened the first real sneaker store in Warsaw, it was called Warszawska Nike, but in the end, I made some bad investment decisions and unfortunately was forced to sell or close all shops.
I got into the sneaker-game relatively late compared to my friends - Arek and Robert, it was around 2009. At the time, I was playing volleyball, and since every player wore the same uniform, sneakers were the only way to stand out. I started reading some sneaker-related sites, but I didn't restrict my reading to Polish sites, and it didn't take long before I was frequenting numerous English and American forums. Today I really miss Sneakerplay, where I found lots of great pairs and cool people as well.
Arek Skolak, Suede&Mesh: As far as I can remember, I’ve always been paying attention to what people wear on their feet, from silhouettes and technology, to colorways and the way shoes sync with the whole outfit. Around 10 years ago, I met some people who shared the same attitude towards footwear, and that’s the point when I started identifying as a true sneakerhead.
Another important point was the start of Suede&Mesh in 2009. A group of my very close friends who were connected by passion for good sneakers had the chance to be noticed by a larger audience. At the time, we were at the forefront of this new sneaker phenomenon, rocking brands which weren’t easily available here in Poland, and even popularizing new trends such as pin-rolling.
What makes Polish sneaker culture different from other countries?
Robert: Well, sneaker culture in Poland is still very young, and growing. We still don’t have significant collaborations between the big sneaker brands and Polish shops, fashion brands, or designers. One of the first was Reebok x Local Heroes, which is a Polish brand run by Karolina Slota and Areta Szpura. Now the first proper capsule collection is coming between PUMA and UEG. Poland is an emerging market that doesn't have a huge consumer culture, in part due to our history of communism. In the 1980s, we had no access to brands like Nike or adidas, then the '90s were flooded with fake sneakers that many people purchased at the biggest open-air bazaar in Europe - Stadion Dziesiesiolecia, which used to be our national stadium.
Kamil: A year ago, Polish sneakerheads could buy any limited edition with no need to line up or camp overnight, but now due to NMD and YEEZY drops, or collaborative projects with ASICS and New Balance, everything is changing. Kids are camping in the Polish streets.
But mainly, Polish sneaker culture differs from our Western neighbors by availability. Unfortunately, we’re still perceived by brands and large companies as an unattractive market. We’re trying to change it, and we struggle really hard to cooperate with other, similar stores, but it’s not easy. We document all significant releases, which are organized for our clients and visitors from abroad, so we can show the rest of the world that we're playing our part. On the up side, we offer lower prices than our neighbors, so we constantly acquire new customers who appreciate our effort and decide to leave their money in our stores.
Arek: In the past, you could only get your hands on sneakers if you had relatives in Western Europe or the U.S., since a lot of foreign brands were restricted from entering the Polish market. This changed in the early '90s, and since then we’re catching up with tremendous speed. Today we have some decent sneaker stores with access to limited drops, and people are gaining more knowledge every day. But the main issue we’re struggling with is money – it’s much harder to buy sneakers when you’re not getting paid in Euros or Pounds. But this pushes people to be more creative in the process of obtaining grails. Social media exists globally, we don't have borders in the internet, but shipping fees sometimes force us to remember where are we located geographically.
When and how did Poland’s sneaker culture start?
Robert: Everything started maybe 10 years ago with a small crowd of sneakerheads. Now it's booming with thousands of kids that want to participate, wanting to collect sneakers. I remember for our first orders for Warszawska Nike, we could stock a maximum of 6-12 pairs per model.
Kamil: I find most sneaker enthusiasts have similar stories to tell about how they became passionate about trainers. The story usually starts with an uncle or relative visiting from the USA, bringing a pair of trainers that you couldn’t find in Poland. This was the start of a competitive culture amongst friends, and everyone in the crew would strive to have the coolest trainers. During 2007-2009 there was a big shift starting, as the first sneaker-dedicated websites and forums about shoes appeared. Polish users finally had a platform to exchange knowledge and opinions, or just meet each other and go for a beer. Nowadays like everywhere around the world, the whole sneaker market has developed dramatically. More new shops are opening in Poland, we also have quite a few people writing about shoes and some great photographers.
