Sneakerheads as fans and sneaker fandom as participatory culture

Ekaterina Kulinicheva

HSE University, Moscow, Russian Federation

[0.1] Abstract—This paper considers sneakerheads, or sneaker collectors and enthusiasts, as fans. It explores both them and their participatory culture, developing a new approach to researching sneakerheads: I here conceptualize sneaker collecting as an object-inspired fandom to highlight the difference between sneaker fandom and other object-oriented fandoms. This paper demonstrates that sneaker collecting is about both collecting knowledge about the subject of sneakers and collecting sneakers themselves. The materiality of sneakers, the story behind a design, and the cultural history of sneakers attracts sneakerheads to sneakers. As such, I here explore the following characteristics of sneaker collecting: the importance of knowledge and its acquisition, the high value of the community's practices and activities, the high level of emotional involvement, fan art (sneaker art), and anticommercial ideologies and beliefs. The approach demonstrated in this paper could also be useful in research of other communities organized around collecting wearable goods, such as clothes or accessories, including football T-shirts, vintage denim, and bags.

[0.2] Keywords—Collecting; Fandom studies; Sartorial fandom; Sneakers

Kulinicheva, Ekaterina. 2021. "Sneakerheads as Fans and Sneaker Fandom as Participatory Culture." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In 2019, editor-in-chief of American Vogue Anna Wintour said, "There are sneakers everywhere" (quoted in The Selby 2019). The explosive growth in the popularity of sneakers as a fashion product and market events such as the Sotheby's July 2019 sneaker auction, which raised about 1.5 million dollars, has directed a lot of attention to collecting sneakers in recent years. Yet while there is growing scholarly interest in materiality and collecting objects and things, including sneakers, "sneakerheads"—the popular term for those who collect or admire sneakers—remain under-researched. Although a few studies have attempted to consider the culture of sneaker collecting (Choi, Cluver, and Kim 2015; Kawamura 2016), and others have focused on the connection between sneaker advertising and consumer behavior or between race and sneakers (Bush 2017; Wilson and Sparks 1996), such studies are few and far between. Moreover, the vast majority of researchers and media accounts focus on collectors from the United States, although there are collectors of sneakers in many other countries.

[1.2] In academic research and in popular media accounts, sneakerheads are often described as fashion people, conspicuous or unconscionable consumers, or as strange or unhealthy people who buy too many shoes, spend too much money on those shoes, and have too strong an attachment to their shoes. Choi, Cluver, and Kim (2015, 1) indicate that coveting and acquiring highly valued sneakers are often framed as "extreme behaviors" or "consumer misbehaviors," and mention "violent incidents," referring to such issues as fights in lines for shoes, robbery, and even murder. If we look at popular media narratives in both the United States and Russia, two of the most popular topics linked to sneakerheads are the niche market of very expensive sneakers and the practice of "camping"—when people wait in line near a sneaker store for several hours or even days to buy limited edition sneakers (Greene and Sklar 2005; Hills 2021; Zotova 2017). Both are considered odd in the public imagination.

[1.3] I here aim to provide a new approach by exploring sneaker collecting and enthusiasm as a fandom and part of participatory culture. I am convinced of the necessity of developing this new approach because sneakerhead subculture is built around a wearable, mass-produced object, often produced by large capitalist companies. This makes sneaker collectors an easy target for criticism of various kinds, including, in the tradition of Baudrillard (1981, 1998), critiquing their consumerism or psychoanalyzing them (e.g., labeling them as fetishists in the erotic sense of the term) (Hope Allwood 2018; Rafianda Dzaki 2020; Welty 2014). As Geraghty (2014) and Belk et al. (1991) show, media often create and perpetuate negative stereotypes of collectors in general, and collectors of popular cultural merchandise in particular. Researchers often focus on sneakerheads' behavior as consumers, comparing sneaker collection with normative shoe consumption or as a racialized and negatively stereotyped practice. When we explore sneakerheads only in the traditional framework of conspicuous consumption or race studies, many of their practices, beliefs, and ideologies remain invisible. I argue that approaching sneakerhead subculture as a fandom will help us to understand this subcultural scene and its practices better and without stigma. Moreover, I aim to emphasize the transnationality of sneakerhead fandom by expanding considerations of sneakerheads and their subcultures beyond an exclusive focus on the United States.

2. Methodology

[2.1] This paper presents the results of seventeen semistructured interviews (sixteen in-person interviews and one conducted over the phone) that I conducted with Russian sneaker collectors, sneaker enthusiasts, sneaker photographers, sneaker artists, and sneaker customizers between 2015 and 2018, as well as observations during sneaker events, analyses of interviews with international sneakerheads published in niche media, and analyses of the content of Russian and international English-language niche media such as Crepe City magazine and the websites Complex, Sole Collector, Hypebeast, and Highsnobiety. I also draw on my own experience of coproducing a sneaker podcast with sneaker collector Dmitry Egorov in 2019.

