I Learned Everything I Need to Know About Sneakers From Lena Waithe

We have published hundreds of stories about sneakers on Who What Wear, covering every possible angle on how to build the perfect outfit around them, introducing you to new in-demand styles, and always keeping you in the know on how (enter your favorite stylish celebrity name here) is wearing them. A timeless staple of so many wardrobes, the casual footwear is something we can talk about endlessly. 

When I heard actor/producer/writer/all-around brilliant creator Lena Waithe was executive-producing and hosting a series about sneakers for Quibi—the new short-form mobile video platform launching this month—I thought, Sign me up! But truth be told, this isn’t a master class on sneakers. You Ain’t Got These is a show about sneaker culture. “To me, there is a deeper thing going on here,” Waithe tells me over the phone. “There is capitalism. There is classism. There’s this idea of taking advantage over people wanting to feel cool.” I thought I knew most of all there is to know about sneakers, but it turns out I had no idea. An entertaining cultural timeline combined with Waithe-led interviews with some of the biggest sneakerheads (Questlove, Billie Jean King, and Kerby Jean-Raymond, to name just a few), each episode invites viewers inside a billion-dollar industry fueled by the need to fit in and the power of being able to say, You Ain’t Got These

After screening the first three episodes, I jumped on the phone with Waithe to talk all things sneakers, the “crazy” culture that inspired her new show, her own personal obsession, and her take on the most comfortable sneakers out there. (She may have given us a peek at her own collection.) Keep reading for the full interview.

Photo:

Quibi

As a creator/producer/actor, what attracted you to a streaming platform like Quibi?

I think a big thing is [Jeffrey] Katzenberg and his passion for it and the fact that he has always been at the forefront of a new frontier and is never afraid to try something new and innovative and take big swings. I just really believed in his vision and what he was trying to do, and I said, “Look. I’ll take that swing with you.” I talked to my partner, who actually had the show set up somewhere else, and we just decided to roll with him. To me, I think he was one of the biggest selling points because of how he has navigated this business and how he really is a big part of how we take in entertainment. 

You are a self-proclaimed sneakerhead. You even mentioned in the first episode that you likened purchasing your first sneakers to winning your first Emmy! How long had you been developing the idea for You Ain’t Got These before it landed at Quibi?

Well, actually, the idea came to me. The producer, Jonathan Hausfater, who is a friend of mine, and the gentlemen who did Chef’s Table at Boardwalk Pictures, which I was a huge fan of, they had this idea. They were like, “We want to do something about sneaker culture,” but they really wanted me to be a part of it and to be almost the face and the voice of it. I sat down with them, and I said obviously I love this idea, but I want to delve deeper into the world and not just make a show about kicks, because that, to me, would have been a waste of my time. To me, there is a deeper thing going on here. There is capitalism. There is classism. There’s this idea of taking advantage over people wanting to feel cool and upcharging them and saying here is a way to feel like the king of your school. Here is a way to be one of the cool kids. If you just spend a couple hundred bucks on these kicks, everyone will love you. It’s like a drug. And I know that firsthand, so I didn’t want to shy away from that. I wanted us to lean into it. And they were really great about saying sure, okay cool! 

Was there anything new you learned about the culture through doing this project?

I think the thing I learned is that a lot of people who are sneakerheads don’t connect the emotional part to the kicks. Most of the sneaker culture is made up of young men or older men or just men, in general. We obviously involve women in our show as well, because I’m a woman and I’m into sneakers, and we really want to include female sneakerheads and women who are part of the culture and dominating, people like Melody Ehsani. So women are a part of the culture as well, but it’s dominated by young men for sure, and the thing about it is a lot of men don’t necessarily talk about their emotions. That is the one thing I really picked up on. Even though someone could say, well, wouldn’t you expect that? The answer is not necessarily. I thought maybe after having a conversation with some of them, they would maybe go, hmm, maybe I like sneakers because of this, or I wear Jordans to feel like a man. They don’t say that. They never will. They don’t make that connection. And so to me, it’s really scary because it’s like, oh, so this will continue. Because until you one day go, this is why I do this, you are going to continue to do that behavior. So that’s what I took away from it. There is such a lack of understanding of why they are standing in line for hours on end. 

Some of the people I follow, they have whole factories of shoes, and there is no way a person can wear that many shoes. And I’m one of them! And the amount of money [being spent], it’s crazy. Most shoes will run you about $150/$200, and so if you tally that up, that’s a college education; that’s a down payment on a house. But instead of that, it’s like, look at my sneaker collection. So that’s the kind of thing I wanted people to see. There’s no judgment. Let’s just step back and look at it. And when you do that, you know, it can be pretty powerful.

Photo:

Quibi

What do you hope audiences take away from the series?

