A few weeks ago we had the chance to fly over to Madrid for Nike’s 2014 SneakerBall event – the perfect showcase of what it says on the tin – sneakers and basketball. Madrid was a logical follow up to last year’s event at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (which focused on the Air Max), this year taking place amidst the context of the FIBA World Cup in Spain. As a cultural glue that binds b-ball, sneaker culture and the streets together, the undisputed star of this year’s show was the ever-relevant Air Force 1.
At the Palacio de Cibeles, 3-a-side teams battled on-court for Nike’s “Search for the Baddest”, while across the room, a genealogy of basketball sneakers was curated by human sneaker encyclopaedia and stand up guy, Gary Warnett. Before the show, Gary was also the mediator in a discussion which took place at Nike HQ between NSW Design Director Marc Dolce and French filmmaker, writer and cultural commentator, Thibault de Longville. Thibault’s the guy behind such classic sneaker productions Just for Kicks and the AF1 filmic chalice, Anatomy of an Urban Legend, as well as having a hand in Bobbito’s brilliant Doin’ It In the Park street ball documentary. Since we flew halfway across Europe to geek out on footwear and basketball it would’ve been rude not to record our own chat with Thibault for your personal perusal. Check it out below.
So what was your first introduction to streetwear and sneaker culture back in the day?
My interest really grew out of an interest for hip hop. I got into hip hop when I was eleven years old, through breakdancing, mostly. I grew up in West Africa – Senegal – and my first intro to dancing was through the movie Flashdance. All the girls were into it and we all wanted to know what was so appealing, so we went to go see it. The guys in that movie who we could relate to were the guys who were dancing on the street corner – I didn’t know what it was called. And my father, who worked in book publishing, was like, “yo, I bought a book about that dancing you guys are into – it’s called hip hop!”. Before then I was into punk rock music and I was like, shit, there’s a connection between The Clash and hip hop, through Futura 2000 and so on.
So the connection to hip hop grew when my family moved to France. We were living in the centre of Paris where there were crowds of guys, some of the French hip hop pioneers who had a certain look to them, and I could see that footwear played a big part in that. Whoever had the such and such shoes liked such and such group. The hip hop circles in the city were really small, so it became a really strong cultural thing to identify with. I was enamoured with dressing a certain way, and rocking a certain footwear. Also coming from a skateboarding background obviously played a part too, because shoes were pretty important in skateboarding too…
You were writing for [French skateboard magazine] No Way, right?
Yeah. Even in No Way I was writing opinion pieces on certain types of footwear that weren’t skate footwear, but in my world all the guys loved sneakers. Once the skating was done there was a certain set of guys who would wear something else other than skate shoes.
I guess like kids skating in Weapons and Jordan 1s…
Yeah, my background is completely that. If I could put it down to one thing, it was like, skating and Jordan 1s defined the look that we were about. We weren’t basketball players, but sure enough we could recognise the skill of Michael Jordan, and his persona, and his radical shoes. Those were the things that really got me started in becoming a fiend. Jordans, without a doubt. I was 14 years old when the Jordan 3s came out.
Were you in Paris at that stage?
Yeah, then three years after that I made my first trip to the US. I had family over there, so ever since then I spent every summer there. So I’d be up on the latest fashion that the guys were rocking in New York, I was experiencing it like a local so my passion for it grew. It’s like, if you have a good holiday somewhere you like to bring back a postcard, right? But for me it was exotic gear and sneakers. The long lasting effect of buying three or four pairs of sneakers, you know, people would be like, “ooh shit, how did you get these?”. In school you become the man! The bragging rights were phenomenal, even to this day! But it was an identity thing – it went beyond just having cool sneakers.
Obviously at the time it was very much still a subculture – completely offline – and with an exclusivity that doesn’t exist so much today.
Exactly, it’s just like anything else where a core crowd of people were traveling and encountering other guys who were into the same things. Guys who were appreciating footwear not because it was just the cool thing because someone on a record cover wore it, but who wanted to talk about who designed the shoe and so on…
It’s pretty nerdy…
Yeah, I became connected with this whole crew of nerds! But pretty cool nerds! Like realising, “oh shit, these guys mission isn’t to wear the newest, latest… it’s actually to wear that shit that’s out of print and hard to find”.
I was talking to someone the other day about the collector’s mentality; the notion that it’s not so much the acquiring of a product, but the journey that it takes to get it. Like, back in the day you had to physically travel to get something.
That is a key thing in my appreciation of sneakers; the passion and emotional connection to it came from a personal experience related to it. Me and my guys made a point of creating an experience, by going out and getting these sneakers. As young guys at the time we felt like we were on the moon; travelling to the US, going to remote stores outside of the regions we were staying in, just looking at the yellow pages for sporting goods retailers, and saying, “what do you have here that’s not on sale?”