[2.2] However, I would like to emphasize that this paper is not about why or how people collect sneakers, although I was interested in these questions while planning my research project. Therefore, I do not rely here on theoretical works on collecting, such as those of Russell Belk et al. (1991) or Susan Pearce (2013, 2017). My focus is different. As I discovered during my field work, the sneakerhead culture is not only about buying, selling, and displaying sneakers or competing with other collectors. This culture also includes what Benjamin Woo (2014, ¶ 3.5) calls the "immaterial psychological property" of fandom such as affect, community values and practices, sets of tastes and ways of rating sneakers, and different forms of creative self-expression. The best theoretical framework I have found for understanding and analyzing this subculture is fandom and participatory culture, following the theoretical works of Henry Jenkins (2006, 2012; Jenkins et al. 2007; Jenkins, Ito, and boyd 2015) and Matt Hills (2002). Thus, I suggest calling sneakerheads fans and considering the participatory dimensions of the sneakerhead culture. In this paper, I therefore focus on the following task: to show why we ought to consider sneakerheads as fans and their culture a participatory one. I therefore focus on the immaterial property within sneaker fandom, which we normally think of as a material arena. My aim is not only to introduce a relatively unknown object to fandom studies but also to develop a new research methodology for fashion studies.

[2.3] Studies on the materiality of fandom and object-oriented fandoms (Godwin 2018; Rehak 2014; Woo 2014) also inform my arguments. However, I would like to emphasize a significant difference between sneaker fandom and the kinds of object-oriented fandoms most fan studies scholars study. While both include collecting as material fan practice, collecting posters, action figures, sport memorabilia, and other artifacts for display, as a way to express and manifest a fandom, differs from sneaker fandom. Even if, as Benjamin Woo has argued, without physical objects, fandom "remains only a potentiality and not a realized capability" (2014, ¶ 1.3), objects in fandom, as theorized by fan scholars, are second-order transitional objects that constitute meaningful bridges to the actual objects of the fandom (celebrities, sports teams, movies, books, etc.) (Sandvoss 2005, 90). Sneakers within sneakerhead fandom, on the other hand, are not memorabilia from famous media franchises (although some sneakers might function as such memorabilia within other fandoms, for example, Star Wars-themed shoes for Star Wars fans). They are not second-order transitional objects as defined by Sandvoss (2005). Although sneakers might "become objects for trade, nostalgia and personal identity," as Geraghty (2014) noted for cult media merchandise, these are wearable objects that are themselves the object(s) of fannish attachment. Their materiality (design details, fabrics, technologies, workmanship) attracts the fan community. The stories behind the designs, the histories of the shoes, and other similar factors function as cultural capital. In terms of the relationship between materiality and a person, sneaker appreciation seems to have much in common with such practices as collecting art or designer furniture. While many media fans who express and manifest their fandom through collecting can be described as fans-turned-collectors, most sneakerheads are rather collectors-turned-fans. So here we might speak of a slightly different type of relationship between materiality and fandom than has previously been discussed.

[2.4] As part of my analysis, I touch on some of the problems that I have encountered when choosing sneakerheads as an object of research and more specifically define what type of sneakerheads I have worked with during my analysis (sneaker collectors and enthusiasts). The next section offers a short introduction to how I see the contemporary sneakerhead culture and sneaker collecting as a researcher. I then present my findings, show how sneaker collectors and enthusiasts can be considered a fandom, and propose what can be considered as the object of fandom for sneaker collectors and enthusiasts. The final section summarizes my thoughts on participation within the culture of sneakerheads.

3. Sneakerheads and sneakerhead culture

[3.1] As mentioned, "sneakerheads" is now the most popular and most common term for people who love sneakers—and it is a term I use throughout my paper—but in many ways, the term is problematic. When we define sneakerheads as "people who collect and wear sneakers with great enthusiasm" (Choi, Cluver, and Kim 2015, 1) or "as individuals who collect, trade, and/or admire sneakers" (Matthews, Cryer-Croupet, and Degirmencioglu 2021, 2), as many researchers have, this raises some important issues. For example, how do we measure enthusiasm or admiration? Do we refer to enthusiasm about any sneakers or only about rare and expensive ones, or are we referring to enthusiasm for particular brands?

[3.2] Moreover, as the empirical analysis below shows, there is no single definition for the term. Laitasalo (2016) believes that "the end result in the mass marketization of sneaker subculture was that the term sneakerhead itself became devoid of meaning," but I cannot completely agree with this. Rather, I believe the term has likely acquired a wider range of possible meanings, becoming an umbrella term for a wide range of identities and practices. I argue that when collecting sneakers became fashionable in the 2000s, many new kinds of sneakerheads appeared. Today, the term references a variety of people and their practices: followers of fashion; people who collect the rarest sneakers as investments; interest-driven, traditional collectors; and others. In fact, the meaning of the term "sneakerhead" is an actively debated issue inside the sneaker community. Some collectors, for example, followers of the British branch of sneaker collecting, do not identify by the term at all; however, scholars and popular media accounts use it as an umbrella term due to its convenience and widespread use.

