All this time -- as basketball took dunks in one direction -- white kids had their own sneakers. The Chuck Taylors of the white hipster continued on, but the white-dominated skate culture of the 80s and 90s brought a new kind of sneaker to parking lots and stair railings. The skate shoe had a thick sole, good for gripping the surface of a board. Sometimes it slipped onto the foot, the way Vans do; sometimes it laced up, with elaborate padding and an ankle guard. Like Jordans, it was about athletic performance and cultural performance in equal measure, frequently accompanied as it was by lank sun-blond hair and a Cali drawl.
But it operated in a totally different economy from Jordans. As with Chucks, there are few or no limits placed on the supply of skate shoes. A store might run out of the model you want, if you favor a more elaborate one -- but there's nothing like the artificial pressure sneaker companies put on today's basketball sneaker market. Ultra-limited editions, rare materials, underground hype: All these elements of that market -- a market primarily targeting black youth -- are designed to create a frenzy. They push prices high.
By contrast, part of the beauty of Chucks or Vans is in their very disposability, their relatively low cost, and -- by extension -- their vague aura of bohemianism and authenticity. All-Stars say, "I don't need to differentiate myself with my shoes, because my personality does that for me." It's a lie, of course, but one that retains some persuasive power.
We step onto rubber soles and become Michael Jordan, or Joey Ramone. But there's a difference between the two.
In New York, over the same period, the cultures mingled to an extent, and a leading edge of trend-conscious white people started to maybe think dunks were a good idea. Inevitably, this meant that -- by 2003 or so -- basketball sneaker culture would emerge in the broader American consciousness.
Hey, New Yorkers: Remember shopping at Alife? Remember spending half a paycheck on Japanese kicks? Remember when all this had a moment and a Rainbow Coalition of self-proclaimed "sneakerheads" made it into monthly interviews in the Times? It was, one reporter said, part of the "vintage craze." Sure as ever, hip whites moved on after a couple of years. While in black youth markets, there's an endless demand for sneakers, turnover of styles drives profits in the broader market.
Here's the thing: Black kids didn't stop wearing dunks because white kids (and the media) stopped being interested in them. (Basketball shoes still do about $800 million in sales a year, and there's a reason for that.) That fact briefly resurfaced in the broader cultural consciousness in late June, when Adidas had to pull a new pair of dunks off of shelves after an outcry because they were designed with a built-in set of plastic ankle shackles.