Getting their kicks
words ross wilson
photography kat green
Ever since his parents bought him his first pair of Nikes aged eight, Ross Wilson has had a fascination with sneakers. Here, he meets Gent Street owner Alex Hunt, Sneakerbox organisers Sam Fawcett and Rob Reid, and Size? manager Dan Freeman, to ask how the sneaker revival landed in the south-west
Sneaker collecting was born from Japanese ‘Otaku’ culture in which enthusiasts with an eye for detail would obsess over tracking down original editions from the back catalogues of major sports brands. Favoured styles included first edition Air Jordans, early styles of Nike running shoes and original Adidas trainers manufactured in Germany. When the internet was still young, to acquire certain styles of sneakers you’d have to travel to specialist stores in neighbourhoods like Tokyo’s Harajuku and Brooklyn’s Fulton Street; this ‘hunt’ becoming a major element of the shoes’ appeal.
Fast-forward to 2002 and the sneaker landscape elevated to new highs when Nike launched their skateboarding division by bringing back an updated version of the ‘Dunk’, a simple shoe originally designed for college basketball in the 1980s. Nike collaborated with artists, skateboarders, designers and independent brands to each put their own stamp on the new ‘Dunk SB’ which was then to be released in limited numbers in selected stores, thus creating a desirable and highly collectible commodity. Young entrepreneurs realised these sneakers could be quickly sold on for well over double the retail price, which ushered in an era of long queues (and even overnight camping) outside stores, instant sell-outs and the dreaded sneaker reseller culture.
In 2018, sneaker culture is big business. Every week there are limited edition ‘drops’ by the major sports shoe brands that are eagerly swooped up by both collectors and resellers. There are YouTube channels, fan sites, forums, resale sites, social media groups and huge public events such as Sneaker Con and Crepe City, all dedicated to specialist athletic footwear.
There is now a thriving sneaker scene in Somerset, thanks to certain individuals taking matters into their own hands. Here’s what happened when I met the key players…
RW What was it that appealed to you about sneaker culture in the first place?
AH Sneakers have always been something I’d look at first before any other item of clothing and I was fascinated by the latest Nike releases in the ‘90s.
SF I loved playing basketball when I was younger, so I’d buy all the basketball magazines and head straight to the trainer section to see the new signature shoes from NBA stars like Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen. I’d ask my parents to get me a new pair of trainers for either Christmas or my birthday and they always delivered.
RR The first sneaker I obsessed over in my teens was the Adidas ‘Nizza High’ after seeing one of the members of The Strokes wearing them.
DF I had always been into Hip Hop, and at around 14 years old I started playing basketball, which requires a certain type of sneaker to play in. I guess this made me more aware of the sneaker culture around the sport, which is heavily linked with the music I was listening to.
RW Do you consider yourself a sneaker collector?
AH I guess my friends and family would probably consider me a collector, as I’ve got around 50 pairs personally, and a shop full of them!
SF I suppose I am, as I have more pairs than the normal person. I have around 150 pairs, some that I wear all the time, and then a few that I just pull out for events or if I want to wear something a bit different.
RR I feel like collecting means someone who keeps pairs box-fresh, never to see the light of day, whereas I wear every pair I buy. I currently have around 100 pairs.
DF I have never really considered myself a collector, as I tend to wear all the sneakers that I buy. I currently have around 40 pairs, and I think only two of those pairs are unworn.
RW Please tell me about some of your favourite pairs from your collection…
AH I love the Nike Air Max 95 collaboration between Size? and British artist Dave White. Both pairs feature artwork from White’s ‘Albion’ collection, which sees Britain’s native species re-imagined in his signature style.
SF I would have to say my original Nike Air Pippens, as they hold a lot of great memories as the pair that really got me into trainers. They are also a great example of ‘90s basketball trainers with a full air unit and a crazy design in a classic Chicago Bulls colourway.
RR I recently bought the New Balance ‘997 Desert Heat’, I love the contrasting colours of the peach with dark green, and of course the great materials NB use.
DF Being a Manchester United fan, I made sure I got a pair of the Adidas ‘Ninety-Two’, which was produced last year as a special edition commemorating the famous youth team from 1992. I haven’t worn them and probably never will as they feel like a genuine collectors’ item.
RW How do you feel that sneaker culture has changed in the past few years?
SF The sheer amount of pairs that come out now means you have an amazing choice of great trainers constantly available. You can go on any website or pop into any store and buy at least one decent pair of trainers, if not more.
RR The attention right now seems to be on collaborations with the likes of Off-White, Yeezy and other celebrity endorsements from artists such as Drake and Skepta. The brands only appear to focus their attention on London, whereas I’d like to see them move further afield for events and serve other communities.
DF More people than ever are wearing sneakers. We see a lot of kids coming into the store and talking about the latest releases, which is definitely down to the rise in social media.
RW What do you think about Somerset’s place in UK sneaker culture?
AH Everything filters down slowly from London, which was my main reason for opening Gent Street. I’m doing my best to encourage people in this area to look at sneakers not just as something you put on your feet, but a choice that reflects your personality.
SF Local stores seem to be getting better releases and it is great to see places like Gent Street opening up and building the scene in Frome. From running Sneakerbox I’ve seen there is a real passion for trainers in this area, and you only have to walk around Bath to see loads of people wearing some nice stuff on their feet.
RR There is a great culture in Somerset, we see that from the Sneakerbox events we put on, as well as what you see people wearing. It’s more relaxed than London, with people seeming friendlier and more willing to help others, rather than trying to make a fast buck.
DF We have a lot of customers who aren’t from Somerset, but we do have quite a few regular customers who come in once or twice a week and are interested in sneakers and fashion.
RW Alex, how did you come about opening Gent Street Sneakers in Frome?
AH I owe it to the guys at Nomad Supply Store, who are my neighbours on Catherine Hill. I was running Gent Street from home but as soon as the premises came up for rent they gave me a nudge
and said that my store would make a great addition to the hill. I bit the bullet and here we are!
RW Dan, you run Size? in Bath, the city’s only dedicated sneaker store, how has it been received since opening a couple of years ago?
DF The feedback has been really positive. Obviously you can’t please everyone all the time, but we’ve always had a really great group of staff that work so hard to make the store a success. At first, most customers were pleased just to have somewhere in Bath to buy sneakers again, so that they don’t have to travel to Bristol all the time. Now we get asked, “why don’t you get a bigger store so you can stock more!”
RW Any final words…
SF It’s a great time to be into trainers as there is so much choice out there, I just think more people need to buy what they actually like not what they are told to like.
DF Thanks to all our regular customers in Bath. Times are tough on the high street and we do appreciate the loyalty that you give us.
AH Come down to the shop any time and say hello! Frome has loads to offer, and not just my shop!