HT Brunch Cover Story: No business like shoe business

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It is no coincidence that India is home to the second-largest footwear industry in the world. From the ivory pearl mojaris in the north to the Kolhapuri chappals in western India, we take our shoes very seriously. So, it isn’t surprising that sneakers are also turning out to be a growing passion in India. And not just any sneakers—some of them are collector’s items that could cost more than most people’s monthly wages. Buying and reselling limited-edition sneakers is also something that many practice, which means keeping an eye out for deals and steals, and sometimes tracking the pair you want for months on end. Quintessentially American, the sneakerhead subculture is still an amateur passion for many millennial and Gen-Z Indians, who are now understanding the dynamics collecting sneakers and can tell us a lot about how what is ‘valuable’ will not always be gold.

When I meet 31-year-old actor Harshvardhan Kapoor—who recently starred in Thar—with the young founder of multi-brand hype sneaker and apparel resale store, Mainstreet Marketplace, Vedant Lamba, and YouTuber Karan Khatri ,who creates content about all things sneakers, the collective energy in the quiet photography studio in Mumbai’s Aram Nagar is infectious. 

Every pair of sneakers has three things attached to it: the narrative of where it comes from; the hype of how it’s perceived by others because we are a status-seeking species; and the price point; (From left to right): Harshvardhan Kapoor, Vedant Lamba and Karan Khatri
Every pair of sneakers has three things attached to it: the narrative of where it comes from; the hype of how it’s perceived by others because we are a status-seeking species; and the price point; (From left to right): Harshvardhan Kapoor, Vedant Lamba and Karan Khatri

To my amateur mind, the flowing conversations between the three are a whirlpool of all things cool—the extravagant world of Air Jordan Diors where each pair goes up to 8 lakh, what the newest collection of Off White sneakers means for the global community, the secret world of trading and reselling, why Kanye West’s Yeezy sneakers still make the cut, the contacts that will get you access to the most inaccessible tracks…

To an outsider, the sneaker subculture seems intimidating. Who is allowed? Is it just a clique of rich kids who have the money for it? 

Air Jordan Diors with each pair priced up to ₹8 lakh
Air Jordan Diors with each pair priced up to ₹8 lakh

Hype machine

In a famous 1990 article for Sports Illustrated magazine, the American sports journalist, Rick Telander, had written a scathing account of the fatal effects of sneakers. 

“Something is very wrong with a society that has created an underclass that is slipping into economic and moral oblivion, an underclass in which pieces of rubber and plastic held together by shoelaces are sometimes worth more than a human life,” Telander had said.

Our three Indian sneakerheads have only scathing things to say about Telander’s words.

Harshvardhan says he recently bought a pair of ‘White Cement’ Supreme Dunk lows for $14,050 that he had always wanted to own. Now he has the complete Supreme Dunk set—three lows, three highs; Suit by YSL; Sneakers: Jordan 1 High x Dior (Subi Samuel)
Harshvardhan says he recently bought a pair of ‘White Cement’ Supreme Dunk lows for $14,050 that he had always wanted to own. Now he has the complete Supreme Dunk set—three lows, three highs; Suit by YSL; Sneakers: Jordan 1 High x Dior (Subi Samuel)

“I don’t think it’s vain,” says Karan Khatri (age withheld on request), refusing to concede to the view that being a sneakerhead is perhaps just another form of vanity. “It’s the same as asking people why they spend so much money on food or travelling.”

Harshvardhan Kapoor believes that judging the subculture in such a one-dimensional way takes away from its personal and the intimate aspects. 

Meet Harshvardhan, the sneaker collector
Meet Harshvardhan, the sneaker collector

“I remember when Bhavesh Joshi (2018) didn’t do well. I’d attended its screening in a film festival in a small, obscure town in Switzerland,” he says. “I watched the film with a bunch of people who had no idea what it was about, but I remember exactly which sneakers I was wearing. Just like sense memory, it launches you straight into these memories.”

If you ask Vedant Lamba, 23, whose Mainstreet Marketplace is the Mecca where all the cool kids go, the appeal of sneakers can be summed up in three broad markers. 

“Every pair of sneakers has three things attached to it: the narrative of where it comes from; the hype of how it’s perceived by others because we are a status-seeking species; and the price point,” Lamba says.

