PITTSBURGH — In East Liberty sits a store that never looks open. While nobody would ever admit it, it’s possible that this is a deliberate move. Tinted windows obscure the inside of the store until you’re up close, and those windows are adorned with decorative oak bars all giving the impression of an aesthetically pleasing barrier to entry. From a distance, the only sign of life is the bright LEDs of the backlit acrylic display cases on the walls, all filled with various sneakers.
This Social Status is one of two Pittsburgh locations of the small boutique chain of upscale streetwear and designer fashion. Entering the store is a much warmer experience than is promised by the exterior. Dark wood paneling and white walls accentuate the palette of the sneakers on display—which, upon closer inspection, are familiar in silhouette but much different in color than the ones you’ll find at a local Foot Locker. In a larger connected room, racks of clothing are organized by designer and color scheme are available. Exceedingly trendy brands like APC, Neighborhood, A Bathing Ape, Off-White, and others hang on bamboo hangers and look to the undiscerning eye like any other item you’d find at a local apparel shop, at least until you check the price tag.
Inside the shop, the people are just as colorful. Tara Fay, the desk and cash register attendant in designer glasses with colorful tattoos running down her arm, spends her time outside of Social Status curating art shows that highlight black excellence and beauty. Ivan Rodriguez, a fast-talking local resident who is working his way through school while trying to launch his own streetwear brand, will help you find what you’re looking for and give candid feedback on whether or not what you’re buying is any good. Anthony Willis, who despises his first name and raps under the stage name My Favorite Color, is a Los Angeles transplant who misses the warm weather and doesn’t miss an opportunity to argue about pop culture.
There’s a unifying thread that draws them to their work at the shop: they love this shit. Ask what you think is a basic question about a specific designer piece, and prepare for an onslaught of advice on why it’s cool or not, what’s comparable out there in fashion today, what it means for the future of streetwear, or Tokyo streetwear versus American streetwear.
“Honestly, I just fuck with it,” Ivan says. “Like, if somebody walks in and asks me where the BAPE is, I’m like yeah, it’s right over there.” He points kind of lazily at the corner section where all the Bathing Ape clothing hangs. “Like, okay, cool. But if someone comes in here asking about some weird shit, or like a brand I know is under the radar, then I’m into it. I wanna know more about what this dude is into.”
On the day I visit Social Status, I’m there to interview Larry Jones, the regional manager for Pittsburgh’s Social Status locations. Larry is an OG in the sneaker game, with a collection that goes back nearly 25 years, though he balks at the idea that he’s a collector. “I think I just like sneakers, man,” he says. “I wouldn’t call myself a collector. I wear my shoes, like they’re not on display or something.”
It’s hard to think of a term to describe what he has other than a collection, though. He’s most frequently seen in the shop in a variety of Jordan 1s, and Ivan has often jealously asked just how many deadstock pairs of the Banned Jordan 1s he has—featuring all red and black color blocking which were infamously (though not entirely truthfully) banned from being worn in-game by the NBA. Despite that, he says the Jordan 5 is his favorite.
“The all black ones,” he says. “Those were my first pair of Jordans that my mom bought me, so they’ll always be my favorite.”
And thus begins the discussion of how he became interested in sneakers in the first place, which sounds a lot like every discussion with any of us. It’s usually a combination of basketball and hip-hop that starts the obsession. That and the relative unattainability of the hottest shoes.
For those of us bitten by it, each sneaker is a story, a Proustian journey through a youth spent idolizing the rappers and players we saw on TV. The sneakers themselves end up as shorthand for life experiences, and the stories that come with them: Flu Game 12s, Concord 11s, Banned 1s. They’re pieces of history. History that, conveniently enough, you can purchase.
The shop is busy. Today is the day for in-store pickup for the winners of the recent raffle for Fear of God 1s, the new collaboration between Nike and designer Jerry Lorenzo. Our interview is interrupted multiple times by people coming in who were lucky enough to earn the right to purchase the $350 one-time release sneakers. Despite the price tag, a handful of the people who come in are kids, likely no older than 16 or 17 years old.
“When I first started here, it was a lot more older people. Closer to our age,” Jones says of the clientele. “Now it’s gotten way younger. A lot more kids, especially on the hot releases where there’s a line up outside.”
It’s a sign of a culture in decay.
