When your Black Fusion Low Sneakers from Maison Margiela arrive in the mail, you may feel the sudden urge to track down your mailman and beat him senseless. This is inadvisable for a number of reasons: For one, the federal government doesn’t fuck around when postal employees are assaulted; for another, the mailman didn’t cum on your shoes, you bought them that way.
The $1,655 “cum shoes” are the latest in designer sneaker foolishness. Meant to evoke the cut-and-pasted collage style of Margiela’s SS20 collection, the shoes are covered with dried hot glue, which is the last thing anyone who sees the shoes associates them with. Underneath that hot glue is what has become the norm for modern designer sneakers as we enter the 2020s: a New Balance made with premium materials marked up 10x for overzealous trust-fund kids.
The shoes themselves sparked the reaction one might expect (and Margiela’s creative director John Galliano had to anticipate). Tweets of varying cleverness were composed. Articles (like this one!) were pitched and written. And while the internet has moved on to more immediate atrocities, the cum shoes live on, adorning the feet of rich hypebeasts across the globe. It would be nice to think that they’re an exception, but they’re quite at home in the modern landscape of designer shoe oversaturation — e.g., Balenciaga sneakers that cost $900 and look like a pair of Asics got dropped in a blender; and Yeezy (by Adidas) that look like an amateur 3D printing schematic. The race to recreate iterative, showstopping footwear has resulted in the modern status-seeker lacing up the worst shoes this side of the Cyberpunk genre.
As for the Margiela collection itself, it’s another exercise in deconstruction — and if that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s seemingly the only thing fashion houses are interested in right now. Virgil Abloh, former Kanye West collaborator turned global fashion design icon, created his entire Off-White brand as something of a designer in-joke about incomplete designs. His shoes are fairly direct rip-offs of popular silhouettes like the Vans Old Skool, which is acceptable insofar as it’s the whole point of the brand. Quotation marks around tongue-in-cheek labels signify incompleteness, a reminder for the designer to finish it later (the joke being that it didn’t get done before going to production). Designers have apparently decided wholesale to follow in the footsteps of the molecular gastronomy boon that’s thankfully died off in restaurants, deconstructing familiar things until they’re unrecognizable but have a faintly fishy taste. Like all trends, it’s a wave that will eventually wash ashore and be replaced by some new debris. But it’s hard to see how the landscape for designer sneakers improves.
“This deconstruction stuff is insulting,” says Sean Williams, the co-founder of Obsessive Sneaker Disorder (OSD) and SOLEcial Studies, a sneaker industry education program for those who want to enter the industry in some capacity. “Like, if Nike tried to sell me that shit in the 1980s, I would’ve told them to finish the shoe first. That plastic hang tag is the same thing stores used to use when shoes went on sale and they threw them on the table at closeout prices. That’s what we used to call ‘when sneakers are put out to die.’”
“The entire concept of the ‘high-fashion’ sneaker — I hate that term, by the way — is a false narrative,” Williams continues. “The sneaker has always been an aspirational product. This idea that they’re taking sneakers and creating something aspirational out of them is made up; when vulcanized rubber first came around in the 19th century, only certain wealthy people could afford it and the general population aspired to have them.”
As such, Williams argues that before mass production, sneakers were already the height of luxury for the everyday consumer. In other words, high-fashion labels are co-opting a needstate that already existed and pretending they’re elevating it, when in reality they’re just making an iterative piece that costs exponentially more for the sake of opulence and status. As for its resurgence, Williams is skeptical: “We had Gucci tennis sneakers and Bally sneakers on in the 1980s. Just look at old hip-hop album covers. This isn’t new. That’s as high fashion as it gets. What’s changed is where the influence lies. In the earlier days of sneakers, the influence was all on the athlete, and people bought them for performance and the duality of wearing them ‘off-court.’ Now, the entertainer has more influence, so it ebbs and flows depending on what’s hot in the world of hip-hop. No other genre of music influences the sneaker industry now.”
In Williams’ view, the “high fashion” concept sneaker has become redundant and irrelevant. This seems to be a fair perspective, particularly considering the aggressive collaborations between mainstream sneaker brands like Nike and Adidas and boutique streetwear brands and international fashion designers. Nike’s collaboration with Japanese fashion label Sacai was among the most coveted sneaker releases of 2019, and an upcoming Dior Jordan 1 has the hype community salivating. Adidas, meanwhile, continues to collaborate with Pharrell (who is essentially parroting former A Bathing Ape and current Human Made designer Nigo), Alexander Wang and the hollowed out husk of Kanye West.
These collaborations sell out within minutes, and the particularly coveted ones sell for multiples on secondary markets like StockX and GOAT (one of the Nike x Sacai waffle racer, which retailed for $155, is currently selling for around $650). On the flip side, visit any high-fashion retailer site and their original footwear stock is plentiful. The first instinct is that the primary culprit is the price point, but as secondary markets thrive with high-ticket prices on lower retail Nike and Yeezy products, a likelier reason becomes clear: Nobody wants to pay Virgil Abloh $500 for a pair of Converse that have his logo on them.
