a pair of white and black shoes with a green tag

A subculture thrives by the beach in Santa Monica

Text by Brian McManus
Images by Tim Aukshunas, Nadya Nada, and Adrian Hernandez

Some of the collaborations are so head-scratchingly bizarre, it’s OK to wonder whether or not they’re real. The Cinnamon Toast Crunch Kyrie 4s from Nike? That’s a spoof, right? Some meta commentary on late capitalism, a not-so-subtle critique of conspicuous consumption? The Grateful Dead X Nike Dunk Low SB “Orange Bear,” the Shoe Surgeon and Los Angeles Laker star power forward Anthony Davis teaming up on a high top basketball sneaker collab to promote … Ruffles potato chips? Clearly those aren’t real.

Right?

Wrong. They’re real, alright. See also: highly coveted and extremely collectible. Sneakerheads in the know scour online auction sites like Grailed, Stock X or Nike’s popular (and popularly scandalous) SNKRS app or stand in long lines overnight to buy a pair of these rarities at various drops. Kicks that meet a certain criteria—a mix of hype, historical significance, resale value, and of course, genuine artistry—are some of the most desired accessories in the world. News outlets dedicated to the culture like Complex, Hypebeast, and HighSnobiety keep tabs on every facet of this growing fascination.

a child sitting in a chair holding a pair of shoes

Rohan Shah of Ocean Park Customs eyes his work.
Image by Tim Aukshunas.

“Sneakers were always function over fashion, then they became fashion,” James Bond (real name—we’ll get to him in a moment), owner of Sneakerhead kingpin Undefeated, said in a YouTube interview.

But that’s not exactly correct. In fashion, trends come and go with the seasons, but collecting sneakers has transcended style, and become a full-fledged subculture where designers like Salehe Bemburry and the late Virgil Abloh lead the cutting edge of design and sartorial artistry. In Santa Monica you can see the subculture in full bloom at shops like Bond’s Undefeated (2654 Main St) and Shoe Palace (210 Santa Monica Blvd), where sneakerheads can be found emptying their wallets and obsessing about copping the latest drops.

The former’s first LA outpost opened in 2002 when co-owners Bond and Eddie Cruz recognized a gap in the market, and rushed in to fill it in order to help collectors of rare and unique sneakers find what they were looking for—“a well edited sneaker store, but also a brand that promotes affluent aspirational lifestyle based on our culture,” Bond told Complex in 2014. They’ve since played a role in nearly every sneaker trend over the last two decades, and, according to streetwear bible Hypebeast, have “created several collaborative Nike SB Dunk silhouettes during the Dunk hype, have collaborated with adidas’ top-tier Consortium project on multiple occasions, and their military-inspired Air Jordan 4 collaborative model is one of the most coveted special-edition sneakers of all time; in 2016, a pair sold for over $18,000.”

a store front with lights
Shoe Palace in Santa Monica. Image by Tim Aukshunas.

a pair of green and white sneakers

With releases of hot brands and limited collaborations happening more frequently now than ever—what used to happen once a month can now take place every week—it can be hard to keep up.

Of course, sneaker collecting isn’t just about acquiring the latest releases. It’s also a way to stand out, a form of self-expression. Collectors don’t only see their sneakers as fashionable accessories; they view them as an extension of their identity. Sneakers are a canvas for individuality, allowing wearers to stand out and make a statement.

Enter Ocean Park Customs.

Rohan Shah got bit by the sneaker bug early. Real early. Like, at age 12. Now, at 13-years-old, the artist and shoe fanatic customizes shoes for friends and paying customers under the Ocean Park Customs banner. It came naturally. The Santa Monica local always loved art and sneakers—”I played basketball and was really into unique shoes that stood out because being unique is one of my most precious values,” he says.

a pair of shoes on a red surface
a pair of colorful sneakers

He saw a YouTube vid of someone using paint markers to customize sneakers, and was blown away, and had to try it for himself. Now, just a year in, he’s done sneakers for family, friends, paying customers, and DVMN PIGEON, one of the finalists on the hit HBO reality series on streetwear, The Hype. His favorites include a pair of surf-themed shoes he designed for a friend’s Bar Mitzvah.

Ocean Park Custom’s tagline is “Art that you can wear,” and that sums up the entire Sneakerhead movement pretty succinctly, no matter the motive of the collector.

High-end sneakers often feature distinctive designs, materials, and colorways. They serve as a means for self-expression and creativity, whether it’s matching sneakers with an outfit or customizing them to reflect personal style. The right pair of sneakers can elevate an entire look, showcasing a person’s uniqueness and flair.

For many collectors, high-end sneakers are more than just fashion; they are wearable art. They appreciate the craftsmanship and detail that goes into creating each pair. The combination of form and function, style and comfort, and the exclusivity of owning a limited edition make high-end sneakers an enticing choice for those, like Shah, who want to set themselves apart from the crowd.

a close up of a pair of shoes

Highly coveted pair of Nike Air Max.
Image by Adrian Hernandez.

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