[3.3] Communities of sneaker collectors include different types of agents, such as collectors, connoisseurs, enthusiasts, photographers, customizers, and resellers, among others, and the varied cultures of these communities have emerged in different contexts and at different times. As such, they have been influenced by different cultural and market contexts. Because sneaker collectors and sneaker fans in different countries are not necessarily similar, researchers should remember that global generalizations are not always possible. Nonetheless, most sneaker fan communities demonstrate fandom mentalities and participatory dimensions, despite their differences.

[3.4] As sneakerhead is an umbrella term, it seems necessary to define and discuss the various types of sneakerheads who are included in this study. The majority of the people I spoke with as a part of this project are experienced sneaker collectors and enthusiasts. While fans can be both collectors and enthusiasts, to differentiate between them, I consider collecting and enthusiasm to be separate, if interconnected, practices. I define sneaker collectors as people who collect sneakers and sneaker enthusiasts as those who most often collect knowledge but not the shoes themselves; any collections they may have tend to be small. The term "sneaker enthusiasts" includes not only those who collect knowledge about sneakers but also those who collect knowledge about other fields connected to sneakers, such as music, sports, streetwear, subcultures, and countercultures. Other groups included under the sneakerhead umbrella include sneaker photographers, sneaker art makers, or sneaker fans who run fan groups or create or disseminate other kinds of sneaker-related media. In many cases, those who belong to these groups have given up collecting due to their financial circumstances; however, they generally have an imagined collection that they would like to accumulate under more favorable circumstances.

4. Sneaker knowledge

[4.1] Knowledge acquisition is a very important part of the sneakerhead culture. The knowledge that sneakerheads collect and share includes the history of sport shoes and sportswear in general, including histories of particular models and brands, and understandings of subcultural contexts. While fans who collect knowledge but who do not have a large collection of rare sneakers may still hold great subcultural capital inside the community, those who have large collections but little knowledge do not. As Valera Good Foot (note 1)—at the time of our interview, a collector and sneaker blogger from St. Petersburg, Russia—says: "Guys with a lot of money who buy expensive sneakers just because they're expensive…I don't understand it. I mean it's ok, but there is nothing to show off, nothing to boast about. I would not say they are truly cool. When they try to declare themselves cool…I can only laugh. Knowledge comes first. You need to know what you're wearing, if you're pretending to be someone (inside the culture and community)" (note 2). As such, even for sneaker collectors, knowledge is just as important as—and maybe more important than—the size and content of one's collection. Knowledge can also function as a trump card when a collector or enthusiast collaborates with brands such as Nike or adidas. Knowledge gives them an opportunity to convert subcultural capital into both economic capital and a more conventional cultural capital, which can bring both a wider recognition and material benefits.

[4.2] As many fan scholars have noted, using Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital (Hills 2002; Jancovich 2002; Woo 2012), more profound knowledge leads to greater cultural capital within a fan community. The more knowledge one has, the higher one is likely to be in the fan hierarchy. We can clearly see this concept of (sub)cultural capital demonstrated within the sneakerhead culture, as shown by the quote included above. This is also made visible through fans' gatekeeping practices: For example, fan-oriented social network groups on Facebook and the popular Russian social network Vkontakte include groups with very selective memberships. Applicants must prove their interest in and knowledge of sneakers in order to be granted access to the groups. This privileging of knowledge also determines the content of niche media, including magazines like Crepe City (which was run by organizers of an exhibition and trade sneaker event with the same name), fan-oriented media run by sneaker shops, or micromedia in social media, such as the Telegram channel "Sneakermania" ( or Instagram account "Kickspaper" ( run by Russian sneaker enthusiasts Vladimir Borisenkov and Sergey Budachev, respectively. All try to collect or produce knowledge and share it with peers.

[4.3] What is more, sometimes possession of knowledge is demonstrated materially: For example, at sneaker conventions like Sneakercon in Russia, you can see exhibition stands not only showcasing rare sneakers but also exhibiting books respected within the community, such as the annual "All Gone" almanac. These books are not for sale but are rather displayed, serving as signifiers of collectors' membership in the fandom and of their subcultural capital.

5. Fan practices

[5.1] Sneaker collectors and enthusiasts participate in both off-line and online activities that can be considered as fan practices. One example is off-line events like Sneakercon in North America, Sneakerness in Europe, and Faces & Laces in Russia, where people can exhibit their collections, sell or exchange sneakers, buy and sell fan-oriented goods, and attend public talks with designers or collectors. Online examples of fan practices in sneaker communities other than those mentioned in earlier sections of this paper include unboxing videos (when fans open boxes of sneakers while commenting on their impressions of the sneakers and related accessories) or video reviews of new sneakers.

