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Interview with ‘Girls Got Kicks’ author Lori Lobenstine

November 3, 2011

Lori Lobenstine is the founder of the blog Female Sneaker Fiend and the author of Girls Got Kicks, a book that explores sneaker culture and its ties to the worlds of sports, hip hop and spoken word—and, less obviously, the concepts of sexism, identity and youth empowerment. Lobenstine will be in Minneapolis this weekend for a book-release party, accompanied by local hip-hop artists Desdamona, Maria Isa and Tish Jones. She recently talked to Girl Germs intern Emma Nelson about her blog, her book and, of course, her passion for sneakers (she’s closing in 100 pairs!).

Girl Germs: How did this love of sneakers begin for you?

Lori Lobenstine: I’ve worn sneakers since before I can remember. My parents tell me stories about how excited I used to get when I’d get sneakers, and my twin sister always tells me a story about when we were, like, five or six and I told her her sneakers were not cool enough. So I always had a certain aesthetic and passion for sneakers.

Do you remember your first pair?

I don’t remember my first pair, but I remember the first pair I really fell in love with, and it was a pair of high-top canvas Nikes. And this was like mid-‘70s, I was probably, you know, eight or nine, and it was a big deal because Nike was really new and they were high tops, which made me feel really tough because I was a little tomboy, and not many people had them yet. And definitely the little boys on the kickball court were looking at my sneakers and talking about them, and I remember that feeling of, “Oh, this is it. No turning back.”

So you really fell in love.

Yeah, I actually have some little piece that I wrote in 4th grade that says at the end – it’s an autobiography – ‘And I will always wear Nikes.’

That’s adorable!

Yeah, luckily I’ve branched out since then, but I did have the passion.

So what is it about sneakers specifically that makes them different from other shoes? Do they feel more powerful to you?

I think they’re different for different people. For me, it was definitely connected to my identity as a tomboy. It’s interesting looking back, I didn’t start playing basketball until middle school, but I always wore high tops because somehow that seemed tougher, you know what I mean? So my sneakers were part of how I told the boys that I belonged, whether it was playing baseball or kickball or dirt bike riding or whatever we were doing, I had my high tops on.

But I think for different people it’s really different, and so it’s been interesting talking to female sneaker fiends. For some of them, it’s very related to sports, and for others it’s not at all related to sports, it’s strictly their own identity and who people know them as – like, ‘that’s the girl with all the sneakers’…or it’s about fashion. So there’s a whole lot of different reasons that people get really connected to sneakers. I don’t know, I think sneakers just have a lot of…there’s a lot of things about sneakers that are different from other shoes, even the culture around them. You don’t go to shoe parties. You don’t meet people around the world because you like shoes. There’s something around the culture of sneakers that is different, in terms of how we interact with each other, and when you’re wearing a pair and only other sneaker heads know what you’re wearing…other people just think you’re wearing some interesting sneakers, but other sneaker heads are like, ‘Oh my God, they only made 20 of those, where’d you get those?!’ So yeah, it’s a whole community thing aside from a whole really interesting, diverse product.

How did you get interested in doing research on this culture?

Well, probably six or seven years ago when the Internet sneaker culture was fairly young, someone pointed it out to me. Like a lot of girls I didn’t know any other girls who really loved sneakers the way I did. I didn’t even know there was this online sneaker culture, and I went on and I was like, wow, these are my people! I didn’t know! But then there was also a lot of sexism on the sneaker websites, whether it was guys just hating on girls’ sneakers, or it was just sexist photos of mostly naked women with sneakers, and I was like, wait a minute. We need our own site, we need to have a space where we can find each other and where no-one can deny that we exist. So that’s when I was like, alright, I’m going to start Female Sneaker Fiend. I never ran a website before, but I was like, we gotta have it, so let’s just figure it out.

Was the response good?

Yeah, it grew really quickly! I started off and I had forums with just a few of us, and I’d interview folks, mostly friends and girls that I knew through youth work and basketball coaching, and then all of a sudden it just kind of jumped off and there were thousands of people on the forums buying and selling and talking about everything from sneakers to technology to family issues and safe sex and all kinds of things. And then I got more into interviewing women who were in the sneaker industry, because so many girls were interested in getting in and finding out how to get in, so we developed a part of the website that was about women in the industry, and another part that was about art – people doing sneaker customizing, sneaker photography, sneaker pillows – so it just went in a lot of different directions.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to make it into a book?

