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Of Sneakerheads, Subcultures and Neon Orange Unicorns – The Retrospective’s Night With Nike iD

May 5th, 2009 by


Until recently I had never heard the term sneakerhead, nor to my knowledge had I met one. Over three hours with Harley Carrara, owner of Mass Appeal Skateboard Shop in Plainville, Connecticut, and three Nike Design Customization Experts at Westfarms Mall’s Nike iD Studio, I learned that though I hadn’t realized it, the mythic sneakerhead is most decidedly among us, walking just a little taller than the tatty-Keds-clad masses. The sneakerhead looks just like you and me with one crucial difference: their footwear is far, far finer.

Nike’s latest retail innovation, the Nike iD Studio, holds the golden ticket required for entry into elite sneaker subculture–a ticket that just so happens to come in the form of swank custom kicks. How do you get your own pair of one-off Nikes? It’s as simple as finding an iD Studio near you, stepping up to a virtual customization station and designing the footwear that inspires you.

A few Fridays ago Nike invited The Retrospective to Westfarms Mall for a night of private customization. Carrara and a team of Nike iD  experts guided us through the customization process, plied us with prime swag, and laid down the sneaker gospel. Read on to see what we learned.


“People don’t realize the possibilities,” says Carrara, leaning on the Nike Tee Bar where customers can manipulate colors and stencils to plant virtually any design they wish on their Nike gear. “Nike iD is a sketchpad. You can come in here and personalize whatever you want.”

Having designed special edition kicks for Nike, Carrara is something of an expert—and an avowed sneaker fanatic. He owns so many pairs that at first he declines to disclose the exact number. Piqued, I ask him if it’s over two hundred, expecting him to inquire if I’m insane—who could own that many pairs of sneakers, anyway? even centipedes would have no use!—but instead he just smiles and replies:
“I got way more than that.”
“You own more than two hundred pairs of sneakers?” I gasp, not even bothering to keep the look of awed disbelief off my face. Carrara is very somber when he answers, and in that moment I know that this is a thing that I, clad in a dress and my customary red flats, could never understand. What’s more, Carrara realizes this, too.
“I can’t tell you,” he answers. “You’d be shocked.”
“How shocked?” I ask, recalling the story Carrara’d told earlier in the night about a man in Germany who owns an entire airplane hangar of shoes. Surprisingly, Carrara finally folds.
“Okay, fine. Over 600,” he tells me.

He is right. I am shocked—and also impressed.


LeAndrew Belnavis, a Westfarms iD Studio “Athlete”—the sherpa for customers’ personalization endeavors—also has a vast curiosity cabinet of rare and beautiful Nikes. His collection clocks in at what he calls a “modest” 109, but he’s adding to it every day. And taking a better look around the Nike iD Studio, it’s easy to see why. The place is filled with brightly colored, high-tech sportswear far edgier than what you’d find in your average sporting goods store. The Nike iD Tee Bar, manned by a specially trained customization technician who applies designs of your choice to your favorite gear, invites curiosity and customer interaction.

And then, of course, there are the shoes.


Ah, the colors, the shapes, the styles! A sampling of what customers can create is displayed on open shelves and practically demands to be dandled. This shoe-collector’s fantasy is made possible by Nike iD Studio customization stations that allow you to choose from 105 key styles and a handful of items that are exclusive to the Nike iD sessions, including the Dunk, Dunk High, the women’s Dunk, the Air Max 90, the Air Max BW and the Air Force 25 low. You can virtually manipulate your shoe of choice from every angle, selecting the colors, the material, the trim and every detail down to the message on the tongue.


“You are very special in this process,” says Carrara. “It’s a big world out there and you have a pair of one-off sneakers that someone touched and carefully put together in order to get them to you, just the way you want them.”

Aided by Belnavis and two other iD Studio Athletes, Daniel Nuñez and Javier Hernandez, Carrara humors my ignorance about sneaker culture and the boys weave the lore. They explain that the term “sneakerhead” was born along with the b-boy, and that the entire sneaker subculture runs concurrent with skateboard culture. Carrara holds that sneakers are an extension of who you are, your identity—something expressed by how you keep your shoes. Skaters, break dancers and sneakerheads take deep pride in their gear, going to such extremes as buttressing the toes with handcrafted cardboard inserts—at the cost of their own comfort, but not the shoe’s pristine, uncrinkled caps.