[5.2] Niche sneaker shops also function as centers of fan activity. For example, the jubilee celebration of the Moscow store Sneakerhead included an exhibition of rare sneakers from the most important Russian collectors; several talks and presentations from customizers, sneaker writers, and other people important within the community; sneaker swaps, where one could trade or exchange sneakers; a photo exhibition; and the sale of fan-oriented goods like pins, stickers, and T-shirts. It also included a "vanity fair," that is, an event in which sneaker enthusiasts wore their best pairs—and a sartorial performance for those who could understand and appreciate it. Dmitry Silenko, an adidas collector from Moscow, explained the meaning of such a performance: "You can put on the vintage pair only to the adidas archive or to attend some cool event. To pay tribute, to show your respect. To the event where you need to stand out, where you can't come just like that, wearing banal fashionable footwear. Like in England, when they wait in line for sneakers near stores, they put on their best pairs to start a conversation with their peer experts, to appreciate each other's collections."

6. Emotions and affect

[6.1] We should also consider fans' affective attitudes to the object of their fandom or, as Jenkins (2006) calls it, the affective dimension of fandom, which goes hand in hand with the cognitive dimension (knowledge acquisition, critique, transformative work, etc.). Sneaker collecting, like other fannish engagements, usually inspires a deep emotional investment and a high degree of emotional involvement. For example, some collectors have tattoos of their favorite or most desired pair of sneakers. Sergey Vetrov, collector from the Russian Saucony Team, a group of sneaker collectors from Moscow, explains why he got his tattoos and how important they are:

[6.2] [Another collector], Andrey the Sailor, has a tattoo with Saucony Jazz sneakers, very beautifully made, the shoes are like real ones. I really liked it and thought: "I need one too." At first, there was the idea to tattoo my feet as sneakers. But because of the anatomy, this cannot be done. We thought for a long time and came up with another scheme. These tattoos later helped me. One of the "grails" in my collection are the Invictus sneakers based on the Shadow 6000. I wanted them for a very long time. Buying Invictus in my size was very difficult. The fact is that the most expensive sneakers are in sizes 9–10 US, because there are many people who wear that size and want to buy them. Once, in a group (in a social network), one man put these deadstock sneakers of my size on sale. The process was organized as follows: the right to buy was played out between those who wanted to buy. Guys from all over the world asked for me: sell them to Sergey, let this pair go to Russia! But on the other hand, there were people who said: these Russians again, let [the sneakers] stay in Europe. At the end, I sent the seller photos of my tattoos, and this solved the matter. He said, "You win!"

[6.3] It seems probable that many sneaker fans exaggerate their affective attachment to sneakers in their self-descriptions, either as a form of cultural capital or as a behavior through which they aim to separate themselves from ordinary fashion people, hype people, and conspicuous consumers who, as sneakerheads usually describe them, buy hyped shoes without being interested in the shoes' contexts and histories.

[6.4] Examples of fans' exaggerating their affective attachment to sneakers take many forms: Bobbito Garcia (1991) titled one magazine article "Confessions of a Sneaker Addict," while Sean Williams's talk show is titled "Obsessive Sneaker Disorder" ( Sneakerhead and collector Jelani Evans (2015) compares her love for sneakers with the love of a mother for her child. Musician Noel Gallagher admitted that it was the high degree of emotional involvement that attracted him to sneaker collecting when he was looking for a hobby that would help him recover from drug addiction (quoted in Levine 2013).

[6.5] The affective aspect of sneaker collecting is also clearly evident in "grail hunting"—a subcultural term meaning hunting for the most desirable artifacts for one's sneaker collection or for something rare and unique. Konstantin Silenko, a collector of adidas sneakers from Moscow, describes the emotional part of that hunting on the internet: "Sometimes you see a good pair at night, and you just can't sleep. You can't wait till 8 a.m. to call the seller. You can't sleep, you just sit and look at this pair. Then you call and wake that person up. Once, when I came to get my sneakers, the seller looked at me like I was a fool."

7. Resistance and anticommercial ideologies and beliefs

[7.1] The concept of resistance is one of the most complicated and contradictory issues in fandom studies. Fandoms and participatory cultures have been strongly associated with resistant ideologies and beliefs, including anticommercial ideologies since Jenkins (1992, 283) suggested that "fandom's very existence represents a critique of conventional forms of consumer culture." However, Hills (2002, 4) later warned against dividing "good" creative fan activities from "bad" consumer activities, arguing that scholars often idealize the former and pointing out the "co-existence within fan cultures of both anti-commercial ideologies and commodity-completist practices." This coexistence is clearly visible in sneaker fan culture. When speaking of fandoms, we ought to avoid strong binary positions regarding resistance and many other issues (such as the affective versus the cognitive, the material versus the psychological, and so forth). Sneaker collectors and enthusiasts clearly fall within both camps, as they both engage in consumer activities and pose their fandom as a resistant activity.