This fall, for the first time I could ever remember, I saw an ad on TV for an after-market sneaker resale platform. I believe it was during an NFL game—most certainly a sporting event, at the very least—and it took me a minute to realize what I’d just seen. Sure enough, the sneaker community forums were having the same reaction: did we really just see an ad for StockX, this thing we thought only we knew about?
StockX is a company out of Detroit that provides an online marketplace for individuals to buy and sell rare streetwear and sneakers. The hook for the platform is that it mimics a stock market: you can track how a specific item is trending in overall sale price over time and make judgments on whether it’s a good time to buy, sell, or hold. In addition, the appeal for buyers is that you avoid being scammed. StockX acts as a middleman between buyer and seller, authenticating each item sold to make sure that no fakes pass through—a common problem when buying on eBay or other direct-from-seller platforms.
The company has experienced a meteoric rise since its 2015 founding, aided by funding from Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and noted Comic Sans utilizer. It began in CEO/founder Josh Luber’s mind as a data aggregator to help the consumer: Stop dealing with the volatility of individual sellers charging whatever they feel like for a given pair and get real-time data on how much the shoe is actually going for in the marketplace. The appeal for the consumer is undeniable—more than $2 million worth of gear is bought and sold on the site each day. But, like the invention of dynamite, something created with pure intentions has had ramifications that its creator never intended.
“It’s the new suburban lemonade stand,” Sean Williams, co-founder of Obsessive Sneaker Disorder (OSD) and SOLEcial Studies, a sneaker industry education program for those (of any age) aspiring to join the footwear industry. Sean is currently the Rankin Scholar in residence at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design; he has been into sneakers for over 30 years.
“You got these kids now, they beg their parents, ‘aw, mom, please buy me a pair of those,’ and when their parents hesitate they’re showing them, like, look I can make $1000 on these. Now all the sudden their parents are hooked. They camp out sometimes for their kids.”
The phenomenon has resulted in what is known as the “Sneaker Mom.” Go to any boutique shop on a release day and look at the people lined up outside, and you’re sure to see women in their 30s and 40s for a men’s shoe release, and they’re not there for themselves. They’re there so their kids aren’t skipping school.
“The last release I was at, there’s these two moms in front with strollers,” says Terell Drayton, a Queens native who has been buying and collecting sneakers for over 10 years. “And it was cold, too! Like, is this the best decision?”
The lineups aren’t the only place where you can see the new era of incentive-laden parental devotion. Sneaker conventions—events where people go to buy, trade, and just generally admire rare shoes—are a hotbed for Sneaker Mom and Sneaker Dad activity.
“I saw a dad, like a dude in his 40s, walking into one of these things in boat shoes,” Williams says. “When he gets to the door, before he walks in, he flips the boat shoes off and puts on a pair of Yeezy Boost 350s so he can walk around flexing with his son. And of course they’ve got a cart full of boxes that they’re going in there to sell.”
If this wasn’t intended, it should’ve been obvious: If you create a new commodities marketplace, you’re going to attract people who are only interested in gains and losses. This causes a tectonic shift in the makeup of the consumer. No longer are lineups for individual releases comprised solely or mostly of people who love the product or have bought into the hype. Instead, you’ll have people have no knowledge of what they’re buying, save for the expected profits on their investment. It should go without saying that each pair that goes to someone whose only intent is to flip it means one pair won’t get into the hands of someone who actually wants to buy it—unless they pay the inflated aftermarket price on StockX or another third-party resale site, of course.
The data tends to back up the concept of the suburban and rural kid using this as their new income stream. While we’re talking about relatively small markets here (six percent of Americans 13 and older have ever used a sneaker resale platform for buying or selling, according to data from Pittsburgh-based polling firm CivicScience), the different makeups of sellers versus buyers is stark.
More than half of those who say they sell on the platforms but don’t buy on them are from rural areas of the country, and nearly 60 percent of them are 24 or younger. Compare that with the profile of the person who buys but doesn’t sell: over 90 percent are from the city or suburban areas, and 60 percent are older than 24. There are also much higher rates of buyers in their 30s and 40s.
People from outside the major sneaker and streetwear cultures are getting access to the most sought-after shoes in the market, and flipping them back to the people who actually want to wear them. But how are these young people getting the shoes in bulk, without going through the typical channels of creating relationships and getting access within the boutiques? As it turns out, just like any other market, the game can be rigged for those with means.