Thanks to Nike iD Studios, custom kicks that uniquely express the personality and the very being of their wearer are not limited to the elite few. Nike’s passed the power into your hands, achieving the ultimate in design democratization.

“You’ve got a lot of power,” says Belnavis, “with the iD studio you get to make your mark in sneaker culture.”

Though the store only opened its doors in November, Westfarms’ Nike iD Store has already helped countless others to put their stakes in the astroturf. Nuñez recalls a bride and groom who came in to customize sneakers for the entire bridal party, and grins when he tells me about the athletes who visit the studio for individualized athletic shoes. It turns out that the iD Studio is popular with runners who seek the quality that supports them during triathlons and 5Ks wed to the downright glamour of fresh, personal, truly special kicks.

The Nike iD Design Studio also holds private events and individualized shopping parties in which guests can create one-of-a-kind footwear. Nike’s customization design consultants are, of course, on hand to assist with every creation—as they were for the birth of Jason’s rad new kicks, emblazoned with the words “Team Retro.”


So—consider this your invitation to have a say in sneaker culture. There are currently only six iD Studios in existence, so find the Nike iD studio nearest you at and get to dreaming—but if you’re adding to a sweet vintage collection, don’t let Carrara know. During our time together he mentioned having pulled some crazy maneuvers in order to get to sneaker hawkers’ wares. When I ask him exactly what he did, he deadpans, “Anything I had to.”

I know that should I ever ditch my ladylike flats and begin a sneaker collection of my own, I’m steering clear of the Solar Orange Airterra Humaras.

“They’re my unicorn,” Carrara says with an unmistakable touch of Ahab in his voice. “They’ve been eluding me for years.”

*All photos by Chion Wolf

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Tags: Art · Design · Fashion · San Francisco · street wear · Technology · The Retrospective6 Comments

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jose May 5, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Congrats guys, gotta head up there and check it out.

  • 2 Leandrew Belnavis May 5, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Good work guys. I can’t wait for the NikeStore | Retrospective event..

  • 3 jackie May 6, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    nice to know that this article cleverly avoids discussion of nike human rights abuses, sweatshop labor, and of course, unbridled consumerism.

  • 4 Alicia Adams May 7, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Great work Caitlin!

    Jackie – I understand your frustrations with Nike, but, this online publication is not in the business of questioning the morality of fortune 500 companies. We are in the business of observing the creative process(please see about page). In my opinion, Caitlin didn’t avoid anything. I think the article that you’re looking for may be on a much different blog.

  • 5 Caitlin May 7, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Hi Jackie,

    Thanks for your comment and concern.

    I recognize that corruption and exploitation run rampant in large retail corporations. It’s unjust, it’s unfortunate, and in this article, I fear it remains–and shall continue to remain–unexplored. As Alicia notes, this article claims roughly 1,000 words to illuminate a creative process and does not–nor did it ever profess to–probe into brand morality or questions of ethics. With that said, however, I also appreciate that no creative process birthed from the malnourished bodies of exploited human beings can remain entirely pure, nor does the story of injustice deserve to remain untold or shuffled quietly into a corner. I claim full ignorance of any wrongdoing on the part of Nike, and I make absolutely zero judgments in this post and as a Retrospective representative. I am uneducated in this subject, and if I were, this would not be the place I’d publicize it.

    As a writer I see nothing wrong with telling a story; as a professional I have no problem with omission; as a moralist, however, I too crave truth and fairness. In situations like these, I don’t know where author responsibility to ethics comes into play and when it’s fair to only skim the surface and share the sparkly bits.

    I’d be glad to talk with you about this more, so please feel free to get in touch. You can reach me at

  • 6 Bill May 20, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Id just like to state that although Nike was once the forerunner of the “sneakerhead” movement, they’ve since taken a back seat.

    Such places as Alife and Classickicks have a wider range of shoes. People always forget before Nike, it was the Clarks Wallabee. Before that, it was the shell toe Addidas.

    To be frank, Nike has ruined the shoe fashion. No longer do you have to search or custom paint your own shoes, now, anyone can walk into a store and copy “whats hot”.

    One last thing Id like to touch on. Ive never met a “sneakerhead” who puts cardboard in their shoes. Thats just stupid. The whole point of of wearing them is to be comfortable. If youre more concerned with fashion than function, get out of the game.

    Clarks…Nikes cant touch them.