A funny thing happened this year at ComplexCon Chicago: I was turned into a late-blooming sneakerhead. Don’t get me wrong: I have plenty of sneakers, and I know what I like. And of course, I’m no stranger to the culture—though I may not have considered myself a “sneakerhead,” per se, The Glow Up has watched the scene with interest, reporting on pivotal moments like Harlem’s Fashion Row’s three black female designers partnering with Nike to create the HFR x LeBron 16, and Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean Raymond’s instant (and award-winning) collectors’ items for Reebok.
That said, I admittedly never really got into the art of sneaker design until recently, and that interest was piqued when I saw the Shoe Surgeon (also known Dominic Ciambrone) at work at ComplexCon. The designer and teacher was there on behalf of Jack Daniels (yes, that Jack Daniels—a company we now know owes its legacy to the distilling knowledge of Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved black man). The Shoe Surgeon presented a collection of kicks inspired by their whiskeys, which were voted upon by ComplexCon attendees. (See the winning design, the Air Jordan 4 Cave Spring, in our header photo. And no, it’s unfortunately not for sale.)
“Sneakers have long served as a form of cultural expression and individualism in urban centers and have evolved to a much broader audience with a distinct culture all their own,” Jack Daniels Senior Multicultural Marketing Manager Keenan Harris told us about the partnership, emphasizing the craftsmanship that marks both a great sneaker and a great whiskey. “Sneaker culture hinges on iconic releases known for their creativity, colorways and collaborations,” he added.
It got me thinking: How cool would it be to design my own sneakers? Well, it turns out you can: The Shoe Surgeon Sneaker School offers 3 to 5-day intensive courses for serious sneakerheads interested in learning the art of deconstructing and reconstructing the sneaker, using techniques central to traditional shoemaking—for the low, low price of $3,000 (meaning your head better be serious about sneakers). It’s just one of many educational options available at their Los Angeles studio, and if you’ve got the dollars, it’s the ultimate luxury gift for the sneakerhead in your life (or you can skip the labor and treat them to a pair of customized kicks or ready-made options).
Of course, not all of us are working with baller budgets—but that doesn’t mean we can’t give the gift of unique kicks this season. Who’s doing the work for the heads? Here, a few black-owned brands with sneakers on the brain (shouts to the blog Rank Tribe for additional resources in this post).
Obviously, The Shoe Surgeon isn’t the only custom shop in the shoe game. For the refined sneaker lover, Ron Donovan offers bespoke and ready-to-wear footwear and accessories for every occasion, but their trainers—available for men and women—take casualwear to luxury levels. And rather than placing the onus on you to choose, the label offers gift cards to ensure your recipient gets exactly what they want.
If you rep for the continent, say it with your feet; Negast Footwear has street-ready silhouettes in our iconic red, black and green in their “Black Powers” collection. Help them wear their blackness as unapologetically as ever in styles ranging from canvas to leather hi-tops, at a reasonable $40 to $198 price point.
When it comes to high-end kicks, Billioné Rikko has the type of minimalist yet high-impact designs that turn heads. Pairing classic silhouettes with exotic materials like ostrich and snakeskin in a tightly edited color palette, these “unashamedly luxurious” offerings are for the sneakerhead who wants to speak volumes without saying a word.
Being super-woke doesn’t preclude someone from being super stylish, and the footwear from Negash Apparel & Footwear ($79.99 to $499.99) ticks both boxes. (Fun fact: there’s even a style with “Hotep” in its name—and no, not in an ironic or derisive way). The name Negash means “Heir to the Throne,” and if the king or queen in your life happens to be a sneakerhead under their crown, this is the Egyptian-adjacent retailer you’ve been looking for.
Of course, sneakers aren’t just for adults—kicks are for kids, too! We fell in love with Super Heroic’s story in 2018, and the hits keep coming for the Oakland, Calif.-based brand, which was created to encourage kids to play—its trademark is a cape—with each purchase. In January, Foot Locker made a $3 million investment in Super Heroic and the brand has been doing big things ever since. Their latest feat? Partnering with NASA on an out-of-this-world capsule collection made to inspire.
Gotten your kicks yet? The days until the holidays are dwindling, but we’ve got more to come. Stay tuned!