NEW YORK - What Imelda Marcos did with shoes, teenage boys do with sneakers.
They hoard them and display them. They have sneakers for every occasion. They buy them when they don't need them, hold on to them after outgrowing them, and even save the boxes.
As an outsider to this culture of sneaker obsession, I've made some dreadful mistakes.
I've been yelled at for throwing away old sneakers with holes in them, not realizing they were collectibles. I've packed cupcakes for bake sales in sneaker boxes with plastic see-through tops, not realizing I had sullied a display case.
And I've been mocked for owning just one pair of nondescript sneakers myself, proudly purchased for $29 at an outlet store back in 2001 and still worn.
In contrast to my lonely set of sneaks, my 12-year-old's collection includes five pair, each with a different purpose. He has red sneakers with black stripes for playing basketball indoors. Black sneakers with yellow stripes for playing basketball outside. High-tops with thick soles to wear in the rain, a beat-up pair of Nikes for every day to school, and pristine white Jordans for weddings and bar mitzvahs. (I have to admit, they look darn cute with a pinstriped suit.)
Yvette Quiazon, an ethnographer who has studied sneaker culture for companies like Nike and Adidas, wasn't surprised to hear that my son has dress-up sneakers. After all, she said, celebrities wear sneakers with suits to awards shows.
“It trickled down from celebrities and made a suit look cool,” she said. “I don't think they'll stop wanting to wear the sneakers with the suits. I see that going into adulthood. Sneakers are shoes to them.”
While I've grudgingly accepted kids wearing sneakers to formal occasions, I still have a hard time with sneaker prices. When my 12-year-old and his big brother were small, I got away with the cheapest sneakers I could find - two pair for $20 at the discount store.
But that ended when my older son got to middle school. He told me that having cool sneakers was a safety issue: He'd get beat up if he looked like a dork.
And here I had been under the impression that cool sneakers make you a target for thieves!
I slowly came to understand that cool sneakers get you off the hit list, not on it. But I still didn't want to pay for them. Eventually I put the kids on a sneaker budget, and that has worked well in our family.
I pitch in what I deem a reasonable sum - say $50, twice a year. If they want to spend more than that, they use their allowance or money they've earned, or they trade in the right to all other birthday presents in order to obtain the sneakers of their dreams.
Dan Cherry, who heads the Converse sneaker account at the New York ad agency Anomaly and in the past has also worked on campaigns for Jordan and Nike, says “today's kids are experts in sneaker culture.”
He added that “sneaker heritage” dates back decades with iconic brands named for basketball legends like Chuck Taylor and Michael Jordan. Kids way too young to have seen these athletes play know the brands and their stories.
Cherry understood why I was scolded for throwing away old sneakers. “If you had a vintage dress, you'd scream if your boyfriend or husband threw it out,” he said.
And he explained why my son was upset when I packed cupcakes in a sneaker box: “That box was an authentic part of an heirloom sneaker collection.”
While sneaker culture started with basketball stars, it also has roots in the skateboard world, hip-hop and rock culture. Not only can every kid find a style to relate to, but over time, says Quiazon, the ethnographer, the styles have blended.
Quiazon is hired by companies to go into homes and kids' closets to see what they own and wear. Tweens and teens she's interviewed own an average of five to 10 pairs of sneakers, but she said the recession has slowed the trend, with kids “simplifying” their collections rather than adding to them.
“The idea is to understand an average teen who uses their product,” she said. “I'll take pictures, I'll ask a ton of questions - who you are as a kid, what's important to you. Describe yourself. Pull out outfits for me. Say you're going out Saturday with your friends. What are you doing, what are you wearing and why.”
Quiazon says it's not unusual for kids to decide what sneakers they are wearing that day, and then “build the outfit from the sneaker going upwards.”
Being trendy is important, of course, with moms telling Quiazon they sometimes postpone back-to-school shopping until after school starts so their kids can figure out what's hot before buying. But Quiazon says kids also want to be unique. That may be one reason customization is so popular, with teens buying made-to-order sneakers online for $100 or so. They can choose colors, patterns and fabric, and can even print a name or slogan on the back.
Also notable in the world of sneaker obsessions: limited edition releases, reissues of classic models, used sneaker and sneaker-swap stores and sites like FlightClubNY.com, and boutiques where sneakers are put on a pedestal and presented “in a way that is beautiful, like a Manolo Blahnik shoe,” as Quiazon put it.
Cherry said sneaker collectors are no different from people who collect wine, classic cars or vintage fashion. Some adult connoisseurs have vintage sneaker collections worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, he said.
Cherry was also able to explain one other incident that had puzzled me. Recently, my son was invited to a birthday party.
Instead of giving the usual gift card to our local video game store, my son and a few other kids chipped in $20 apiece, asked the birthday boy his shoe size, and bought him a carefully chosen pair of sneakers.
Cherry assured me this made perfect sense in the universe of sneaker collecting: “It's like buying the right bottle of wine for a dinner party.”