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Get Schooled in Sneaker Studies: a Q&A with Drexel Rankin Scholar Sean Williams

Could you imagine being shunned from a restaurant, church or social soiree just because you are wearing your fresh Jordans? Back in the day, sneakers weren’t a cultural phenomenon like they are today.

Sean Williams, founder of SOLEcial Studies and sneaker culture expert, will dive into the history and future of our “sneaker disorder” in a series of events hosted at Drexel University this month. As a Rankin Scholar-in-Residence within the Westphal College and in partnership with the Pennoni Honors College, Williams will share with the Drexel community his experience with sneaker exhibition design and consulting for brands like Adidas.

In this interview, Williams previews his series, “SOLEcial Studies Obsessive Sneaker Disorder: Celebrating Diversity.”

Q: What is sneaker culture?

A: Sneaker culture for me is more of an offshoot of hip hop culture. You can’t have one without the other, in my opinion. Sneakers were chosen as the main piece of a person’s self-expression and for the hip-hop movement. It began as symbol of the anti-establishment.

Before, you couldn’t wear sneakers to church, to work, or even in restaurants. If you did, judgements were made against you, and so sneakers began to symbolize the anti-rules culture that evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry and the top-selling apparel category that sneakers are today. While they’ve moved away from hip hop culture, it still certainly plays a part.

Q: How has the sneaker industry grown or changed?  

A: Sneakers have officially become accepted where they were marginalized before. Music, fashion and the arts are now symbiotic with sneakers. Kanye West, without being known, without the art first, would not see the same support for his Adidas Yeezy sneaker.

Q: Where is the industry headed?

A: We’ve seen brands like Adidas make their Parley shoes with recycled ocean plastic and we’ve seen Nike illuminate racial injustice and give Colin Kaepernick a platform through its “Just Do It” campaign. Brands have to become socially conscious and empathetic in the way they create and promote their products. The industry is focusing less on the athlete as the centerpiece of their campaign, because they are telling a different story. In the next five to 10 years, the entertainer will eclipse the athlete in terms of sneaker purchases.

Q: Do you have a favorite pair of sneakers?

A: The Nike Air Max 1! The design for the time was so controversial and it became the catalyst for the industry’s revolution.

Williams will hold a keynote talk in the URBN Center Lobby on Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. Williams will lead comprehensive workshops on Oct. 12and Oct. 13 at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. These events are free and open to the Drexel community. Seating for the sneaker workshops is limited, and interested attendees should contact  Joe Hancock, PhD, professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at jhh33@drexel.edu to reserve a space.

Media interested in speaking with Williams should contact Emily Storz, at 215.895.2705 or els332@drexel.edu.

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