My oldest son is an artist. And like many artists, he grapples with color choice and ways to market his "product." His unveiled masterpieces line his bedroom wall and a couple of them actually make it onto his shelf. His canvas is a computer screen; his model is his own two feet. William is a sneakerhead -- a typical teenage kid who loves the swag of high-priced kicks. On occasion he actually designs his own shoes, customizing online and sometimes placing an order. But most of the time it's just this young artist sitting at his desk experimenting on his own digital canvas with base colors and heel design and watching Vines and YouTube videos about popular sneaks and how to get them.
William and many of his middle school friends (along with those throughout the country) have helped double the size of the athletic shoe market to $21 billion a year in the United States. A favorite, albeit rare, activity for his group is to head to the mall and peruse the sneaker selection at stores such as Finish Line and Foot Locker. Although I hold the magic power to acquire the desired shoe (having a credit card), the old mom hangs back to watch how the kids navigate the merchandise. Usually they have a pretty lengthy conversation with the salesperson about what's hot, what's not, workmanship and design. They compare what they each have in their own closets. (We have met many young men working at these shoe stores who own more than 100 shoes each.) After all this, they might try on a shoe or two. If they're lucky and have saved some of their own coin, they buy a pair. For the price of these shoes however, it helps to have someone there holding the magic power, since it's not unusual for these kids to pine for a pair of shoes costing anywhere from between $120 to $150 bucks.
It is a whole new game now. Shoes for teenage boys are it. But it doesn't stop there. Working up from the shoe is the designer sock to offset the look. In the sneaker culture you have to match everything. If you're wearing an Adidas sock with a Nike shoe, that's all wrong. You match a Nike shoe with a Nike Elite sock, preferably with a punch of the same color that's on the shoe. Many times, William will build his outfit around the shoe or the sock, making the sock not so much of an afterthought but rather the central fashion statement. The sock leapt to fame with Nike's introduction of its Elite basketball crew socks to the U. S. Olympic men's basketball team in 2007 and to other teams in 2008. Sales of the socks to the general public began in 2009. Starting at $14 a pair, the socks feature an anatomically correct design for each foot along with -- very clever, Nike -- a logo that is visible from the end of the school hallway: four rectangles that diminish in size as they climb up the Achilles with a broken vertical stripe at its very top.
The shoe frenzy began in the 1980s with Michael Jordan and his Nike Air Jordans that could make us fly. I remember well hearing on the news about kids wanting those sneakers so badly they would pounce on a kid wearing a pair to steal them off their feet. Kids were found dead in the street with their shoes long gone. And even though the company continues to only make a limited supply of prized sneakers so when one is released, old and young clamor to get it, Nike had to rethink its marketing strategy to quell the violence. Now the company puts its hottest shoes for sale online. This at least helps minimize would-be mall madness on their sale release day.
Nike also has a featured site where consumers can customize their own athletic shoes and apparel. It's called NikeiD. It brags that it can allow you to "customize your performance, fine-tune your fit and represent your style." And that's what William and his friends do. They will sit at the computer and modify the Nike swoosh, inscribe a heel with a personalized message and opt for a pink outsole. Then they hit save and start customizing another shoe.
Would I rather my son have an easel in his bedroom and a supply of acrylic brushes? I suppose my answer is that for me, it's all about where your kid is and what excites them. And in a time now when I have conversations with my 13-year-old son about ISIS, terrorism, inflation and Ferguson, I don't so much mind that he finds matching sneakers and socks important and creative in his teenage boy way. It's a long life. It's a hard life. Go ahead and look good, kid.