Meet some more sneakerheads
Meet some more sneakerheads

But there is an inherent contrast in the way Lamba, Khatri and Kapoor relate to sneakers. So, Khatri unabashedly and openly loves the good life, and luxury of it. “I’m a spendthrift,” he says. “If I could, I’d become a professional luxury advisor.” Kapoor meanwhile is drawn to the efforts and stories leading up to owning sneakers, revealing, “I bought a pair of Supreme Dunk lows for 1,12,000 despite looking at them for three years but always thinking the price was too unreasonable.” Lamba himself prefers the minimal route. “My work is pure opulence, but does that mean I need to subscribe to that lifestyle?” he questions. “I don’t think so.” 

Sneaker savvy 

The one question every sneaker collector gets asked often: how many do you have? Harshvardhan and Karan believe that’s missing the point. 

The Supreme Dunk lows priced at ₹1,12,000
The Supreme Dunk lows priced at ₹1,12,000

“I’d rather take one holiday in two years and use my money to buy sneakers,” Kapoor says. “I hunt and track things down to get every single piece of clothing and shoes in my collection. It’s not the attitude of dekh liya, khareed liya, bas khatam [saw it, bought it, that’s it]. A lot of things need to come together.”

Karan Khatri’s shift from being a “finance guy” in the world of chartered accountancy to being a sneaker influencer was anything but predictable. 

Vedant says the most expensive sneaker traded in India is the Air Mags (inset) that sold for about ₹50 lakh; Sneakers: Adidas Canvas (Subi Samuel)
Vedant says the most expensive sneaker traded in India is the Air Mags (inset) that sold for about ₹50 lakh; Sneakers: Adidas Canvas (Subi Samuel)

“I was supposed to continue my father’s legacy of chartered accountancy but his passing away meant that duty was off of me,” he says. “Gradually, I started making videos about sneakers and my account blew up.”Both Lamba and Khatri believe that being a sneakerhead means more than just frenzied shopping for ridiculously priced shoes. A critical aspect of this subculture is that of reselling—buying limited edition shoes (a practice known as “copping”) at retail prices and then reselling them for a higher price. 

In most cases, people constantly buy and resell sneakers just so they can save enough money to buy that one, super expensive shoe. 

Vedant’s sneaker journey
Vedant’s sneaker journey

“Sneakers are like gold and real estate; they hold value and provide status at the same time,” Lamba says. “Every family spends a huge chunk of their savings on real estate expecting huge returns in some form. Harshvardhan, who has the most ludicrous collection in the country—his collection is now worth five times more than what he originally paid for it. So, it’s possible to scale that way at every stage and India has a huge appetite for it. We’re just scratching the surface.”

United we stand

The way Kapoor sees it, being a sneakerhead is all about associating a story and a unique memory with every pair. 

“You don’t have to own the most expensive sneakers to qualify as a sneakerhead,” he says. “Even if you own a few pairs of Vans but you really cherish them, that’s all that matters.”

The evolution of sneakers
The evolution of sneakers

And yet, the collector aspect of the sneaker subculture takes many forms. Khatri says that there are certain shoes like the ‘grails’ (limited-edition, expensive sneakers) that he will never wear but only keep in his collection like trophies. For Kapoor, it’s simply about expressing himself through style. 

“You see a lot of actors who wear the same clothes provided by the same stylists who source the clothes from the same places,” he says. “Despite having the money for it, that is very unoriginal and shows a lack of interest.”

Karan says the most coveted sneakers in India are definitely any of Travis Scott x Nike sneakers (inset) on the higher-end and Jordan 1 Dark Mochas (inset) in the mid-range; Cap by Chromeheart; Sneakers: Dior Oblique (Subi Samuel)
Karan says the most coveted sneakers in India are definitely any of Travis Scott x Nike sneakers (inset) on the higher-end and Jordan 1 Dark Mochas (inset) in the mid-range; Cap by Chromeheart; Sneakers: Dior Oblique (Subi Samuel)

Lamba chips in, saying that even beyond the cool kids on the block, the sneakerhead culture is slowly finding an unlikely ally: politicians.

“It’s a lot of fun to see politicians going out to campaign in Off White masks, Yeezy slides and Travis Scott or Jordan lows—it has permeated into every part of our life,” laughs Lamba.

Karan’s growing interest in sneakers
Karan’s growing interest in sneakers

Ultimately, it’s the sense of community that unites sneakerheads across different spaces. Khatri says that even wearing them “eases and liberates you”, while Lamba adds that just watching someone donning a pair of sneakers is sometimes all the reason you need to connect with them in surprising ways. 

“When you meet someone wearing sneakers, it’s like you instantly know you speak a different language,” says Lamba.

From HT Brunch, May 28, 2022

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