I sort of knew all along that a book would be a cool thing to have, partly because I was really inspired by Where’d You Get Those? by Bobbito Garcia. It’s still my favorite sneaker book, I just think it’s gorgeous, but I felt like we needed a book to sit on the shelf with that because we’re not in that book! It’s still a really male book. It’s still a really beautiful book, and he and I are sort of age-mates so it’s got a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s sneaker history. But yeah, I thought if we have a book, then it’s historical, it’s permanent, it’s something you can have on your shelf or something that a kid can find in a library and realize they’re not the only girl who loves sneakers.

Is the idea of sneakers as a cultural thing pretty recent? Do you know how women started wearing them in this way?

Those are both good questions: when did they bubble up into popular culture, and then when did female sneaker fiends start to bubble up. Maybe that happened at the same time, or maybe not. I feel like part of sneakers changing from just something that athletes wore, you know, there was James Dean wearing them in the movies and making them cool, and then there was the blow-up of hip hop, and the confluence of hip hop and cool sneakers. So they really bubbled up in a lot of ways, and it was really around that time that Reebok took off, actually riding the wave and being ahead of Nike in sales in the ‘80s, based on women wearing sneakers.  And even though we don’t see a lot of respect for women from the sneaker companies, they have always been a big buyer. A lot of times we’re buying kids’ sneakers for small feet, or we’re buying guys’ sneakers because they have more hype and more design and more energy put into them. We’ve been a part of sneaker culture most of the time, we just haven’t been as visible.

Can you address the connection between hip hop and sneakers?
You know, Run DMC with “My Adidas,” that was a huge song, and [for] all of the kids who were out breakdancing on their ripped-up cardboard boxes, sneakers were a big part of the culture…having your Pumas with the fat laces, or having your shell toes. So one of the themes that we have in the book, Martha Cooper, she was a really historic photographer and documenter of the early hip-hop culture. She got so many amazing pictures of folks breakdancing and DJing with sneakers. So it really was connected to that culture from the beginning, and it continues to be. It was something that sneaker companies realized and have exploited to some degree, but also just something the culture has always embraced.

One of the things that’s exciting about coming back to Minneapolis [is that] Amanda Lopez, the photographer, and myself, we came to Minneapolis to go to B-Girl Be, which is a women-in-hip-hop conference. The article that I did for the book about women in hip hop has tremendous representation from B-girls and poets and DJs from Minneapolis, so I’m excited for that.

How did you get connected with Desdamona and the other Twin Cities musicians?

I was friends with Toofly, who is a graffiti artist in New York, and she always said, ‘You gotta go to B-Girl Be, you gotta go to B-Girl Be,’ and so the first time I was going to go, they were like, oh, could you do a booth and teach us how to customize sneakers? And I’m like, I’m really building a community, I don’t know shit about customizing sneakers. I can put you in touch with some customizers, but that’s not my role. But then I realized we could do a photo booth, that’s the perfect thing to do with B-Girl Be. Amanda and I will go out and we’ll really capture this connection of women and hip hop and sneakers. That was just perfect. So I met Desdamona [one of the founders of the festival] at B-Girl Be, and I met Maria Isa there. I met Tish Jones and so many women there, including women from all over the world.

Does sneaker culture differ from place to place?

You know, there used to be more variation than there is now, but there is still variation. It was interesting, we were invited to Holland by a hip-hop house, and it wasn’t until I got there that I realized Air Maxes are huge there. Jordans are fairly new in terms of being ‘in’ there. You see a little bit of the opposite happening here in the States. But I think Nike is just getting a larger and larger portion of the sneaker culture internationally, and part of that’s because we’re so interconnected with the Internet. We can buy stuff from Japan or we can see what’s hot in Germany, and they can see what’s hot in the U.S. We can send our friends sneakers other places. But traditionally, even within the United States, people could say, oh, Boston’s an Adidas town, Philly [is] a New Balance town, Holyoke, they wear Uptowns. There used to be real specific local cultures around particular sneakers. Particularly in Boston, I can tell you Nike—they’re into that so much, it’s hard to say these days that Boston’s an Adidas town, because Nike is just winning.

You talked a little bit about the sexism in the sneaker industry, and how women are excluded from it, but does sneaker culture in general differ a lot between men and women, or is it about the same search for identity on both sides?

I think at the core, people who call themselves sneaker heads, sneaker collectors, sneaker fiends, are folks who are online, on the forums, who know which sneakers are dropping when. They’re so similar. We’re all in it to win it. We have some different tastes. Some of it’s even generational, so the young ones are more about what is the latest hype. There are new Jordans coming out every two weeks, and I’m like, that’s crazy, I grew up getting one pair a year. I’m like grandma—‘you don’t need that many sneakers!’ But in terms of taste, there’s no difference between women and men for the most part, not when you’re talking about what are the most coveted sneakers. Some of these famous, iconic sneakers of the last five, six, seven years are partly famous because they came out in really small numbers and they were really hard to get. There’s all this other hype, and ‘did you sleep out overnight?’ and ‘did you trade with somebody?’ and all these other parts of the excitement of being a collector.

