LONDON — Lena Waithe wanted to delve deeper into the psychology of the sneaker head with her new series “You Ain’t Got These,” which made its debut on Quibi this week.
The miniseries invites some of the figures that have shaped sneaker culture, like Nas, Questlove, Billie Jean King or Carmelo Anthony, to unpick their fascination with sneakers and the culture that surrounds them.
“People were just like: ‘I like shoes, I like the design, the materials.’ But in the same breath they would tell the story about how they’d go to school wearing a pair of fresh kicks — there’s always a school story — and how everyone was looking down at their shoes,” Waithe said in an interview. She said she was determined to uncover the emotional layer underneath collectors’ buying habits.
“I wanted to add a more personal element to the narrative around sneaker culture and look at why are people so obsessed. A lot of people that buy sneakers think it’s just about shoes, but it’s not. It’s about feeling, memory and wanting to fit in,” mused the actress and producer.
“Some of these chaps might not think it’s emotional and that they could stop buying shoes anytime. But they wouldn’t be able to: It’s a form of addiction, you keep wanting to buy things and you get a high from it. When the high goes away you want to buy the next pair.”
While Waithe found that it wasn’t so easy to get her interviewees to open up about the psychological aspect of collecting sneakers, she is very open about how she often falls for the hype.
In the first episode of the series, she likens the feeling of getting her first pair of Air Jordans in high school — the same color-blocked pair that basketball superstar Michael Jordan wore when he played and won a game while suffering from a flu — to that of receiving an Emmy.
“Those became my favorite Jordans because they were my first pair, because I loved watching that game when it was on and because they became a reminder for me to persevere,” Waithe said. “During that game, Jordan had a fever, he was sweating, he could barely walk at the end — but he won. They called it the flu game and that’s what we all remember: If you put on those shoes, there’s nothing you can’t do, nothing you can’t overcome.”
Even as sneaker heads grow up, Waithe found that those high school memories stay engrained in their hearts and they keep looking to replicate the feeling of commanding their classmates’ attention with the latest pair of sneakers. “Even though you’re an adult and no longer going to class, when you walk out of the house, you feel like the coolest kid in school because of the shoes you’ve got on. That’s the kind of high that no drug can ever give you,” she added. “We all have that in common: The desire to show off and feel seen.”
Because of the deeply personal, addictive emotions underlying sneaker culture, Waithe is also a strong believer that the phenomenon isn’t going anywhere.
“As long as capitalism exists, sneaker culture will exist,” she said, explaining that businesses looking to make a profit will always find ways to create hype through campaigns, collaborations and an array of content.
“These companies exist to make us feel like we need to have that pair,” Waithe added, pointing to all the ways that Nike managed to reinvent the Jordan.
Fans might have initially just been interested in the 14 styles Michael Jordan wore during games, but through collaborations with hip-hop stars like Travis Scott or streetwear mavericks like Virgil Abloh, the hype came back bigger and stronger.
“The resale on those Travis Scott shoes is crazy; it reignited the kids to buy a shoe they’ve already bought 100 times. Now if you have $20,000 and really want to spend, you can get yourself a pair of Jordans before they even drop. I’ve got my eye on some,” the actress added.
“There’s always going to be another shoe that people are dying to get. To me, I learnt that it’s all about money at the end of the day and that’s what it’ll always be about, unfortunately.”
Even amid the global pandemic, sneaker heads are still going strong, according to Waithe. There might no longer be lines snaking around sneaker stores since they are closed due to state lockdowns, but StockX is still emailing its community reassuring them that they can continue to shop safely online.
“To have a sense of normalcy, people are still doing sneaker videos, they’re still talking about drop dates. It never stops. If you’re a reseller sitting in the house, you can ship out, you can still make money — you should just make sure people Lyocell the box when they receive it,” Waithe said, adding that she has also been grappling between the need to find comfort in shopping during isolation and thinking twice about what’s necessary.
“You want to get a sense of comfort and you want a high when you’ve been feeling so low sitting at home isolated. I’m no different to anyone else, trying to understand what’s going on. I’m just trying not to buy as much, and to donate to organizations. I get why people are shopping but also thinking of the people who don’t know when that check from the government is coming or living paycheck to paycheck.”
As well as debuting “You Ain’t Got These” on Quibi, Waithe has been promoting her series “Twenties,” which is currently airing on BET, while “The Chi” will be returning in June with “its strongest season yet.”