For serious enthusiasts, sneakers are more than just a shoe obsession

“Whoa, cool sneakers!” a little boy shouts as Erika Schaefer, Performance Athletic Footwear Certificate ’14, poses for a photograph on a busy Queens corner. He, along with what look like his father and older brother, are wearing matching purple and orange high-tops. It’s unclear which pair of Schaefer’s sneakers he’s excited about. Is it the Adidas Top Ten Originals on her feet? The customized Nike Air Max 90s in her hands? Or perhaps the laundry bag overflowing with shoes she’s designed, restored, or just straight-up loves?
Most people have at least one pair of sneakers. They’re a must for exercising and great for lazy weekends at home. Schaefer and the other FIT-sneakerhead-pullout1winter2015-2016 copysuper-collectors profiled here own hundreds, if not thousands. Some have fierce brand loyalty, enhancing their collections with apparel and keepsakes covered in logos, while others focus on rare releases or vintage classics. Many own hundreds of pairs they never wear, preserving them in neatly stacked boxes—pristine, precious objects of desire. Others wear their shoes, but make sure to have at least one or two pairs tucked away, to wear or sell after a model is retired. For most of them, kicks are more than a passion; they’re part of a career—as designers, instructors, restorers, or brand representatives. Some are part of FIT’s extended community; others just happen to have kick-ass collections.
Call them fans or aficionados. But whatever you do, don’t call them sneakerheads. These devoted collectors are so much more.


Woodcock in FIT’s Fashion Footwear Association of New York Footwear Laboratory.



Gregg Woodcock’s original pastel sketches and CAD production specifications for the ELUX basketball shoe for Sean John.

Assistant professor of Accessories Design

“I saw a pair of pink Nike Zoom Airs at Dr. Jay’s on 34th, and I asked the sales guy if I could see them in my size, because the idea of a bright pink shoe in a men’s 13 seemed ridiculous. The guy got on his walkie-talkie and they brought them out and I was like, ‘I guess I have to buy these now.’”

How many pairs? 60. I wear them all. I might buy two pairs if I really like it or it’s limited edition, but I don’t [buy] things just to have them.
Favorite shoe: Right now, the pink Zoom Airs. Turns out they’re for breast cancer awareness, but I didn’t know that when I first saw them.
Favorite brand: I don’t have one. I appreciate good work, good patterns and stitching, a balance between heritage and innovation.
How did you get into collecting? Since I was able to buy my first pair on my own. I basically went from Matchbox cars to sneakers.
Do you consider yourself a sneakerhead? I’m also a designer, so I don’t know if I am a true sneakerhead.


Schaefer in Queens, wearing her favorites, Adidas Top Ten Originals.


Performance Athletic Footwear Certificate ’14
Footwear designer and restorer


Schaefer reengineers classic sneaker styles and with custom paint and fabric treatments. These Adidas, Nikes, and New Balances are themed around Murder, She Wrote. She posts her creations to her Instagram, @Gimme2Pairs.

“I always wanted to design footwear. I would take apart 10-dollar sneakers from H&M to see how they were made.”

How many pairs? Two hundred fifty that I own and wear. I also have around 500 in storage that I’m reselling for a client. I do customization and restoration, and I also sneaker-shop for people.
How did you get into restoring sneakers? It started with my own shoes. Before I could afford to buy two pairs I would play around with my old ones to figure out how to keep them looking new for as long as possible.
How did you know there was a need for this? After I became more active in the sneaker community and met more collectors who really hunt for retro sneakers, I saw the need. Even if they don’t wear the shoes, glue will yellow and the paint will chip. Parts separate over time.
Do you consider yourself a sneakerhead? It bothers me; it is pejorative. I am an enthusiast, an expert, a connoisseur.


Rivera and his son Jacob, 2, and their Air Jordan 1s.


Accessories Design BFA ’09
Footwear designer for Sears Holdings, Inc.

“I would fake sports injuries in high school so I could wear my Jordans with my school uniform.”


Qore Identity Nocturnal, designed by
Kevin Rivera, sold at Dr. Jays.

How many pairs? Eight hundred to 1,000. I recently sold a lot at SneakerCon. I am always buying and I’m also always giving shoes away to my friends and family.
Favorite shoe:
The Air Jordan 13 or the Nike Air Mag [designed for Back to the Future II].
Favorite brand:It has always been Nike. The first shoe I drew as a kid was the Air Jordan 13 and many of my own designs have been inspired by the Air Mag.
How did you get into collecting?My mom would buy me the new Jordans for my birthday every year, so it sorta became my thing.
What are some of the most exciting recent innovations in sneaker design? The evolution of knitted engineered fabrics [like Nike Fly Knit]. These fabrics mold to your foot like a sock.

Roxas doesn’t just love New Balance sneakers, but also owns all sorts of branded vintage apparel including this jacket and cap.

Roxas doesn’t just love New Balance sneakers, but also owns all sorts
of branded vintage apparel including this jacket and cap.

Hard-core New Balance collector

“If it says New Balance, I have to have it.”