Like mom and pop stores?
Yeah, that was magic. Being able to walk into a store and the guy be like, “what size do you wear?”, then go out back and come out like, “aiite take these for $20 each.” And next thing you know you got like an Air and a Cross Trainer in suede, leather, other materials, all colours, you know? Things that, even now, I’ve never seen the same thing since. And I’ll always associate a shoe with that experience of going out and finding the store, bargaining with the guy… it’s that experience that makes it worth it.
So you’re traveling to the US, encountering these new products and cultures… obviously basketball was a part of that as well. Is that where your passion for the game began?
Oh yeah – I was a bad basketball player – but I played a lot recreationally when I was young. A lot of the guys used to stay up late to watch the NBA games, it was all part of our thing, our culture. We looked at the games, the footwear, how Jordan was the driver of that. It became a fix. I lived during the night, going to bed at 4AM and back up at 8AM to go to school, but then seeing the guys and being like, “yo, you won’t believe what happened!”. Plus look at how they dressed – it was the complete package.
So when I got a chance to be in New York and catch the pick up games at West 4th Street or a game at Rucker Park, the neighbourhood feel and vibe of those tournaments was so connected to the city experience. It forever made the game synonymous for me, with New York City, with that environment.
What do you think that intrinsic link between basketball, hip hop and sneakers is rooted in?
It’s a pretty unique triangle. It never gets old. Those three elements fuel each other. The rappers are inspired by the basketball players, because they come from the same background, and they’re looking at someone who is physically outstanding, someone who is successful. And athletes look at the rappers and musicians and are impressed by the artistic abilities, and recognise their place in the culture. And we’ve seen the culture grow bigger, overall with a very positive effect on society. And style is another component of that triangle that feeds off both hip hop and sports. I love the fact that I’ve been able to cross-pollinate between all of these things. It’s like the holy trinity.
One thing that ties all those things together is the Air Force 1. What is it about that shoe that draws people to it?
The story of the Air Force 1 is so specific and so unique that I thought it was interesting enough to make a whole film about it. It’s that one product in the history of that company that everyone around the world knows what it is. Nike is the number one sports brand in the world, that sponsors the best athletes – name your sport – they’re gonna sponsor the best. They also hire some of the best product designers in probably any category and create the best possible advertising and communications to bring the combo of the greatest products and athletes together, to bring that to the consumer. That’s the Nike model, which is spectacular in itself. The one thing about the AF1 that is so special and unique is that it does not belong to that model. It wasn’t made popular because it was worn by such and such athlete. It wasn’t made big because it was endorsed by some great series of commercials that everyone knew. No. It’s that shoe that represents the streets. It’s the peoples’ choice. It’s spectacular to me – from a design, cultural and marketing standpoint – to see that this shoe is the best selling shoe in the history of this company, and it has been built on completely the opposite model. No major endorsements, no major commercials, from a company that is known for that. There’s always gonna be a question – even within the Nike organisation – they didn’t quite know why it was [so popular]. It took them a long time to realise, why are people still asking for this shoe? Why this one? What’s so different about it? It’s just so unique. It’s not just because it’s so simple and clean, it’s not just the fact that certain rappers made it a big deal at certain times. Like white on white AF1s – everyone in hip hop was wearing those, it was like the standard thing. And that’s also odd – even in hip hop – there was no such thing as a uniform to have…
Maybe a Timberland…
Yeah, and even so that was like a staple for East Coast guys. But the story has this very strong street element, hip hop making it popular, to now where the shoe has become a symbol of custom culture. And sure enough, Nike’s intelligence and understanding of these things after a while has become the template for current sneaker culture, which is designer collaborations. This shoe has been redone over 1700 times, which has made it a brand unto itself.
Can you pinpoint one particular AF1 which is a personal favourite?
I like understated, simple colour blockings. White on white is an all time favourite. And the Orcas, with just the heel part coloured in black. The Air Mistake, with the black bottoms, is a great looking shoe. I like ‘em clean. But then I also like the Busy P AF1 – because I like the guys behind it – but also because they went crazy with it but still innovated with the rainbow grading at the midsole. I love the fact that it came out in an era when there was so much interest in guys getting their chance to design. Staging a design conversation – writing that conversation on a shoe – that’s such a great idea. Pedro and SoMe argued about it – to be able to insert your dialogue into something else is such a fun thing, and they made a crazy shoe to wear. These collaborations add a whole other layer of interest.
Maybe that’s the crux of the whole phenomenon – that you can sum up your personality in a pair of sneakers…
That’s the beauty of it.