[7.2] How, then, might we understand resistance in the case of sneaker fans' subculture? One form of resistance is hostility to large brands like Nike and adidas. Another is dislike of brands' marketing or distribution policies, which fans may feel go against the needs or interests of the fan community. Such attitudes fall neatly within what Jenkins (1992) terms "consumer activism" in Textual Poachers. He defines this as when fans "assert their right to make judgments and to express opinions about the" objects of their fandom (284), arguing that fandom "provides a base from which fans may speak about their cultural preferences and assert their desires for alternative developments" (285).

[7.3] As a form of the "ideology of resistance," sneaker collectors and enthusiasts often declare their right to build their own subcultural hierarchy of the objects of desire that can—or should—differ from the choices of popular media, corporate messaging, or what sneaker enthusiasts call the "taste of the masses" or "popular fashion." In sneaker fandom, resistance includes hostility toward the commercialization and commodification of sneaker fans' practices and values by the fashion industry and the marketing departments of large companies. For example, reproaches of companies have been caused by their appropriation of terms such as "cult" or "iconic" sneakers, which originally arose within the sneakerhead subculture to designate the most significant sneakers according to collectors and enthusiasts.

[7.4] A further popular reproach of commercial practices is that brands produce too many sneakers at the expense of the quality of ideas, design, and material embodiment. Many sneaker fans believe that in previous decades—and particularly before the 1990s—sneakers were better quality. This is the case even if these fans have never tried on vintage shoes and have had no opportunity to compare them to new shoes. Nonetheless, newer sneakers are rarely considered to meet the high standards of collectors and enthusiasts. Bert, a member of Russian sneaker art project Blackp*art, recalls that there have been periods when it has been difficult for him and his wife to find inspiration for their art, framing their lack of inspiration within such critiques: "At some point, too many [sneakers] are produced. You look at them and think, 'Okay, well, the next sneakers.'…And all of them were, if I can say it, so premature. Nothing caught fire in my soul when I was looking at them."

[7.5] Another type of resistance critiques tastes seen as mainstream, hype, or fashionable. Collectors and enthusiasts normally understand the desire to follow and purchase only the expensive, highly anticipated, limited edition sneakers, covered by popular media and worn by celebrities, as "hype." For example, many Russian collectors and enthusiasts express appreciation for collections with particular themes. For them, themes function as proof of the collectors' knowledge and commitment to sneakers. They express a belief that true sneaker fans should follow their own tastes instead of the hype of fashion trends. Similar views are often expressed by enthusiasts from other countries. For example, Gary Aspden, a collector, enthusiast, and organizer of sneaker exhibitions from the UK, comments, "I only wish there were more people who had the confidence to wear non-hyped shoes. If I ever do like a hyped shoe then I tend to put it away until all the competitiveness and excitement has settled down before I wear them out" (quoted in Shorrock 2013).

[7.6] Finally, subcultural resistance includes negative reaction to inflated sneaker prices. Lalla Boudmagh, a collector from France, states, "The prices are so crazy. People are willing to pay €1,000 for whatever. I don't like money things. It's like…you can be the dopest collector if you have the money. It's just sad. Money ruins everything" (quoted in Powis 2017a, 95). Similarly, Maxim, a collector of adidas sneakers from Moscow, noted while speaking of the mass marketization and commercialization of the sneaker subculture: "The money issue ruins all kind relationships."

[7.7] Negative reactions regarding money also link to the concept of sneaker collection as an investment. Certainly, there are practical issues linked to the materiality of sneakers that make collecting for the purpose of investment difficult—for example, it is not easy to preserve vintage sneakers in a good condition for a long time—but collecting sneakers as an investment goes against the affective dimension of sneaker fandom and the core belief that personal taste should come first, which means one should collect what one likes, not what the market dictates. Julia Schoierer, a collector from Germany, argues, "Nowadays, a lot of people collect because they have this idea of investment, which is just absurd. Sneakers are not an investment. They will crumble under your feet in ten years, and if you really want to invest in storing them the way they need to be stored so that they last forever, then that's not an investment because you pay much more to store them…I know that all my sneakers are going to be worthless someday and with this attitude I can collect much better" (quoted in Powis 2017b, 87).