Arek: The major brands started to participate in our local market in the early '90s, but prices were crazy. The first Air Max model available in Poland was the Air Max 95, and the ticket price was the same as the average monthly wage at the time. During the following years, acquiring sneakers became a real struggle, but certain people started to bring back pairs from their travels, and later eBay became a big tool, especially if you had access to your parents' credit card. This was around 10 years ago, so let’s call 2005 the official dawn of Polish sneaker culture.
Which brands are the most popular in Poland?
Robert: Nike, adidas and New Balance. Of course PUMA, Reebok and ASICS are getting more and more attention, but still we don’t have a good selection of brands like Diadora or Saucony, and limited edition sneakers as well as collaborations are really hard to come by.
Kamil: The most popular brands in Poland are Nike, adidas and New Balance. ASICS is also a great brand, they have the best collaborative projects, helping to increase awareness and hype, and you can watch ASICS grow a lot from year to year. Over the past few years, adidas is doing a very good job too, garnering a lot of interest among all sneakerheads. On Polish streets, you'll see a lot of different adidas models.
Arek: In terms of pure numbers, Nike holds the number one spot, followed closely by adidas. The Air Max range has brought us so many great moments, and now adidas is killing it with the Boost and YEEZY frenzy. These brands are undoubtedly the market leaders, but in the last years New Balance has also done a great job of promoting their products, Reebok stays strong with the Classic range, and PUMA is steadily growing with their new approach.
How do Polish sneakerheads like Jordan products?
Robert: Jordan products were always a must-have for a older guys, especially those who remember Jordan when he was playing with the Chicago Bulls. But I don’t think that Jordans are a sneakerhead must-have today.
Kamil: Air Jordans are very popular and trendy in Poland, and the most popular are the retro versions. In Poland, there is a fairly large group who have great Jordan collections. More and more people are actively keeping track of every upcoming release, so this segment is continually getting deeper. Jordan Brand is always issuing a lot of classic models, which are snapped up quickly.
Arek: We have a lot of Jumpman aficionados over here in Poland, but I believe most of them love the resell money more than the product itself.
How would you define a sneakerhead in Poland?
Robert: There are a few who used to camp out in Berlin or London. Now thanks to the internet, and because of YEEZY and Supreme, there are a lot of resellers rather than sneakerheads.
Kamil: In my opinion, it's hard to define sneakerheads from any particular country. I'd like to think of sneakerheads as equals, who will always help or advise others. Many times, friends we only know from the internet are ready to give up their homes or give advice on a good hotel, or proxy for a pair of shoes. As soon as I get a chance, I try to help my friends around the world.
Arek: Generally, kids take a lot of inspiration from Instagram and Facebook. Younger sneakerheads have a strong desire to look as fresh as possible, while primary and high schools in particular are full of current releases and hyped products. Supreme 5-panels, Thrasher hoodies and skinny jeans are often paired with Vans, fake YEEZYs, as well as various models with Boost and Flyknit tech. It's basically the image that comes to mind if you think about the biggest clichés in sneaker culture. But of course, there are older people who are not that active on social media and have great collections. These guys don't place any value on models designed by Kanye, but OG collectors will often have great assortments of vintage runners, early Flimby-made collabs, Nike Cortez's or early SB Dunks and OG Jordans.
Is there a big running community in Warsaw/Krakow/Poland in general?
Robert: Definitely. I think Warsaw has more than 100 runs during a year (marathons, semi-marathons etc.) and it’s a nightmare for people who want to enjoy the city on Sundays. So yes, almost everybody is running.
Kamil: Night runs seem to be a new trend, and lots of groups meet on Facebook. In the biggest cities, groups are organized for long-distance runs, plus more and more people can be seen on Polish streets, running alone or in groups. Now we even have specialized shops that cater to runners.
Arek: Of course, everybody is running right now and that’s amazing! Lots of outdoor training sessions, running-dedicated magazines, social media channels, bloggers, marketing campaigns from major athletic brands - yeah I can say we have a pretty big running community in Poland.
Now hear what these Danish sneakerheads had to say about the scene in Copenhagen.