You can ask Jake Pulver, who’s been in love with them since high school.
It happened on a website called KanyeUniverseCity. The shoe? The Air Yeezy, a space boot-silhouette high-top, with unique tan, pink colorway and mesmerizing glow-in-the-dark details. It’s bold and audacious, similar to the personality of its maker, Kanye West. In short, it’s something that you don’t just simply wear.
He was at the computer for hours, switching to other sneaker websites and poring over articles. He’d never even thought twice about shoes; he mostly just bought ones that fit. Jake didn’t even play sports. But there was something about this one, the Air Yeezy, that would change his life.
When Jake went to his first major sneaker shop, he didn’t know half the designs, but they excited the hell out of him.
You see, the thing about the shoes is it isn’t about the shoe. Its true with any art: sneakers are a form of expression, a story of the times. They’re often a representation of the person who designed them, as well as the purpose they serve and the story they tell.
As Jake learned more about shoes, he learned more about life. Music, technology, history, sports, movies, it’s all there, they’re all in the shoe. The Nike Dunk SB Low was influenced by Piet Mondrian, a famous Dutch painter. Then there are the “Cheech and Chong” SB Dunks—an homage to their film, Up in Smoke—which had green ‘grass’ laid underneath the top layer for when the toebox wore down (they were skate shoes, after all). Early Air Jordans were inspired by military jets and fighter planes. Nike and Diamond Supply Co’s “Tiffany” sneakers merged the concept of high-fashion jewelry with shoe design. It goes on and on.
“Here, the ‘Chaos’ Kobe 5,” Jake excitedly passes me a picture of one on his phone.
“You know what inspired that? The Joker.”
That shoe in particular was the reason he ever sat down to watch a basketball game. It was 2009, the Lakers were playing the Cavaliers on Christmas Day. Kobe Bryant’s ‘Chaos’ sneaker was debuting: it’s design was based off the recently-released Dark Knight - the Joker was chosen for Bryant’s psychological antics and ability to cause on-court mayhem, and the shoe had the color scheme of neon green and blueberry purple. Nike even sprayed red speckles on the mid sole that would represent spattered blood.
Jake was soon a bonafide NBA fan, and it was all because of the shoes.
The frenzied summer of 2010 NBA Free Agency was the first time Jake ever bought a basketball shoe. When LeBron James joined the Miami Heat, a new shoe was designed for the occasion called the LeBron 8 “South Beach”. It was one of the most hyped shoes of all time, and had a retro color scheme of teal, black, green and pink that was out of this world.
“If it was about basketball, I wouldn’t have got them,” Jake says. “LeBron was the bitch of the league. But those shoes were way too nice to think about that. Those shoes were so beautiful you forgot what they actually stood for. I was just like, ‘I don’t care about LeBron. I need that shoe’.”
Before the shoe, Jake wasn’t a sports guy. As he puts it, he was “a person driven by reclusive hobbies”. He stayed inside mostly and played video games or listened to music. He spent a lot of time with his twin brother Dylan, as the two of them shared many interests.
When sneakers were introduced, he was given a way to define himself. Unlike video games, it wasn’t about winning something that didn’t matter in the real world. Sneakers were an outlet to experience life.
But to understand sneakers, you have to understand sneaker culture (i.e. “sneaker heads”). These are people who, put simply and literally, are obsessed with shoes. They fill entire sports arenas for sneaker conventions, they subscribe to every update and detail the sneaker community puts out, they pack malls at 3:45am when a new shoe is being released and then push each other out of the way to make sure they get a pair (when the crowd cleared after the Nike Pigeon SB Dunk was released, security found a machete lying on the ground). It’s pure hysteria.
Jake and Dylan were embedded in this culture. They too were waiting in lines and attending conventions. Once you taste sneaker culture, you only go deeper. The issue though, as Jake quickly noticed, was that everyone who wrote about shoes was at least 10+ years older than him - they were from a different era. Sneaker culture had no youthful perspective.
And he wanted to change that.
This was still around 2010. Blogs were popular at the time, but starting one wasn’t “the thing to do”, at least when you were in high school. Teens spent their time doing other things, not writing about shoes.
It was their parents who encouraged it. They always challenged Jake and Dylan to express themselves about the things they loved. In a way, their upbringing cultivated the ‘hobbyists’ in them: it was advocated that when you like something, don’t just admire it; research it, personalize it, immerse yourself in it.
And thus Jake and Dylan started “Sole Camp”, an online blog that provided a youthful voice to the sneaker community. This was Jake’s chance to contribute to a community he was so wild about, and it soon became his go-to for any of his free time. Riding the bus? He’d write copy for the site. Free over the weekend? He’d head to Exit 36 or Extra Butter (sneaker shops) to cover the latest Air Jordans or Nike Sportswear release.
As the site gained popularity, those in the sneaker community heard what they were doing and took a liking to them. What’s not to like? Here were a couple of kids, 16 years old, spending their weekends riding the train into New York City by themselves so they can catch the most recent sneaker releases and share them with the world.
Over the course of two and a half years, Jake and Dylan put out 85 videos and over 400 research articles. It’s an insane amount of output for a couple of high schoolers.
They didn’t make money off the blog, and that wasn’t the point. It was always about the expression, not the outcome. They did have thousands of people reading their articles, but most importantly, they felt they had served the sneaker community.
“We didn’t make content to achieve a certain performance goal,” he says. “It was just about sharing what we thought was cool.”
Fast forward about six years: an on-and-off relationship with sneakers in college, several writing gigs (including one at Finish Line), and a string of events that nearly caused Jake to work in different industries.
Jake is now a contracted employee at Nike, the pre-eminent shoe designer in the world and the company that started it all for him. He works in Merchandising at the corporate headquarters, “The Campus”, just outside of Portland. He’s got the best seat in the house for the most cutting-edge shoe designs in the world. Instead of just reporting on change, he’s now a part of the team that creates it.
If you think it’s a dream, then you’d be right.
Jake is excited to go to work every single day. Of course, work is still work. He has a job to do, and it isn’t always glamorous; but talking with Jake, you get the impression that he’d scrub toilets just for a chance to work in that building.
“There are so many exciting things going on, sometimes it’s hard for me to concentrate,” he says.
“This is the stuff I love, and it’s happening all around me on the highest level.”
Back to my question: How can someone fall in love with a shoe?
It’s the story. We’re never in love with what we see, but what’s deeper inside - all of the love, thought and experience that culminates in beauty, that which speaks to us and that demands our attention.
And when you’re in love, you know it. For Jake, it’s writing when nobody asked him to, researching endlessly for the sake of it, or the way he glows as soon as someone mentions shoes. It’s diving head first into this industry, boom or bust, and moving across the country from all his friends and family, just so he can work in that which lights him up.
That’s true love.