You see a lot of similarities not just in sneaker culture, but I can talk to someone who collects books, and we can have a really similar conversation about vintage books versus re-issues. I’m talking about sneakers and they’re talking about books, and there’s that element of the collector. One of the DJs talked about that also, she was like, ‘Come on, DJs, we collect vinyl, it’s the same thing – I’m trying to build my record collection, and you’re trying to build your sneaker collection.’

There’s a stereotype about women loving shoes, this Sex and the City-fueled idea that that’s how women self-medicate. Is your work in part a reaction to that? How does sneaker culture fit into that idea?

It’s really interesting, because sneaker culture is so dominated by guys, but there isn’t a stereotype about guys loving shoes. They don’t ever get blamed with, ‘Oh, you love sneakers because you’re a guy, and guys self-medicate,’ it’s just that they’re an authentic sneaker head and they’re bragging that they have 300 or 400 or 500 or 2,000 pairs of sneakers. So to me, it’s just ironic, because women always get poked at for that, but there are guys who have huge collections of sneakers, and there are girls that have huge collections of sneakers, and they just see it as something totally distinct.

You talked a little bit about how you work with youth – you coach basketball, right?

I’ve been a youth worker and I’ve coached basketball, so I’ve done youth work in YMCAs and at Girls, Incorporated. A lot of after-school leadership-building programs, and I’ve also coached high school girls’ basketball.

Has that work inspired your research?

Absolutely. Any time a guy said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know girls like sneakers,’ or ‘I can’t find any girls who like sneakers,’ I say, ‘Everywhere I go, I meet girls who like sneakers.’ And it might be one girl on your basketball team, but no one realizes there are girls in every town, village, city, neighborhood who are crazy about their sneakers just like guys. We’re not as visible, and I think more of those girls think they’re the only one, they don’t know any other girls who are into it, and then maybe they get on the website. I get these emails that are practically full of tears, like, ‘Oh my God, I never knew any other girls who were like me,’ and like you said, that’s the identity piece.

How did you choose to work with Amanda Lopez as your photographer?

I knew I wanted a photographer who was really good at capturing portraits, but also at capturing a subject in an environment that was important to them. I could see in her work that that was important to her as well. I met her through Toofly and Gabriella Davi-Khorasanee, who runs Mama Clothing and M.I.S.S. Both worked with her directly and recommended her, so I talked to her about the larger concept of doing a book and the work that it would take, and she was excited to do it. She lives in California, so I didn’t actually physically meet her until our first photo shoot out in San Francisco. She’s been amazing.

Was there anything in the process of making this book that surprised you or that you didn’t expect?

The biggest things that surprised me were really in the process. It took a lot longer than I thought, and it was a lot more work than I thought. So that was surprising, and there are definitely some things I’d do differently next time, but there were a lot of little, delightful surprises. Meeting new people at photo shoots, or going to someone’s house to do a photo shoot, and finding out they have 350 pairs of sneakers. You just see a side of somebody – I was just as amazed to get to someone’s house and have them have 350 pairs of sneakers, as I was to get to someone’s house who would blush at how many sneakers they had and they would have 18 pairs of sneakers. Both of those things to me are beautiful. I think it’s crazy that you have 350 pairs of sneakers, but that’s incredible, and I think it’s awesome that you have 18 pairs of sneakers and you’re just as passionate about your sneakers as someone who has 300 pairs.

How many pairs of sneakers do you have?

I think I’m hitting about triple digits. I’m just about around 100, which is crazy enough. I probably have about half of those for free, from Female Sneaker Fiend, but I tell myself that to make me seem more sane.

Do you have a favorite pair, one that you don’t wear because you love it so much, or are they all equal?

They’re definitely not all equal. I have several favorite pairs, and it sort of varies by season or by mood. But I have some that I save for special occasions and some that I’ve only gotten out once or twice. I just wore one of my favorite pairs, a vintage pair of Patrick Ewings. I’ve been a big fan of Patrick Ewing from when he was in college playing for Georgetown and in high school, he was local, here in the Boston area. I wore them for the first time ever to a sneaker contest, which I won! It was super exciting but I blew out the sole, which was really tragic. –Emma Nelson

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Lobenstine will be at Fifth Element (2411 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.) Saturday, Nov. 5 at from 6 to 8 p.m. for the Girls Got Kicks release party, featuring performances by Desdamona, Maria Isa and Tish Jones. Make it Facebook official here.

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