I once met a guy, a law student interviewing with some pretty tony corporate firms, who had a curious line at the bottom of his resume: “Collector of vintage Air Jordan sneakers.” It seemed peculiar to me, but until watching Sneakerheadz, I had no idea he was part of a much larger subculture of people — overwhelmingly men — who are really obsessed with sneakers. Like, really obsessed. Like owns-thousands-of-pairs-and-stores-them-in-a-locked-vault obsessed.
Sneakerheadz, which attempts a broad coverage of this subculture — from collectors to designers to the particular Japanese iteration of sneaker obsession — is at its most endearing when it’s operating in a familiar mode of contemporary documentary filmmaking (“Adjust Your Tracking,” “Red Beans & Rice”), detailing the obsessiveness of extreme collectors. There is something weirdly fascinating about watching a grown man — such as Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who is on a quest to own every Air Jordan ever produced, or DJ Clark Kent, who owns more than 5,000 pairs of sneakers — get really, really excited by footwear.
But at 69 minutes, Sneakerheadz is both overstuffed and underdeveloped. Director David T. Friendly flies through the history of the sneaker in a couple minutes but repeatedly makes time for three different talking heads — usually Wale (yay!), Jeff Staple (okay…), and Rob Drydek (ugh!) — to deliver the same point. I’m also genuinely confused by why Friendly gave so much time to Jon Buscemi to pimp his extremely expensive, extraordinarily ugly high-end sneakers. I did appreciate the inclusion of an economist and psychologist, whose statements are a little superficial, but still add some context to the whole obsession.
There is a fascinating theme bubbling beneath the surface of this subculture, one which is also at play in many geeky communities: the tangled relationship between fanboyism and corporate consumerism. To his credit, Friendly draws out this theme a little more explicitly than I would have expected. This is probably because Nike’s exploitation of the fanatical response to new releases, as well as its co-option of street art and independent designers, has been so naked. Seeing that obsessives and opportunists would camp out in front of sneaker stores before new releases, Nike has been downright devious in putting out limited releases that cannot possibly live up to the demand, thus ginning up false excitement around its hundreds of new designs and boosting the fortunes of resellers — or “curators,” as one guy in the film prefers to be called — in the process.
Friendly also explores the dark side — in fact, lest we be mistaken, this section of the film is titled “The Dark Side” — of sneakermania, the theft of sneakers and the violence that has often erupted around new releases. Friendly throws out an astonishing-if-true statistic that up to 1,000 deaths per year attributable to sneakers. (I have no idea where Friendly got this number, and googling it seems to primarily pull up reviews of the movie.) Friendly does allow for some criticism of Nike on this point, which is all to the good, even if he immediately papers over the issue with the aforementioned feel-good children’s hospital segment.
But there is absolutely no mention of the violence done to the people who actually make these shoes. For all the time Sneakerheadz devotes to the beauty of the detail on a truly great sneaker, the people who actually put these things together are completely erased. No one utters the word “sweatshop.” Perhaps Nike has cleaned up its act in this respect, but it is certainly an important part of sneaker history. And, more importantly, Sneakerheadz erases the labor of the shoemakers from the story completely. In the film’s telling, sneakers seem to go from design to shoestore, with nothing in between.