[7.8] A result of resistance to those who collect sneakers as an investment, and perhaps the most illustrative example of sneakerheads' anticommercial ideologies, is the hostility to reselling and resellers that has blossomed in the sneaker fan community in recent years. Initially, resellers emerged from the ranks of the collectors themselves and helped collectors to find and purchase the artifacts they wanted. Many collectors have, in the past, sold a pair of shoes to buy new ones. But when sneaker collecting became fashionable and marketable, some individuals began to buy rare or limited-edition sneakers only to resell them later for significant profit. These individuals did not care about sneakers, knowledge, and community as much as collectors and enthusiasts do. Thus reselling took on a negative connotation, and resellers began to be seen as in opposition to true sneaker fans. Therefore, many collectors in Russia and other countries now express their desire to stop the practice of reselling.

[7.9] In sum, resistant and anticommercial beliefs are central to sneakerhead ideology. Many of these central beliefs were formed before sneakers collecting became a fashionable hobby and have strengthened or shifted according to contextual changes. According to observations made during my field work, anticommercial ideologies among sneaker fans have become increasingly significant because sneakers are becoming more popular and more fashionable, and as a result, the secondary sneaker market is becoming more financially attractive. While it is possible that sneakerheads have borrowed some of these beliefs from other fandoms and subcultures in which they have participated, such as music fandoms (like hip-hop), soccer fandoms, or graffiti culture, and while they are certainly informed by the subcultural history of sneaker fandom, anticommercial ideologies and behaviors today largely function as a form of protection, as a way to separate sneakerheads from financially driven outsiders.

[7.10] The analysis above demonstrates that adherence to an ideology of resistance is the main unifying factor for the type of sneakerhead culture I researched. The participants are of different genders, ages, and socioeconomic classes, yet they share resistant ideologies. This is in part due to the history of sneaker fandom: until the 2010s, sneaker collectors perceived themselves as a marginal subculture with high risk of being stigmatized by those outside the community. As argued above, it may also be due to ideologies borrowed from other fandoms. Nonetheless, ideologies of resistance remain popular today, and younger sneakerheads often accept and share these beliefs even if they joined sneakerhead culture only in recent years, when, as Wintour noted, "sneakers are everywhere" (quoted in The Selby 2019). It is entirely likely, however, that not all new sneakerheads share the resistant and anticommercial ideologies central to sneaker fandom. The evolution of and possible divergences within sneaker fans' ideologies and beliefs require further study.

8. Sneaker art and the localization of practices

[8.1] Sneaker fans often produce fan art, such as sneaker art, sneaker photography, and customized sneakers. For example, Bert from the Russian sneaker art project Blackp*art explains that he and his wife have liked sneakers for a long time and do not want to be "just consumers as many people," because consumption is not enough for them. That's why they started Blackp*art. They produce semi-autobiographical comics about the life of a married couple of sneakerheads; paintings and drawings dedicated to various models of sneakers; and three-dimensional installations for various sneaker events. Another Russian sneaker artist, Nastrese, specializes in creating portraits of important sneaker collectors and enthusiasts in the style of comics and cartoons. Both Nastrese ( and the artists involved in Blackp*art ( mostly share their work through Instagram.

[8.2] Another example of sneaker fan art practices is customizing—updating a pair of sneakers by painting or embroidering them, replacing parts with different materials, or combining parts of different models to create a completely new pair of sneakers. This practice is somewhat analogous to fan fiction, as in both cases the objects of fandom are transformed and developed into a new product, fans use commercial goods as raw materials for their own creative practices, and the whole process is driven by a fan's own vision and creative impulse.

[8.3] In their interviews, many sneaker enthusiasts highlight the importance of noncommercial, community-based creative practices, even when they involve money. Customizer Maggi from Moscow said that he sees his work more as more "creativity" than a "craft" or a "job": "Commercial elements are also included, of course. But for me, customization is still a practice of art. I would do many more [customized sneakers] if I were more interested in making more money from it. But what I want more is to make an interesting visual product; I reject a lot of orders because I want to save this feeling of art."

[8.4] The localization of the practices and vocabulary of sneakerhead subcultures is also a kind of transformative work, as both are produced within sneakerhead culture and are an important part of both the fandom and the participatory experience. In nascent sneaker cultures, such as the Russian one, there exists a tension between what has been inherited from older sneaker cultures—such as the American or British ones, which prescribes what sneaker fans do, how the community works, or jargon—and the need for localized practices and terms. Local sneaker collectors and enthusiasts in Russia often express their desire to run their own shops, through which they would have the opportunity to select which sneakers are sold, produce their own collaborations with sneaker brands, and, through these practices, foster a localized conception of good sneakers. They run their own local groups or pages on social media as well as sneaker photo and art projects, and they try to coin and introduce Russian analogues for English terms. For example, collector and enthusiast Dmitry Egorov from Moscow has attempted to introduce the term "kedogolovye" as an adapted translation and local alternative to the term "sneakerheads."

[8.5] Most of these fan-oriented practices are not for profit, although some may involve money. As such, these fan projects are always in danger of disappearing or being frozen indefinitely for economic reasons. People need to support themselves by doing something else, and sometimes, they have very little time for their sneaker projects.

