Although the Russian sneaker scene is still in its infancy, distinctive features and signifiers are developing by the month.
Like any other city, Moscow has a story to tell, and fashion is part of this cultural narrative. Skinheads in Russia had their signature look: adidas Sambas, MA-1s or Harrington jackets. Punk kids had their own style too: Vans, hoodies, and band merch. In the same way, the underground hip-hop and graffiti crowds tended towards certain styles: Nike Air Max 90, 1 or 95, mixed with sweatpants, a Carhartt watch cap and The North Face jacket.
Years ago in Moscow, you could postulate on someone's political position, music choices and where they were going on a Friday night all based on what they were wearing. The same is true now, but to a lesser extent. Certain trends in Russia no longer belong to niche communities, and sneakers have evolved into a separate subculture that exists on its own.
We tapped three longstanding Russian sneakerheads — Nike collector Vladimir Veselov, Product Manager for Vans Russia Pavel Kovalenko, and FOTT co-founder Sergey Tanin — to get their thoughts on the burgeoning scene.
What sets Russia apart from the rest of the world when it comes to sneaker culture?
Vladimir Veselov: Sneaker culture in Russia is very young. Back in the USSR, it was only possible to buy sneakers on the so-called black market, as most foreign goods were only sold under the table to those who wanted to look hip and could afford them. In those times, sneakers were limited to very few people in Moscow and the other big cities, and sneaker culture was very underground.
Around 10 years ago, most people here would choose more classic shoes, while sneakers were exclusively used for sport. Then came the new, modern chapter of sneaker culture, when new stores such as Frontline and Seven Boardshop started to appear around five years ago. These shops were some of the first retailers to stock Nike SB here in Russia, and it marked a key moment for sneaker culture becoming as widespread as it is now.
Today, we are witnessing everything evolving faster because of the internet, and we’ve seen the influence of the U.S., terrace culture, the graffiti scene and hip-hop in its modern stages also shaping local sneaker culture — just as everywhere else in the world.
Pavel Kovalenko: Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the two most progressive cities when it comes to sneaker culture in Russia. Also, skate brands are becoming increasingly interested in this culture. In Russia, simultaneously with the rest of the world, people who are not connected with skateboarding want to wear skate shoes. For these kinds of kids, brands created special lines like Vans OTW and Vault by Vans, while DC and Etnies also have these kinds of products.
Sergey Tanin: If you compare Russia, and particularly Moscow, to the USA, the main difference is the interest in terrace, tennis and running sneakers. The interest in retro basketball sneakers is not as high in Russia. In the late '90s, a big part of fashion, culture and music was influenced by lads who were into terrace culture. For example, FOTT was born from football subculture, and it stood for "fashion on the terraces."
How has Russian sneaker culture changed in recent years? Have sneakers become more in-demand despite the economic crisis?
VV: Some recent changes are signaling a healthy sneaker scene and a growing market. First, the local sneaker community is finally forming its own culture outside of subcultural associations. This year we had our first local Sneaker Con, we have local guys from the Sneakershot community here creating great content, and we have Maggi who makes cool customs.
Also, there is an active reselling market for sneakers. On the day of a limited release, people stand in line for hours, just as everywhere else in the world. All of this leads to younger guys wearing sneakers as their everyday choice, and they're not considering any other type of footwear.
PK: The economic crisis influenced the whole market, but sneakers are still some of the best-selling products, you just have to look at the Moscow streets, where there is an abundance of classic runners and tennis models. There are plenty of skate shoes as well. For example, you can’t walk for 10 minutes in Moscow's center without seeing the Old Skool. Girls love them.
ST: During the recession, sneakers helped some retailers survive. It's funny that it didn’t matter what kind of store it was - luxury, premium or low-price. There is no secret that sneakers played a huge part in sales for such brands and retailers like Chanel, Valentino, TSUM and other players in the market.
For contemporary fashion stores like FOTT and Brandshop, sneakers became some of the key products. It happened because all imported brands became twice as expensive due to double devaluation of the ruble. Sneakers, however, didn’t because companies and Russian distributors for adidas and Nike took the risk of lowering margins, and only raised the prices by 10-15%.
To compare, Stone Island jackets and all imported goods became twice as expensive. The success of sneakers can be related to the interest of global companies in the Russian market.
Do kids care about the design, history and culture that stand behind sneaker culture?
VV: The sneaker audience is a lot bigger, but most of these new people are just ordinary guys who don’t delve too deep into any cultural background. Instead, they just consider sneakers to be trendy and cool. But those who are more into sneakers nowadays do have more opportunities to research the culture online, and we have some amazing local guys who are sharing their stories and talking about heritage, history and design.
