If you look under the surface of contemporary sneaker culture, the hard-edged competition of the “sneaker game” reveals a much more nuanced truth: sneakerheads have lived, breathed, and grown thanks to their own special form of community.

Before it was YEEZYs, it was Jordans; before Js, it was player-edition Dunks in college team colorways. No matter the era, the materials, or the models of the shoe itself, a sneaker’s coolness is inversely related to how many people can potentially get their hands on it. It’s the same reason why we lust after numbered collabs but scoff at general releases – if you’re the only one in your group with a specific shoe, the bragging rights are almost built-in. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but “1/100” is hard, fast, and objectively fresh.

That’s not to say all exclusivity comes with a numbered tag. Before the internet and the rise of social media, it didn’t matter if Nike sold half a million "Legend Blue" 11s to the world at large; you (and your fellow local sneakerheads) had no way of seeing most of those pairs in the wild. If you were the only one in your city with a dope shoe and your friends weren’t overexposed to that same dopeness through their Instagram news feed, your “1/500,000” was still considered exclusive.

The thirst for inherent exclusivity creates an innately competitive culture where the goal is naturally adversarial: if your friend has a dope exclusive shoe, then your search for a more exclusive (and therefore more desirable) shoe is an ongoing challenge. Behind every knees-down “squad shot” is a real and borderline elitist understanding of whose shoes beat whose (hint: it’s not the guy wearing GR Ultra Boosts).

Brand loyalty also comes into play here. Ever since the late 1970s, the sneaker world has been dominated by two major brands. Sure, Reebok got hot in the mid-to-late 80’s, but by pairs sold and revenues alone, the world belongs to Nike (1) and adidas (2). Even if both brands were to produce nearly-identical products, the mere presence of two opposing brands will cause most people to naturally (if not arbitrarily) pick a camp.

Like playground hoops or backseat freestyles, focusing on the competitive face of sneaker culture overshadows the beliefs, values, and social norms that brought those competitors – often passionate collectors – together in the first place.

Before the invention of the Google search, even the most passionate sneakerheads flexed by and large in isolation. “[My original hometown sneaker store was] the Athletes Foot in the East Brunswick Mall, New Jersey,” Jeff Staple (the design legend behind the Pigeon SB Dunk) told me last month. “Adults went in there to buy shoes for their kids’ Gym class because adults didn’t buy sneakers then… there was no community at that store.”

“[My first pair of shoes I just had to show off were] Reebok Cross-Trainer Pumps,” said Bobby Hundreds, founder of iconic streetwear brand The Hundreds, speaking to Highsnobiety. “We found a pair at a local swap meet and I convinced my mom to buy me [them].”

“The hometown shop in Edmonton was Foosh,” said Eugene Kan, founder of digital platform MAEKAN. “I didn’t encounter a huge community. You did have people come in that would recognize your sneakers and start chatting… [but] those experiences weren't the norm.”

Stories like theirs, however – of a love affair with dope shoes that existed in isolation - were the norm. Outside of cultural centers like New York City, people who shared your hobby and understood your devotion were rare, if they existed at all: “To be real, I cannot recall one other teen in [that Athletes Foot] buying shoes with his/her own money,” said Staple. “And my main mission was [always] to buy something that would snap the neck of Darrin Hudson — the only other sneakerhead in school.”

Before finding sneaker communities was as simple as searching for a subreddit, it was legitimately hard to find other sneakerheads, and flipping through Eastbay mail catalogs was one of the only ways to stay somewhat updated. Information was spread by word of mouth. There was real toiling involved. In the pre-social media era, regional sneaker shops like New York’s DQM (opened in 2004) and LA’s Undefeated (opened in 2002) functioned as pilgrimage sites for ‘heads from both city and suburbs alike, especially around major releases, providing a physical space for communities to form. These places weren’t inaccessible, but travel and time were often demanded to get there.

However, that arduous search to find other people who shared your beliefs and values functioned as “table stakes” for entry into early sneaker communities. If you were willing to put in the work, the whole world opened up: you saw dope shoes, met dope people, and discovered a whole new social element to what you already loved.

While the shoe game has all the marks of a divisive competitive landscape, the initial isolation followed by search for community that many OG ‘heads encountered shows something entirely different: vibrant, passionate devotees united by a shared love of dopeness, even if only one can be most dope. Bobby Hundreds put it best: "A church isn’t the steeple, it’s the congregation." Sure, the product may have brought you there, but you stayed for the people. And it makes sense, right? If you’re the last man on Earth, it doesn’t matter how fresh your kicks are – without other people there to admire or flame (yet ultimately understand) your flex, you might as well not be wearing shoes.

For many, forging these ties in the pre-social-media era was the catalyst that turned their interest in fresh kicks into a lifelong love affair with the shoe game. For some, that moment of self-realization would eventually influence their careers. In the case of guys like Jeff, Bobby, and Eugene, that search for then eventual discovery of sneaker communities allowed them to shape the next generation of those communities in a truly fundamental way.

Communities don’t just make being a sneakerhead a meaningful experience – they make it possible for future generations to become sneakerheads in turn. In fact, they’re arguably why we even have a sneaker culture today: without the shared passions of so many made audible through community organisation, multi-billion dollar international companies would never have given hobbyists – those once-isolated ‘heads shopping at their mall shoe stores – the time of day.

Rather than flood the world with under a tide of general release shelf-warmers, the powers-that-be began to nurture these relatively-small-but-passionate communities in their own way (Nike opened 21 Mercer Street, its own downtown NYC community outpost in 2008), inadvertently setting the stage for the sneaker community’s true leap forwards. As the introduction of Instagram, Facebook, and reddit (amongst others) enabled isolated sneakerheads to effortlessly connect over their passion, what was once countercultural morphed into a millions-strong obsession.

For better or for worse, the beliefs, values, and social norms that forged those original small-but-passionate sneaker communities have morphed right along with it.

Aristotle didn’t know anything about NikeTalk, but he sure called his shot: “Man is by nature a social animal.” Over 100,000 years of evolution, the single largest split from our primate ancestors was the development of an enlarged prefrontal cortex – a.k.a., the “social part” of the brain. Couple that with the fact that our brains literally reward us for making and nurturing human relationships, and you’ve got one powerful truth: despite all those polite jokes about watching Netflix alone, we are, quite literally, programmed to seek the company and community of others.

By all accounts, then, man should not seek sneakers. For all the talk of shared interests and unspoken values, the global shoe game has, on the surface, few of the holistic qualities that define a community. If anything, much of the sneakerhead identity boils down to competition, the exact opposite – stunting, after all, implies a party that is stunted on.

In part II of this series, we explore the new face of sneaker communities in the age of social media to answer one fundamental question: is bigger always better?

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