Sneakers to Die For

Barrington M. Salmon | 2/29/2012, 9:48 p.m.

Each release of limited-edition sneakers and the availability of clothing and accessories that are highly prized primarily by young people, and the violence sometimes associated with them, continue to stir vigorous and heated debate in parts of the black community. Among the questions: Is having these items worth the cost? What does it say about us that people - often those least able to afford them - are willing to buy this stuff? Are these purchases merely signs of an acquisitive, consumer-driven culture or symptoms of a deeper void in people filled by baubles and other trinkets?

Del McFadden sees this dynamic play out everyday among many of the young people with whom he comes into contact.

"I was having a conversation with someone earlier about the craze," said McFadden, 38, outreach manager for Creating Solutions Together, an anti-violence organization that operates under the umbrella of the Columbia Heights-Shaw Family Support Collaborative. "It used to be that people had to have North Face, I-Pods, and I-Phones. Marketing strategies and marketing dollars drive what people want. This is a dream come true for people like Nike but I'm not sure if that's what they intended."

"The violence appears to be minority-oriented but the same craze is taking place among Americans in general. Whether the kids buy them to wear them or sell them, it speaks to deprivation, speaks to identity and a feeling of belonging."

"We're aware of the economic deprivation in some of these communities here. Unfortunately, it is an issue we deal with. Kids want to be a part of the American Dream. And companies use heroes and sports personalities to fuel this dream. This is the outcome. It speaks to needs unmet."

The Sneakerhead Culture

Travis Vaughn began collecting sneakers when he was 16. He devoured books on the subject, exhibited his shoes and spent every dime on acquiring the collector's items. A year ago, the disillusioned 23-year-old, decided to abandon his quest.

"Back in the day, the shoes had meaning," he said. "If you stood in line and bought the shoes, you'd be wearing the same shoes Michael Jordan would be wearing when he played that night," he said. "People in the culture knew that Nike released shoes of significance. One hundred other people in my city (would) want a pair but the store only had 12. That was always the situation. The process was more meaningful. It used to serve the needs of the collector."

"Nike is one of my favorite businesses. The marketing campaign is fantastic. They know people will pay anything for this piece of history. It's like grabbing a piece of history."

But Vaughn, owner of Travis Vaughn Photography in the District, said money has overshadowed something he has deep affection for.

"The Galaxy has no significance, history or meaning whatsoever," he asserted. "It's just a design someone at Nike made. They used to have solid colors like eggplant purple, pewter gold or copper and all silver. Now, it's a print or pattern on cheaply made material that's worth no more than $2."