We do see a lot of people who do tend to be more conscious, and those who want to learn. A great example was last year’s Air Max 95 anniversary, when a lot of local guys took the opportunity to share their stories, and afterwards we started to see lots of people wearing the 95s, even though a couple of years ago it was mostly perceived as a tricky shoe to wear due to the complex design that very few people could really appreciate.
PK: Many people just want to buy looks. They go to the foreign websites, and see guys wearing black or white Old Skools and Thrasher tees. Many kids don’t even know that Thrasher is a skateboarding magazine that is already 25 years old, and Vans is the brand that created the first shoe for skateboarding. Girls just want a T-shirt with the “fire letters” on it.
ST: The average monthly salary in Russia is $330. It doesn’t matter how badly you want to buy sneakers, you just can’t afford to buy too much stuff. That’s why people have to seriously think before buying new pair. Now you can see more young resellers in Russia, and it might seem that those kids don’t care about the product and the legacy.
Most people in Moscow wear classic sneakers. Why have innovative models not caught on as much?
VV: I think it has to do with the idea of mixing some really innovative silhouettes with your daily wardrobe, and very few people can do it really well. The majority of people will just buy an Air Force 1 or something similar because they can rock it every season no matter what. It takes time to understand and appreciate innovative technologies.
Appearing several years ago, Flyknit is everywhere today – and people even start going beyond traditional perception of Flyknits as ultra-comfortable shoes for summer and are ready to crash test Flyknit Shield technology in harsh winter months.
Another example, I didn’t like Shox at all when they appeared, but now I appreciate the design, the technology, its history and the interesting look.
PK: It's not exactly the truth, as we all know tech sneakers are the next step. Just remember the 2000s in Russia, when kids wore puffy skate shoes armed with different technologies. Es, Etnies, and Emerica come to mind, as they all had new cushioning systems.
The next step for skate shoes is the return of the classic puffy silhouette in new renditions. Just look at the Dime x Vans Fairlane collaboration. Also for instance, the Nyjah Huston DC Shoes pro-model that was released last year.
But for now, you can go to the Moscow skate spots and see kids in something like the Nike SB Koston 3s, which feature Lunarlon and Flyknit, technologies that were taken from Nike runners.
In Russia, and firstly Moscow, the puffy skate shoes will come back in 2018. The same thing with rubber-toe models - now it is not very popular in our country, but it will get more attention in 2017. Some sneaker trends in Russia arrive a little bit later compared to London or New York, for instance, but kids still look up to trendy skaters like the Palace or Supreme skate teams.
ST: You can go to Berlin or Copenhagen and you'll see the same thing, which is 70% of the audience wearing classics like the Stan Smith. People are ready for changes, but changes don’t happen instantly. I like that in Moscow, lots of people started to gravitate towards the classics.
Where do you buy your sneakers?
PK: The last trainers I bought were the adidas Trimm Trab from size? in London. I like casual adidas classics, and sometimes I hunt for them on eBay. In Russia it's hard to find the adidas Kegler Super or Forest Hills, so I buy them abroad. For skate shoes, I usually shop for Vans at Boardshop №1.
ST: Most of my sneakers I grabbed at FOTT. Obviously I bought some rare models online that were not available in Russia. The pairs that I bought were the Coca-Cola x adidas Climacool and the Primeknit EQTs.
Economically, can most people afford sneakers? Are sneakers more expensive in Russia than in other countries?
PK: Before the crisis, an average person in Russia could buy about five pairs per season, now the number is two or three. But everything is becoming more stable again, and regular consumption will return.
ST: Most people have to be conscious about spending a lot of money on shoes because the income level on average is still not so high. Speaking of prices, ClimaCools in Russia are cheaper than in Europe. In November 2014, the Russian ruble was devaluated by half, and most imported goods became twice as expensive.
But big players such as Nike, adidas and VF Corporation understood that if they didn't keep the price high, they would have lost a huge part of the market, so they decided to reduce their margins. It made sneakers in Russia 20-30% cheaper than in Europe.
What are the most popular brands and models in Russia?
VV: The Nike Air Max 95 is popular among those who are very much into sneaker culture, and the Air Max Plus TN is also pretty popular. All the basic Air Max silos are very popular amongst the general public. The Roshe is a crowd-pleaser too, as a mass-produced silhouette designed for comfort and simplicity. In winter you can see lots of people wearing Nike Sneakerboots in Russia’s most severe weather.
PK: I see lots of Vans Old Skools and Converse Chuck Taylors in the streets. In terms of sportswear sneakers, adidas NMDs and Hamburgs are the choices of many. Also there is a large number of Nike Huaraches, different Jordans and affordable New Balances like the 574.
