David T. Friendly is no stranger to the film industry, having amassed a number of impressive production credits over the past two-plus decadeson projects as varied as critical darling Little Miss Sunshine and big-budget Eddie Murphy vehicles like Doctor Doolittle and Big Mama’s House. It took a longstanding passion to get him behind the lens for his directorial debut — his love of sneakers. A thorough survey of a thriving subculture, Sneakerheadz brings us inside the culture and business of the sneaker game. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You have a long career in film, but this is your directorial debut, so is it safe to say that this is somewhat of a personal project for you?
Yeah, it’s a complete passion project. Just to give you a sense of the context of it all, I’ve made movies that range in budget from, on the low end, Little Miss Sunshine was about $8 million, to an Eddie Murphy movie I did that was about $90 million, and this is mid-six figures, so it’s by far the lowest budget I’ve ever had on a picture.
I always wanted to do a documentary, and I felt that a documentary would be a great way for me to launch my directing career, such as it is, because I was a former journalist, and I felt very comfortable interviewing people. I knew what I wanted visually, and I thought it would be a great little baby step towards maybe doing some other directing. Mostly, it came out of a passion for the subject.
Where did your kind of sneaker fascination begin?
It all started in the streets of New York, in the Village, actually. I stumbled into an Adidas Originals store in the Village when I was in the midst of making a movie in the city. I saw a pair of chocolate brown Run-DMC Superstars that were for sale. I knew so little about sneakers then that I thought the sneakers were actually 35 years old. I grew up on that sneaker, and I couldn’t believe that there was this great pair in pristine condition.
I bought them, and then I started going online, and I realized, “Okay, I purchased a retro,” and there were websites devoted to sneakers, and there were entire websites devoted just to the Superstar, which was the shoe that I coveted as a kid but my parents wouldn’t get for me because they were too expensive.
I think that’s a very typical experience. There was something you wanted growing up, you couldn’t get it for whatever reason, and you come back to it as an adult. That’s what triggered the whole thing, honestly.
Sneakerhead subculture is not super underground anymore. In fact, your documentary does a great job of explaining how it became known, in the realm of pop culture, as something that people do. What did you and your team feel that you could add to the conversation with this documentary?
Well, while there have been some other mini-docs, and even one full-length doc, it’s been a long time since anybody really tackled the subject. My feeling is that social media changed the sneaker game tremendously. You have sort of what I call pre-internet, and post-internet.
Before the internet, you had to be a guy that went around and looked through bins in the basement, and you had to actually, physically go find the stuff. After the internet, it’s a completely different game. The old-schoolers think that the sneaker game peaked before the internet. The younger kids love that social media and you can check prices, you can check supply with a click of the mouse.
What I tried to do was stay non-judgmental. I think they both have a place. I’m a little older, so I respect what the guys who came before us did in establishing the game, but it’s a different game now and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just different.
How did you decide which personalities to focus on?
That’s a great question. I really started by just attending some big sneaker conventions. I felt that if we went to some of these sneaker shows, we would find somebody that could lead us to the right sorts of people. One of the places we went was to Miami, and we went to a show called Sneaker Pimps. The whole company is run and owned by this great guy, Peter Fahey, who became an executive producer for us and lead us along the way. He would make suggestions about who to interview.
We went to Japan, he set up all of those interviews. He really earned his EP stripes. He became a very good friend. Most of the time, we would get a name – an example would be DJ Clark Kent – and Peter Fahey would say, “Yes, you should interview him. Let me make a call on your behalf.” He would validate us, and then we would get to the interview subject.
Often, if we cold called, we wouldn’t even get a call back. It’s an elusive community, and it’s a slightly paranoid community. Why, I still don’t know, but it’s a very closed society.
Great characters, by the way. When you get a chance to sit down with a guy like Futura, you’re meeting with a real artist, and it’s an artist who has done many other things, graffiti, and-
He’s a cultural giant.
Yeah, but he’s also a big name in sneakers, so I love that those worlds all get connected.
Was there anyone in particular that you really wanted to get to that you weren’t able to?
Oh, yeah. I really, really wanted to try to get to Kanye West and tried very, very hard. No luck. Not even close.
Tough to get these days.
Impossible. We really wanted Michael Jordan in the movie, and tried a number of different pathways in. We do have some nice clips with him, and we tell the Jordan stories, but we couldn’t get his cooperation.
Those are two people we really wanted, and there was another guy that we wanted to feature in the doc, but it just didn’t work out. The guy that has the ShoeZeum, I forget his name, but he’s got a massive collection. We actually had lunch with him, but it didn’t end up working out. Those are three people we really wanted but didn’t get.
Your documentary touches a bit on how the sneaker has found its way into the world of high fashion. You featured some footage in particular from Chanel’s 2014 Couture show, which was notable for pairing all its looks with these couture sneakers. Why do you think that the runway has adopted the sneaker so eagerly over the past, I guess, half decade?
We like to say, and almost put this line in the poster, “From the playground to the runway.”
We have a fashion trend that really began in the inner city. This really came off of the playgrounds of Harlem, and then eventually, it gets all the way to the runways of Paris. I think the fact that it happened is fascinating. Why did it happen? I think that’s a question you could answer better than me.