9. The object of fandom: The case of sneakerheads

[9.1] One of the most interesting and important questions is what the object of fandom is for sneakerheads. Since we are talking about a fandom built up around a three-dimensional, wearable object, the most obvious answer seems to be sneakers themselves. However, the tastes and strategies of collectors can change. Sometimes, people stop collecting and sell their sneakers, yet they remain members of their sneaker fan communities and keep their cultural capital. Sneakerhead fandom is therefore about more than sneakers as objects.

[9.2] Collectors and enthusiasts provide two common answers when asked, "Why sneakers?" The first emphasizes the history of sneakers, including their links to subcultures, music, sports, fashion, or product design. The second focuses on the shapes and designs of sneakers, and may remind us of attraction to applied or fine art. Often, sneakerheads link the two, focusing on how the history of a pair of shoes is physically embodied in a particular design. Tash, a collector from Moscow, says, "It's more about the history and stories than about consumerism. Although this consumerism is also clearly visible in this case, and at an imaginary jury trial you would obviously be convicted as a crazy person with unhealthy obsession with shoes and clothes." Dmitry Oskes, a collector, co-organizer of the Faces & Laces street culture festival, and researcher from Moscow, emphasizes that "sneakers are very convenient documentation for a particular period" and they are interesting to him "as a document of time" or "because of [his] personal associations with some period." Julia Schoierer states, "For me, collecting sneakers from the 80s is building a microcosm from that era—essentially it stands for everything that happened at that time. Like I said, in 1993 you can see a switch in design, and you can see it in everything, you see it in furniture, you can see it in tattoos, you can see it in clothing, there's a switch from one era to another. That is also reflected in sneakers, so I build my microcosm of how I perceive the world with my collection" (quoted in Powis 2017b, 87). Sam Handy, a designer with adidas at the time of our interview, defined his work as a way "to build a story and to transform this story and technical innovation into the form of a beautiful product which would be attractive to consumers."

[9.3] The findings of this study allow us to hypothesize that the object of sneakerhead fandom is both the materiality of the shoes (design details, fabrics, technologies, workmanship, and how all these elements function together) and the history behind particular designs, including the cultural contexts or cultural biographies of sneakers (note 3). Although sneakers are not memorabilia relating to media franchises, the cultural biographies of sneakers function as a cultural text similarly to a book, movie, or series, and fans interact with this cultural biography as well as with the materiality of the shoes.

10. Sneaker culture as participatory culture

[10.1] We can consider the community of sneaker collectors and enthusiasts as a participatory culture, as Henry Jenkins (1992; Jenkins et al. 2015) has conceptualized it. Analyzing the "cultural logic of fandom," Jenkins contrasts participation with spectatorship (Jenkins et al. 2015). In the case of sneaker collectors and enthusiasts, we might contrast participation with fashion consumerism to describe sneakerheads not simply as consumers of mass-produced goods but also as a creative community that in many cases uses commercial goods transformatively, as raw materials for their own creative practices.

[10.2] As shown above, the sneakerhead culture is a creative fan community with relatively low barriers to artistic expression through activities such as sneaker art, sneaker photography, and blogs. Moreover, it is characterized by strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others. Its members feel social connections with one another and perceive the community as valuable. As the UK-based magazine Crepe City expressed in an editorial, sneakerheads "always hold the community at the heart of what we do" (Raichura 2016, 5). The same editorial also asked those who "love sneakers as much as we do" to "get in touch" and encourages them to "be involved in some way" (5). In Russia, many fan-oriented activities inside this culture, such as sneaker art, photography, and media projects, are interest-driven and not run for profit, even if they involve some monetary exchange. Sneaker collectors and enthusiasts collect and share knowledge about sneakers and the history of their subcultural scene. One collector from Moscow I spoke with worked like a proper historian, investigating the almost forgotten histories of production of adidas sneakers in the USSR. Neither sports historians nor the adidas marketing department were undertaking similar projects until recently.

[10.3] In this context, what is important for participatory cultures is "the social relations that emerge within fandom as fans create a shared space where their own creative and critical interventions can be appropriately valued" (Jenkins et al. 2015, ch. 1). In sneakerhead fandom, blogs, online groups, and social networks function as spaces in which fans who share similar interests gather to communicate, learn, and exchange information, and in which more experienced fans may offer informal mentorship to novices.

[10.4] Jenkins and other scholars have focused on other forms and meanings of participation and resistance activity of fandoms, including different forms of fan activism, education, and digital democracy. Jenkins (2012, ¶ 1.8) defines "fan activism" as "forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture." We may not see such striking examples of activism in sneaker fandom as we see in other fandoms, such as in the Harry Potter fandom through the Harry Potter Alliance (Jenkins 2012), but the tendency toward activism is nonetheless evident. An example of civic engagement is the Russian project "The Calendar with Dogs," run by two sneaker enthusiasts, Vladimir Borisenkov and Konstantin Kochanov. In 2018 and 2019, they printed charity calendars featuring sneakers and the pet dogs of fellow Russian sneaker fans. The funds for printing these calendars were partially raised through crowdfunding, and all proceeds were donated to one of Moscow's animal shelters.