“A lot of [our customers] seem to trade in their designer kicks for Yeezys or Off-White Nikes, and [while they’re losing a ton of monetary value on the trade], they’re just happy to see some kind of return on the purchase,” says Zack Edgar of Zed’s, a vintage and resale shop in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood. Zed describes a customer base for his designer sneakers that tends to be more well-off (“athletes, artists and drug dealers mostly”), but are a bit more infrequent than the regular customers. Just like the hype sneaker market, though, the designer sneaker customer tends to be picky: Specific colorways and streetwear style sell relatively quickly, but others — like a pair of $1,500 Louboutins that Zed can’t even move for $500 — collect dust no matter how much of a value they represent.
What made Abloh’s Nike collaboration, The Ten, so successful is what undermines the footwear for his own fashion brand and work at Louis Vuitton — the point of his brand is to be iterative and so referential that it nears outright theft, which works when you’re allowed to actually recreate the silhouettes that inspire you. Deconstructing and rebuilding a Jordan 1 is fun, refreshing and nostalgic. “Stealing” the concept, removing all Nike branding and altering it slightly makes it feel like buying a bootleg from the “shoe man” (the term for fake sneaker peddlers in the city) for three times the cost of an actual Jordan. Why buy a Louis Vuitton sneaker that’s note for note with one of the most popular Nike SB releases, other than to feel validated by the fact that you can afford it?
“Personally, I’ve always believed fashion houses had a POV on sneakers,” says James Whitner, founder of the fashion boutiques Social Status, A Ma Maniere and A.P.B. “It’s definitely still essential as long as it has a distinct point-of-view. A perfect collaboration takes something from both brands and creates a new derivative of an existing thing. If it’s done right, it should add value to the overall segment.”
Sometimes, the iterative nature is the point, and sometimes it’s unavoidable. This is footwear, after all, and there’s only so much you can change on the shoe before it stops being a shoe. “Unless you’re using custom molds, which I’m gonna do from now on, it happens,” says John Geiger, who has been creating footwear for his namesake brand for nearly five years, gaining traction in the high-end streetwear market. His shoes can be seen on athletes like Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and fellow Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa. He’s referring to a recent revelation that his shoes had the same soles as Philipp Plein, a designer he’s trying to avoid any association with after a recent Kobe Bryant “tribute” that was tone deaf and nauseating.
“For me, it’s always been about trying to create something in-between,” Geiger says. “Our first release, still to this day we call it The Medium, because we wanted to get that middle ground [between a $200 Jordan and the $1,000-plus high-fashion shoe]. I wanted the quality to be high end, but the price point and look of it to be like a sneaker.”
He’s largely succeeded, with sneakers that are often in the $350 to $550 range — reasonable compared to the $1,655 cum shoes or $1,000 Balenciaga Triple S sneakers — and a cult following that he largely attributes to his decision to remain independent and direct-to-consumer. That said, being a smaller operation has also caused complications for him. “The 002, the one everyone said was just a Balenciaga [Speed Trainer], I’d been working on that for a year before it came out,” he tells me. “I wish I could be as fast as Balenciaga, but we’re a small company.” Such production lags can give the appearance of borrowing a concept from a larger fashion house, when in reality he may have developed the concept well before someone else did.
The stacking of the styles, too, speaks to an issue with the “high-fashion” sneaker in general: The wave is largely driven by what’s hot, which Adidas and Nike still dictate. In other words, by the time the high-end designer sneaker is released, it’s hard to see it as anything more than an expensive version of an accessible shoe that’s already come out. (When I ask Geiger about the cum shoes in particular, he could only laugh.)
“I think the overall market has evolved, so there are more things available, but if done correctly, it’s still very aspirational,” says Whitner. “What we’re seeing now is a lot more activity, and in some cases, it isn’t executed well. That doesn’t help the marketplace or the kid, it’s just more ‘things.’ It’s like going to a party with a curated group of people versus going to a packed club just to be seen.”
The high-end fashion sneaker has always felt like a shortcut of sorts. The sneaker community is filled with obsessives who make friends with the local boutique managers and monitor release calendars. To acquire a pair of limited-release sneakers by a major brand requires know-how and a sense for which releases matter and which can be ignored. If you don’t know the right people (or the right people don’t like you, which also happens quite a bit), you’re left out in the cold on major releases.
And so, what do you do if you’ve missed out on the good Nike releases but still want everyone to know you’re plugged into the fashion community? Cop a pair of Triple S and call it a day.
“It’s always felt like older fashion houses trying to impinge on a younger, more ‘urban’ market in a way that doesn’t translate well,” says Tara Fay Coleman, an artist and curator who’s managed the Pittsburgh Social Status boutique for more than three years. “The lines are blurred on the customer types who wear them, but there are the younger kids who want to flex and managed to finesse the same access as someone who’s been in the game much longer.”
“It’s for the clout,” says Williams. “They put these shoes on and people see them out and everyone knows it’s expensive.”
Unlike the coveted and rare Nike or Jordan release, which may just look like another Nike to the untrained eye, a pair of Balenciaga, Off-White or Gucci sneakers are immediately readable as expensive and impressive. People pay the extra money for the status, not for quality, appreciation of the form or any of the other nonsense excuses that get put forth. So whether the high-fashion sneakers on your feet are the cum shoes or not, you’re mostly paying for the afterbirth of a better idea that came before it.