Spend any amount of time on a sneaker forum during a hyped release, and you’ll see some variation of the following: bots gonna eat. “Botting” in the sneaker community refers to the use of automated bots to acquire sneakers from online releases faster than humanly possible. The bots comb weblogs and hidden links to get an idea of stock and cart procedures prior to a release, then programmatically add sizes to a cart and checkout. They create multiple accounts, given that most hyped releases only allow one pair per customer, obscure identity and shipping to throw the platform off the scent of a scam, and ultimately allow a user to buy dozens of pairs to then resell on third-party platforms.
Some of the more affordable bots are in the $300–$500 range, but the most effective ones can cost thousands of dollars, owed to the fact that they limit the number of bots in order to prevent market saturation and detection, meaning you have to buy one from someone who already has it. Yes, it’s that dystopian: you often have to pay resale to acquire a bot to resell sneakers.
The cost of bot isn’t the only money you need on hand. You have to have the means to afford a massive cop all at once. Take the recent release of the Nike SB x Concepts Purple Lobster Dunk Low, which by all accounts was botted to hell. To acquire 15 pairs of the shoe at its retail cost of $130, you’re looking at dropping nearly $2,000—no small investment for the average person, particularly someone 24 or younger. But if you’ve got the means, the pot of gold is at the other end of the rainbow. The most common sizes of the shoe are currently selling for more than $300 StockX, giving you a return over 100 percent of your investment after sellers’ fees.
Given the overhead, it’s no surprise that according to CivicScience data, 40 percent of those who use bots come from households with incomes of $100,000 or more per year—well over the national average.
The sneaker and streetwear culture has always been one of exclusivity, and markets of exclusivity have always favored those with means. But in this community, the means were traditionally unconventional. You made friends with the employees at the boutique, or had a friend of a friend who knows the owner of a shop or works at Nike. Now that the means conventionalized by tech “disruption,” the market is playing out the way every other market ever has, with wealth begetting wealth and those without being left behind.
About a mile up the road from the East Liberty Social Status is Google’s office in Bakery Square. Though East Liberty employees say the arrival of Google hasn’t changed foot traffic to the shop too much, it’s certainly changed quite a few things in the neighborhood. Next to one of the most historic and gorgeous cathedrals in Pittsburgh, the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, there’s now an eyesore of expensive apartments and condos, and beneath them are storefronts selling organic $15 lunches, designer eyewear, and other affluent delights.
Across the street from these apartments is a chicken sandwich shop that caused an uproar when it was first announced, as the white owners planned to open a “hip-hop themed fried chicken joint” in one of Pittsburgh’s historically black neighborhoods. Employees were going to have oversized gold chains as part of their uniform, and unconfirmed rumors in the restaurant business say that the original name of the shop was to be “Chicken in the Hood.” After public outcry, they unveiled the considerably less racist name “Bird on the Run” and nobody cares anymore. The chicken sandwich is fine.
The real estate market has done what it always does when a massive influx of high-paying jobs enters a major city’s neighborhood. Home values have more than doubled in East Liberty over the last four years, and rent has gone up anywhere from 20–50 percent.
It’s not news. It’s happening everywhere. But, who is to blame? You can fault Google for moving into the neighborhood in the first place, but it’s hard to pin it solely on them considering the economic system they operate in. Google didn’t invent the fiduciary duty to shareholders that causes them to seek out the most cost-efficient ways of building their business. You can blame local governments for publicly fellating these companies and begging them into their cities, and then failing to enact proper protections for the residents of those communities. Real estate developers, entrepreneurs, local businesses who capitalize on the wave of development, investors, et. al. deserve their shares of the blame. Essentially, you can blame capitalism as a whole for creating any or all of the myriad factors that lead to widescale gentrification.
“You can have commerce or you can have culture,” Sean Williams says. He’s talking about sneakers but he might as well be talking about anything, anywhere. “You can’t have both. You’ve gotta pick one. So, you’ve also gotta be mature enough to understand that this thing you love can be sold out at any time.”
The distinction is difficult, particularly in the world of sneakers and streetwear where commerce was an essential part of the culture from the start. How does a culture get sold out when it’s primarily about the acquisition of a product? One fair answer is when that culture gets drained of its characteristic individuality. East Liberty now looks like every other neighborhood that’s ever been invaded by the brave new world of economic development. There’s enough preserved architecture to give off the impression of a neighborhood’s “soul” being kept intact, while the sleek, carbon-copied architecture of luxury apartment complexes looms over the dying local businesses, staring them down until they acquiesce and become another juice bar or poke bowl place.
