The most expensive sneakers I ever owned were a pair of Converse Larry Johnson basketball sneakers back in 5th grade. They cost a little over $100, and I think the only reason I was able to get them was by asking my Dad instead of Mom, who would never have sanctioned such a purchase.
Among my group of mostly Korean American friends in elementary school, sneakers were important status markers. I remember my fresh-off-the-boat Worldcup (it was one word on the shoe, I think) sneakers from Korea with no shoelaces and two strips of velcro – they made me an instant target of ridicule in 2nd grade. When we all became crazy about the NBA, kids started wearing fancy basketball shoes to school. Air Jordans were by far the most popular, but since I was a loyal Knicks fan, I never came close to owning a pair. I did own a pair of Shaq sandals one summer, and it was probably the most useless pair of shoes I ever owned.
The $100+ Converse LJs, for at least the first two weeks I owned them, made me feel like a superstar. My friends inquired about how my feet felt, and I could swear I played more aggressively on the basketball court after school.
As much as I reveled in owning my LJs, I soon became careless and the pair became incredibly dirty and worn out. My Grandma threw it in the washing machine once and the shoes never felt quite the same again. I eventually moved on to other fancy sneakers endorsed by players such as Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, and Tracy McGrady, but none of these surpassed the $100 mark (mostly because I bought them on sale).
Fast-forward more than a decade, and I find myself at Steve & Barry’s in Manhattan Mall shopping for basketball shoes because there’s a pickup game happening in Midtown, and I don’t have the proper shoes. So I buy myself a pair of Starbury low-top basketball sneakers. For how much? $14.98. Yes, $14.98 – and there is no tax on shoes in New York City, amen.
I remember reading about Stephon Marbury and his mission to market and sell affordable sneakers – a very noble and business-savvy effort which seems to be paying off: I was lucky to find a pair of 9.5 basketball sneakers since almost everything sizes 8 through 10 were sold out. And judging from the sample of people I saw waiting in line with Starbury boxes – there were middle-aged men with large bellies, European tourists, and children of every shape, size, and color – it felt as if the low cost had made the shoes a sensible buy for those who normally would never have considered sneakers endorsed by an NBA player. The lowest I had paid for a pair of sneakers prior to the Starbury was about $50 for a pair of black Reebok cross-trainers that was on sale at a Foot Action. That could have bought me three Starburys and at least two pairs of socks.
It’s no secret that sneakers are cheap to make. I’ve read that a pair of Nike sneakers costs less than $5 to produce, and yet they can easily charge more than a hundred dollars because such demand exists. We’re paying, of course, for the brand name – for all the superstar athlete endorsements, cool commercials, sexy graphics, and inspirational soundtracks that have come to define Nike over the years. They’ve earned it, so I don’t think Nike, or any other athletic shoe company, is doing anything terrible in charging what they sometimes do. But I like what the Starbury has done. It’s made cheap a kind of cool thing, and, thanks to its exclusive distribution at Steve & Barry’s, not an easy shoe to get. So kids who’re in 5th grade, who could be comparing their hundred-dollar sneakers, can now walk around in $15 sneakers without feeling insecure. How refreshing is that?