Regarding skaters' choices, surprisingly kids choose shoes from huge companies. Most popular is Stefan Janoski’s pro-model, then comes rubber-toe models like Vans Style 112, adidas Matchcourt and the Nike SB All Court.
ST: Kids aged 15 - 22 mostly wear Nike. Teenagers are always a little rebellious when it comes to what they buy, and adidas has very aggressive marketing. You see lots of ads on the internet, brand ambassadors telling you the product is cool; you hear about events, but these thing have little to do with loyalty and don’t form values in the heads of young customers.
People aged 22 and older wear mostly adidas, because we were born on the cusp of the '80s and '90s. Terrace culture also made a great impact on people’s preferences, but nowadays the younger generation is starting to pay attention to Vans and skate culture - it is actually cool again.
How is a sneakerhead defined in Russia?
VV: Russian sneakerheads are different: it’s either a younger guy who is just starting to appreciate sneaker culture but cannot imagine wearing anything else but sneakers, or a 25 - 30+ guy who is deep into culture, who won’t wear some of the rarest sneakers he owns, and who pairs sneakers with premium brands.
As opposed to the States, there is no strong connection between sneaker culture and hip-hop here, so you won’t see lots of guys in oversized baggy Supreme or Jordan tees.
PK: In Russia, thoughtful sneakerheads are mostly the same as in the rest of the world. Kids want to own a rare and original pair which distinguishes them from the crowd.
ST: I’ll divide this definition in categories. First, a guy who is interested in football and the culture connected to it: slim-fit jeans, adidas trainers and jackets like Stone Island.
Second, Hypebeasts. Kids who buy all new releases from Jordan to Supreme. They know brands like Hood by Air or OFF-WHITE. You can meet the same-looking guys in Hong Kong or London.
Lastly, a well-dressed European. He doesn’t want to look like a fashion victim. This type wears simple classic trainers like Stan Smith, a good-quality jacket and jeans. This guy isn't obsessed with sneakers, but they're still an important part of his daily look.
What is the reselling culture like?
VV: It has been evolving fast during the past few years, which is a very good sign in terms of sneaker culture and market development. You can see people camping for several days to buy sneakers, then reselling them straight away.
PK: The whole Russian market is quite young, but it is evolving progressively, and the same with reselling culture. If the ruble would become more stable, the whole situation would become more interesting. More and more kids could be involved in the game.
ST: Resellers from Russia and other countries are very similar. This culture exists but again it is not as huge as in the U.S. or in Europe.
Are YEEZYs popular in Russia? Do people listen to Kanye West’s music?
VV: You can see lots of YEEZYs in the streets, most of which are fakes. There should be some Kanye fans among the younger audience just like everywhere else in the world, but I don’t see any unusual hype around him here in Moscow.
PK: Personally I don’t like the YEEZYs. There are tons of fake YEEZY Boost 350s in the streets of Moscow. I guess Kanye is popular in Russia, but I don’t follow his music. For me the true hip-hop was left in the '90s, but it's still great for adidas. I think adidas is satisfied with their sales because of Kanye.
ST: We have the same situation as in other countries - big queues and resellers. For people in the know, Kanye is some kind of caricature. If I see somebody in YEEZY 350s, I don’t take him or her seriously. Those who wear YEEZYs have to do it with a kind of irony. But most of the time they're worn by empty-headed celebrities and media fools. The same is in Russia.
Are NMDs popular in Russia?
VV: No doubt NMDs are popular, as they're quite affordable sneakers with a strong marketing push behind them.
PK: They are everywhere, but for me it's an absurd trainer. The idea of mixing classic models and finishing the design with modern technologies is a popular way for big sneaker brands to create new models. The NMD is based on the Micropacer, Boston Super and Rising Star, but it has Boost and Primeknit. It's a good formula for refreshing things from the past.
ST: Recently, adidas launched three NMD colorways in Berlin, but in Russia we got much more. Our market wasn’t ready for that at all. Tons of NMDs were seeded to ambassadors and influencers for free. People didn’t have time to perceive the model as something unique from the start. There is no organic love for the silhouette.
What is the worst thing about Russian sneaker culture today?
VV: Tons of fakes and not enough awareness about sneaker culture. It's sad to admit but it seems like outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, most people have still never heard of sneaker culture.
PK: It's hard to find a person who buys sneakers because he is personally interested in design, or the history of the shoe. Most people buy certain models because everyone else does, and YEEZYs are good example, but most 350s in the streets of Moscow are fake.
ST: Everything is very fast today. People don’t have enough time to appreciate the product, its history and design. Three is too much of everything. Many brands try to force people to buy their product without any education attached.