But streetwear is following the same path as this neighborhood.
“The rules that governed sneaker culture have always been the rules of hip-hop culture: no biting,” says Williams. “That’s been the rules since the beginning in the late ‘70s. If my boy comes over to my house wearing red and white Pumas and I got red and white Pumas on, one of us is changing before we go out.”
It used to be a thrilling experience for a sneakerhead to see someone out in the wild with a pair they’d never seen before. You’d wonder where they got them. You’d flag someone down on the street and share a moment of kinship over a shared obsession.
“It used to be the thing,” Williams says. “Someone would stop you, like, ‘yo, where’d you get those?’ and you play it cool. ‘Out of town,’ something like that. You would never tell someone where you got your shoes from, because you’ve gotta keep that for yourself. Those are your own unique statement. That’s hip-hop.”
Access, for all its perks, has also introduced a bland sensibility to sneaker and streetwear culture. Everyone who loves sneakers now has a pair of Off-White x Nike, because anyone can get them if they’re willing to pay the ticket. There’s no reason to stop anyone and ask where they got a pair of dope shoes. Now, it’s more interesting to ask if someone got them for retail or if they paid resale. Were you one of the lucky ones, or one of the poor bastards who had to spend a rent payment on them because a bunch of people who couldn’t give a shit about your passion saw a business opportunity? Or do you have a bot?
Zack Edgar, who goes by Zed, runs a shop of the same name in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood. It’s a resale and vintage store and walking into the cramped space is a delight for collectors and admirers. Racks of coveted clothing from past seasons by Supreme, Billionaire Boys Club, Palace, and others are mixed in with the requisite racks of ’90s Pittsburgh sports throwbacks.
Zed is a rare one in the resale business. Most resale shops are cold and distant to customers, likely because they’re rightfully skeptical of anyone who walks in, unsure whether they have to steel themselves for a tense negotiation. Zed, by contrast, is friendly and open with those who come into his shop. During our interview, everyone who walks in gets a dap and a sincere thanks for stopping in. Most of the people who come into the shop are already on friendly terms with him. Maybe the old ways aren’t dead just yet.
Zed is also rare in that sneakerheads actually love him. Everyone I talked to said some variation of the same thing: Man, fuck resellers, but Zed is cool. Check his shop out. Spending an hour with him explains why: He’s one of us. Zed’s shop is his own personal statement, as opposed to the resale shop where you walk in and the only things on display are the latest high-selling items on StockX or the latest Supreme box logo releases. He’s got those, for sure, but he’s also curated pieces that he just personally loves from thrift shops, swap meets, and pop-ups. A pair of deadstock Shattered Backboard Jordan 1s, one of the most coveted colorways of Jordans in existence, sits two feet from a dusty Penguins starter jacket from the early ’90s.
He loves this stuff. He sees the same things happening that we do, but he’s trying.
“There’s a kid who comes in here, I think he’s in middle school. He’s always with his mom or his dad and they try to negotiate with me,” he says. “Like, they’ll come in and I’ll make an offer, and then they like go over to the corner and start whispering like it’s a million-dollar business deal or something.”
Zed tries to find the silver lining in it. It’s teaching kids to be business savvy at an earlier age, he says, preparing them for the real world, teaching entrepreneurial skills.. When pressed, though, he admits it can be disheartening.
“Yeah, it just kinda sucks that they don’t care about any of this shit. They want the money.”
It’s hard to find fault with Zed, a young business owner who is just trying to live a dream of being around this stuff while also making a living off of it. Likewise, it’s hard to find fault with the kid living out his own version of Glengarry Glen Ross in Zed’s shop. Neither of them created the circumstances that have led to this, they’re just capitalizing on it to the best of their abilities.
“Why am I gonna be mad at a kid for making money off this?” Williams wonders. “They’re just doing what they can to get paid. What did broke college kids or young kids do before this when they needed to make money? Sneakers are the new brick of cocaine or pound of weed, and now instead of having to flip some weed and maybe get locked up for it, they can go get a couple pairs of Jordans and be set for a while after the flip.”
He asserts that the blame belongs with those who stoke the flames of of the cynical side of sneaker culture. “Hypebeast, or Complex, or all these people creating the hype that drives this market. Those are the real culture vultures, not these kids who are just taking advantage of an opportunity.”
This is the message: It’s the environment we’ve all created. It’s not the resellers, or the retailers who backdoor items, or even the botters. It’s the blogs that create the hype, the social media platforms that have given us aspirational brain worms.