You know that this culture is very layered, and this isn’t just about buying kicks because you like them. You are buying kicks because you want people to like you. And I think that means the cycle will be never-ending. You know when young people are with their groups and they are out doing their thing, they want to be accepted; they want to be one of the cool kids. I promise you if you do an experiment of a kid who doesn’t have a lot of friends and isn’t very popular, you put a pair of Travis Scotts on his feet, and you send him to school, he’s going to be the talk of the town. And that’s a lot of power for a pair of kicks. Say that kid is in the fourth grade, and you send him to school wearing the Travis Scott kicks that no one has, that is going to be a memory that will live with him forever, and so when he is 42, he is still going to be buying kicks because he knows what those kicks can do for him, and he’s still going to feel like that fourth-grade kid who didn’t have a lot of friends and walked in wearing a pair of shoes and was everybody’s favorite person that day. 

What would you say is a common misconception about sneaker culture?

That it’s just about the kicks or that it’s not addictive or that “I just like shoes.” Anybody who says that I just don’t believe them. There is no way a person has 100 pairs of kicks in their basement just because they like shoes. I don’t believe that. I think that is an addiction. You are trying to fill some kind of void whether you know what that void is or not. And that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think people think of it in that way. I don’t think they associate buying kicks with memories of their childhood. They say, “No, I just like the shoes.” No, you like the way the shoes make you feel. And that’s what I’m really trying to get to. 

We’re seeing big names in fashion, like Dior, Valentino, Versace, and Comme des Garçons, getting into the sneaker game. How do you think this has impacted the culture for better or for worse?

You know, we live in a capitalist society, so if sneakers are really hot, the big fashion houses are going to dip their toe in it. And they have done so successfully. There is this very coveted Dior Jordan 1 that is supposed to be coming out soon that I believe is associated with Travis Scott as well. That is like the holy grail. And a big reason for that is because it’s just not Travis, it is Dior, and there is a level of like, that’s definitely going to be a shoe that somebody is going to hold up and say I bet you ain’t got these! I think for me, it’s exciting, sure, but it’s also big fashion houses turning sneaker culture into a commodity and making money off it. After a while, you get bored of just buying Jordans. You want to keep going above and beyond, and that’s what the fashion houses provide. It’s like, yeah, you can wear some Jordans, but how fly is it if you are wearing some Versace kicks? How dope is it to be wearing Dior on your feet? That’s a different level of “I’m a bigger baller than you.” It’s almost like the sneaker culture is finding a way to top the Jordan brand because that’s the behemoth. 

What is the craziest thing you’ve done to get your hand on a pair of sneakers?

The craziest thing I’ve done? You know, it’s interesting. I’ve never done the thing of waiting in line. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve always been like look, either the store has it or I’m going to buy resale. And I’m very privileged to buy resale. For those who aren’t well-versed, what that means is a person bought them for the retail price, which is probably under $300, but they will sell them to me for $1200. So the craziest thing I’m doing is spending money on the shoes because you want them. You want to be able to say you ain’t got these shoes. But that just goes to show you the level of craziness of the culture that I have succumbed to. And that’s what I try to do in the docuseries is to say I’m not out here acting like I’m above it all. I’m a part of it.

Photo:

Quibi

Can you recall a pair that got away? 

There is a pair of sneakers that I don’t have the heart to spend the money on. There was a collaboration that Pharrell ended up doing with Chanel. I love those shoes, but they are like $20,000 retail, and I don’t have it in me to do that. I have a limit. You have to have some sort of baseline, or you will spend all of your money. 

What are the most comfortable sneakers you’ve ever worn?

I know Kanye gets in trouble every other week, and it’s a bad word, but the Yeezys are extremely comfortable, and I think any sneakerhead will tell you that. He makes a very comfortable shoe. That’s what I do appreciate. He really does think about comfort first. It’s about comfort, then design, which is kind of nice. From Jordans, even some of the biggest Jordanheads will say this, some of the Jordans are a little uncomfortable, but you like them. The Jordan 1s and 3s are quite comfortable. 

How do you keep your sneakers looking like new?

That’s a really good question. It’s a couple of things. One, which is a privilege for sure, is if you have many sneakers, you are not wearing them that often. You are switching it up. There are some shoes that I've owned for a year that are still brand new because I’ve only worn them twice that year or three times. So that’s a big privilege to have a bunch of shoes and switch them out. The other thing that I do is there is this really great company called Jason Markk. It’s basically like a cleaner for sneakers. They don’t sell shoes, but you take your shoes in and pick them up two or three days later, and they are sparkling new. They also have products you can use to clean them at home. I have some of those. They are great.

A lot of sneakerheads clean their shoes themselves, but that is my secret. When I have a pair of shoes that I do wear a lot, and every now and then a pair comes around like that, I take them into Jason Markks. They also do a service if you want to sell a pair of shoes they do a nice master clean on them. It’s a great service.

Is there a method to how your personal sneaker collection is organized?

Yeah. I organize my shoes by type of shoe and by color. This is also the thing about our culture. It’s the same shoe but a different color. A lot of people get frustrated with the Jordan brand, with the Jordan 1s, because there is a new Jordan 1 every month in a new color. But people still buy them. It’s the same exact shoe but different colorway. I’ve noticed I have so many Jordan 3s just in different colors. And you’re kind of like, I’m being hustled here by an industry because what they’ll do is they hype it up, they have a story behind it, it’s a whole thing. So that’s how I have my stuff organized, by brand and by color. 

Photo:

Lena Waithe 

You Ain’t Got These is streaming now on Quibi

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