[10.5] Sneaker fans' resistance to the corporatization of their fandom, discussed in the previous section, can also be considered a form of activism. Since the 2010s, the commercial fashion industry has appropriated many of the practices of sneaker fans. This spawned a new form of sneaker collecting, as a status hobby and investment similar to collecting expensive cars or art. This new focus on the monetary value of sneakers differed greatly from the traditional cultures of sneaker collecting, which I have described above. As a response to the shared interests of fans in Russia, not only has exchanging sneakers rather than selling them become popular but "discount helpers" have emerged among Russian sneaker fans. These helpers find interesting sneakers in discount stores and then help fellow fans buy them at an affordable price. Unlike resellers, who approach this with a mentality more akin to businessmen, discount helpers generally add minimal markups or sell without markups. These participatory, resistant, and activist dimensions of the sneakerhead culture are still not a focus of much scholarly or popular media attention and could be a valuable focus of future research.

11. Conclusion

[11.1] Jenkins (1992) set a foundation for us to understand fandom as a set of cultural, social, and interpretive practices. Sneaker fan culture also has these dimensions, but sneakerheads have nonetheless remained largely overlooked by fan scholars. This paper has shown how we might think of sneakerheads as fans and sneaker fandom as a participatory culture. It has also highlighted some key elements of the sneakerhead culture that I suggest qualify as fan practices and affects, including the importance of knowledge and its acquisition in sneaker fandom; the high value of the community's practices and activities; the high level of emotional involvement in sneaker fandom; the existence of different forms of fan art, such as sneaker art illustration, sneaker photography, and customization; low barriers to artistic expression and strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others; fans' anticommercial ideologies and beliefs, including their resistance to commercial appropriation of their culture; and the value of community and social connection.

[11.2] Using the framework of fandom and participatory culture helps us to see what remains inaccessible when using other approaches to studying sneakerheads—their community of practice, their beliefs, and their creativity. I argue for the importance of studying and understanding these aspects of sneakerheads' experience along with how people collect sneakers. This approach also helps us to understand why sneakerheads participate in sneakerhead culture and what needs this participation addresses. Observations from field work and the analysis of the empirical dataset highlight the following needs: the search for like-minded people and socialization through common interests and the need for creative activity.

[11.3] I argue that sneaker collecting in sneaker fandom is about the collecting of knowledge about sneakers, as well as about the collecting of the shoes themselves. The "immaterial psychological property" (Woo 2014, ¶ 3.5) of sneaker fandom is very similar to what is usually associated with media fandoms. Sneakerheads' fan labor transforms the nature of sneakers and makes them objects of cultural history. Collectors and enthusiasts caused sneakers' shift from functional footwear to valued status symbols.

[11.4] Interest in sneakers also allows fans to realize interrelated interests in different fields of contemporary culture: the history of sneakers functions as an entry point into broader areas of the history of subcultures, music, arts, and design. Sneaker collectors and enthusiasts are an interesting example of what we can conceptualize as object-inspired fandoms, built around wearable items (sneakers, football T-shirts, etc.) rather than media or celebrities. What sneakerheads and other object-inspired fandoms offer us as fan studies scholars is an expansion of our understanding of the relationships between materiality and fandom. To sneakerheads, sneakers are not second-order transitional objects; their materiality may attract the fan community to this object and plays a part in the fandom, but the fandom also includes participatory, resistant, archival, and transformative elements.

[11.5] Future research on sneakerheads and sneaker fandom may focus on fan practices and the participatory dimensions of sneakerhead communities in different countries. More, I hope that this study will inspire further exploration of further object-inspired fandoms built around wearable fashion items and comparisons between wearable object-inspired fandoms, like sneaker fandom, and fandoms built around nonwearable collectibles, such as Barbie dolls.

12. Acknowledgments

[12.1] Support from the Basic Research Program of the National Research University Higher School of Economics is gratefully acknowledged. I also wish to acknowledge the generous feedback of the Transformative Works and Cultures editors and reviewers. I would like to dedicate this paper to the memory of our colleague Natalia Samutina, who was taken from us far too soon. She inspired me and supported my research of sneaker fandom, providing great advice and suggestions.

13. Notes

1. In this paper, I use pseudonyms and nicknames if participants prefer them.

2. I have translated all material originally in Russian to English.

3. I borrow the term "cultural biography" from Igor Kopytoff (1988) and understand it, in this context, to refer to a corpus of knowledge, myths, and stereotypes associated with an object that accumulate in our collective memory and the popular imagination.

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