And, of course, the brands. They weave a tangled web of marketing around releases and tease the public into believing there are smaller stock numbers to force a frenzy around a specific model’s purchase, or gaslight them about the history of the shoe entirely.
“Nike is the best marketing company in history,” Williams says. “The Jordan 1 didn’t sell as well as Nike would like to make you believe, especially in the New York area”—a joking reference to the popular myth that there were wars in the streets for the Jordan 1 release at sneaker shops—“That’s why skaters picked it up. Skaters weren’t paying $65 or $70 for a pair of shoes to shred in the ‘80s. They got Jordan 1s because they ended up on closeout tables in zip ties—very similar to the ones Virgil Abloh is using for his Off-White stuff. Those twist ties represent when a sneaker is about to die on the sidewalk table sales as like a two-for-$40 deal.”
Regardless of where the blame lies, the outcome is the same. A culture lives and dies with the passion it inspires in its participants, and the passion is draining from the most devoted. I ask Larry Jones if he’ll ever get tired enough of it that he’ll want to back away from his first love. He hesitates, and Ivan, who is in earshot arranging clothing in Social Status, chimes in with youthful optimism. “Nah, man, fresh is forever!”
Larry laughs and nods, but his voice grows contemplative. “I dunno, man. Sometimes I get home and I’m just kicking these things off, or putting them back in the box without even wiping them down first. Like, it’s just a shoe. You’re supposed to wear it. Sometimes I think, a few more years of this shit, and I’m going to be tired of it.”
And when commerce has driven out the last loyal devotees of the spirit of a culture, what remains?
I got home from Social Status early in the evening. I was one of the lucky few who got an opportunity to buy the Fear of God 1s from the in-store raffle, so I removed the box from my trunk and took it inside. The packaging on the shoes was alluring: a bright coral orange with minimal branding and a heavy weight to it that made you feel as though it was $350 well-spent. My kids were downstairs in the basement playing with their mother, and on the TV one of the people paid to talk solemnly about solemn things talked about furloughed government workers who had formed a line around the building where they were to receive a free meal while their paychecks were being withheld.
Taking the shoes out of the box added another layer of beauty. The box is large and square, and sliding the top off required more effort than usual. The bottom portion containing the shoes slides out with a satisfying swishing sound and revealed a black Fear of God tote for transporting the shoes (despite their designer status, they’re technically designed for actual on-court basketball use—though considering the weight, they hardly feel functional in that regard). Matching coral orange tissue paper covered the shoes, which were housed individually in foil bags that look like space blankets.
Removing them from the space blankets reveals a truly unique silhouette. Unlike many new Nike silhouettes, which look like component parts from other successful shoes tacked together, the Fear of God 1 feels truly new and exciting. A double stacked Zoom Air unit in the heel is the sole pop of translucent, icy blue color on an otherwise neutral sail midsole, and the shoe itself features premium leather upper housed in jagged, zig-zagged plastic that holds the lacing system. Rope laces swoop across the top of the shoe in a functional but unfamiliar pattern, and a zipper system on the back makes the shoe easier to get on and off. It looks like an athletic version of a snowboard boot, and whether that sounds like praise or criticism likely depends on your individual aesthetic.
Holding them is like holding the past and the future. It’s reminiscent of the thrill from the first time you saw your first pair of Jordan 11s, or the Jordan 3s during the 1988 All-Star Weekend, when MJ won the dunk contest in the white colorway and the All-Star Game MVP the next day in the Black Cements. It’s a sign of what may be to come, and you can picture a giddy sneakerhead pulling these out of their closet four or five years from now to show a friend that they’re still in pristine condition. They’ll likely talk about the release, where and how they one, what they would wear them with, where it ranks in the pantheon of Nike collabs.
It won’t be me, though. While I was admiring the shoe, my phone buzzed, and a quick glance showed that it was a StockX notification. There was a new highest bid on the Fear of God 1s in Light Bone in my size of $765. After seller’s fees, I was looking at a profit of more than $300, and I had to write a check the next day for my daughter’s spring semester of pre-school. I sold them to some unlucky son of a bitch who lost the raffle, and cooked dinner for my kids.
Casey Taylor is a writer living and working in Pittsburgh. He has many sneakers purchased with money he should’ve spent on his family. If you’d like to praise him, yell at him, or offer him an unfathomably lucrative writing opportunity, you can email him here or follow him on Twitter.