How many pairs? Five hundred? I stopped counting around 400. I would say 350 are New Balance.
Favorite shoe: New Balance 1300, specifically the one produced for the Korean market. It’s slightly different with this extra tab on the side. I just think it looks cooler.
How did you get into collecting? I bought my first pair of NB in 1995, with money from my first job at a movie theater. Once I had five pairs I was like, I’m into this brand, I like the quality.
Do you consider yourself a sneakerhead? I don’t call myself one. I don’t like any of those words— freak, head. They weren’t around when I started this. It was just something I was into and eventually it became a collection.


Farese’s collection is valued at $750,000.


Brand ambassador for Crep Protect, a weather-proofing sneaker spray

“I went from not being able to afford sneakers to being able to afford whatever I want. I still think $90 for a pair of Air Force 1s is a good shoe for a good price.”

How many pairs? I stopped counting at 2,600. I only wear the all-white pairs once, three times tops, and then I give them away.
Favorite shoe: Nike AF1, in the linen/atmosphere [pink and tan] colorway. It was only available in Japan. I like pink.
Favorite brand: Nike is the girlfriend you love to hate, but I like the classics: Puma Clydes, Adidas Shell Toes, Pro-Keds.
How did you get into collecting? I grew up poor. My mother bought me a shoe called the Mark-5. I thought I was the coolest kid because I had my name on my shoe. So I ran downstairs and everybody laughed me off the block, because they were no-brand skippies. I went upstairs crying and I vowed I would never ever get laughed at again when it came to footwear.
Do you consider yourself a sneakerhead? No. Growing up the South Bronx during the crack era, any “head” is an addict. I’m going to pay my bills and take care of my family before I buy a pair of sneakers.
Most valuable shoe? The Undefeated Jordan IV has an aftermarket value of around $25,000. They only made 72 pairs.




Hempstead, date unknown, by Jamel Shabazz.

How sneakers have traveled from sports to high fashion

 The story of sneakers kicks off in the mid-19th century, with the development of vulcanization: heating rubber preserves bounce and flexibility while adding stability and resilience. Within 50 years, this new process was being used to create a soft, silent sole for athletic shoes. By the mid-20th century, the major sneaker brands—Converse, Keds, Adidas, Nike—had been established.

FIT-sneakerhead-pullout2winter2015-2016In the ’70s, athletic footwear companies began to see their products as more than just sports shoes. Partnering with professional athletes, brands incorporated team logos featuring brightly colored leathers made possible by advances in technology. Wearing a blue and orange basketball shoe might not mean you played basketball, but it did mean that you loved the Knicks. Athletes and hip-hop artists brought black urban street style to mainstream fashion, with Air Jordans the prime example of this new commodity in the wider cultural imagination.

Today, fitness giants innovate with technology that seems straight from science fiction. Nike is producing a limited-edition Air Mag (based on the pair worn by Michael J. Fox in ), which uses sensors to adapt to the wearer’s motion. Sneaker culture has exploded: Books, magazines, and museum exhibitions focus on style, the culture of collecting, and advances in performance technology.

“Sneakers are a way of pushing limits,” says Sarah Mullins, assistant professor and chair of the Accessories Design Department at FIT, “not just a design limit but a dress code limit, in sports and on the red carpet.”

High-fashion sneakers designed by Ricardo Seco and hand-beaded by the Wixárika tribe of Mexico, 2015, in The Museum at FIT’s collection.

High-fashion sneakers designed by Ricardo Seco and hand-beaded by the Wixárika tribe of Mexico, 2015, in The Museum at FIT’s collection.

Sneakers have transcended sports and entered the fashion realm. Athletic footwear brands collaborate with designers, artists, and pop icons to create limited-edition investment pieces that sell out within moments of release. High-end designers incorporate rare reptile leathers and couture embroidery. Yohji Yamamoto designs a line for Adidas, and Maison Martin Margiela collaborates with Converse. Lifestyle sneakers, sometimes with wedge heels or platform soles, blur the line between fashion and function. This trend hit hard a few years ago, according to Ariele Elia, Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice ’11, assistant curator of textiles and costume at The Museum at FIT. “There was a huge snowstorm during Fashion Week, and you see pictures of women being carried across snowbanks in their stilettos. The next Fashion Week, everyone was wearing sneakers with their fancy outfits.” Colleen Hill, Fashion and Textile Studies ’06, associate curator of accessories, sees the shift toward athletic footwear as “a backlash to the incredibly high-heeled shoes that we saw in 2007 and 2008.”

A shoe from the early 1860s by Thomas Dutton and Thorowgood, owned by the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in the U.K., is one of a pair thought to be the oldest running shoes in existence.

A shoe from the early 1860s by Thomas Dutton and Thorowgood, owned by the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in the U.K., is one of a pair thought to be the oldest running shoes in existence.



Sneakers have come a long way since vulcanization, says Ellen Goldstein-Lynch, Accessories Design professor and avid kicks fan. “The fashion industry has helped performance footwear—in style, color, and silhouette. The performance industry has helped the fashion industry develop comfort and lifestyle footwear. And, of course, you know performance has made it when almost every designer is featuring sneakers on the runway with their clothes.” Fashionistas and sneaker fans are starting to resemble each other. Goldstein-Lynch says, “You don’t have two definitive camps anymore.”

A history of sneakers