I’m not an expert on fashion, but I will say this. I think what’s great about what’s happened with sneakers is that it’s taken a world that can be a little snooty – sorry – can be a little bit closed, and it’s really opened it up. Everybody can’t afford an Armani dress, or a real high-fashion item, but most people can get a pair of kicks. I think that’s great that it’s helped to democratize fashion a little bit.
Right. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but there’s a trend that I’ve noticed: high-end brands taking a very basic sneaker design, a very well-known sneaker design, and redoing it at a luxury price point, presumably with top-end materials.
For instance, Céline did a version of the Air Force 1. There’s a company called Hender Scheme, who you might be familiar with, that does super high end versions of Air Maxes, Jordans, and so on. What do you think about this trend?
Well, we talk about it lightly in the movie. It’s referred to as the high end, and DJ Clark Kent has a great line about this. He says, “People are buying Gucci sneakers, not because they necessarily love the sneaker, but they say, ‘Oh, they have sneakers for us.'” It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie.
Again, I try to be non-judgmental. The high end is what it is. It’s coming on very strong. If you go into Barneys in Los Angeles, about 70 percent of the men’s shoe department is now sneakers, and very often it’s Saint Laurent, it’s Dolce & Gabanna. I think there’s a place for that.
I think what you’re describing is more of like a collaboration, and I’m not sure whether these are collaborations or lifts. Can you clarify that?
Sure. The example I used was Céline – they showed and currently sell a sneaker that is almost exactly the design of an Air Force 1 but with a Céline price tag.
Is it a Nike product?
No, it’s not a Nike product. It’s a Céline product, but if you look at it beside an Air Force 1, it’s obviously an Air Force 1.
Well, I’d be curious how Nike feels about that. It’s a very litigious company. They’ll go after somebody manufacturing a T-shirt that uses the Swish illegally. Have you talked to them? Are these outlaw sneakers, or are they legit?
No, they’re totally legit, and, yeah, I would actually be very interested to talk to somebody at Nike, as well.
Yeah, what I do love is somebody taking a high-end material and turning it into a classic platform. I have no problem with that. I don’t really shop the high end. My favorite thing is to find a pair of kicks for like 75 bucks that I just think are cool. To me, that’s much more exciting than going out and spending a thousand dollars on a pair of sneakers. I have no interest in that.
I don’t think that’s really what the game is really about, what we’re describing here. As I said, there’s a high end, and it’s a legitimate marketplace. It’s just not what does it for me.
Some brands have done a really good job, it seems to me, of propping up the secondary resale markets by limiting their releases. Your documentary does a good job on touching on the dark side of sneakerhead culture, specifically violence related to sneaker collecting.
Given the lengths that some people go to get their hands on the sneakers they want, do you think that sneaker brands are doing the right thing by limiting releases, or should they be taking a more active role in trying to stop this kind of behavior?
This is funny, because you just asked me a question that I asked like two dozen people and got pretty much every possible answer. My own personal feeling is that I applaud any company that tries to minimize the violence, however they can do it.
An example would be that Nike moved their live sales. Sometimes they were releasing shoes at midnight. People turned out to be much more violent at midnight than at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. I applaud that. Any steps they can take to reduce the violence, I think, is obviously a great thing. Nobody should get hurt or killed, as they do, over a pair of kicks.
There’s a line in the movie that Russ Bengtson, who’s the sneaker editor at Complex, says: “You know, no one blames the chairman of GM for carjacking.” I thought, “Wow. That’s a really interesting point.”
They’re trying to sell their product. The problem is, when they go too limited, it creates this enormous frenzy, which leads to the violence, but the limited editions are used to market the product that’s more accessible. Is it my place to tell them that they’re marketing their shoes incorrectly? I don’t really think that’s my job as a filmmaker. I’d say that they should always be commended when they do anything that helps reduce violence. That’s what I would say.
Where do you think the resale market is ultimately headed? Could you see a future where the bottom falls out of it, like baseball cards?
You know, the question is, at what point does it really become saturated? You have so many different brands now, and as you pointed out, other companies are coming in and expanding. We have a guy in the movie, Ben Baller, who you probably have heard of, who says, “I call it unlimited. Not limited release, it’s unlimited.”
I think what’s great about this marketplace, it is classic supply and demand. You put out a shoe that people want, it’ll go up in price in resale. You put out something that people don’t really want, the price will come down. It creates this huge marketplace where some things are going to be more affordable than others. You figure out what your price point is, what you’re willing to spend, and if you don’t want it, you don’t have to buy it. Nobody’s forced to buy any of this stuff.
I like a lot these consignment boutiques. I love these small stores where people brought in kicks, and they put them up for sale, and if you don’t want to buy it, don’t buy it. If it’s worth it to you, great, there’s a sale.
I think it’s growing every day, because more and more people are coming into the marketplace that weren’t into sneakers before. You have, for example, a huge opening now in the women’s side. That’s a whole sector that they’ve just barely scratched the surface, and it could become huge.
In terms of geography, China could be enormous, and they’re sneaker crazy over there. It always seems like there’s more and more stuff coming in to spread out the wealth.