One of the many quiet revelations for me in the documentary The Art of the Shine is that despite being in what seems like a casual and disposable culture, many people these days actually still take great pains to care for their shoes, including partaking in the ancient art of shoe shining.

Whether brown leather loafers or black boots or, heck, wing-tip spats, polishing your shoes can change your outlook on life. At least until they’re dirty again. 

But what’s even more eye-opening is a whole subculture spinning around sneakers: an obsession in caring for your kicks that goes well beyond just trying to have the latest Air Jordans and looking spiffy. “Sneakerheads” are everywhere and they are taking care of their footwear.

I even asked Kevin of the Shoeshine Guild, one of the shoe shiners featured in Art of the Shine, for his thoughts on sneakers–and the shining thereof. “In the last three, four years we’ve gotten quite a few sneakerheads, nationwide sneaker cleaning special events and just more sneaker customers in general,” he told me. “Now that it’s okay to wear them to work and now [that they’re] business casual with a suit. I love cleaning sneakers, it’s fun and we charge $10-$15 for the service.”

Looks like some of Kevin’s colleagues there get up to some cool mischief with sneakers, as a matter of fact:

Sneakerheads Like to Drool Over the Coolest Kicks

How does one become a “sneakerhead”? “True sneaker knowledge is something you develop over time,” says Nadir Nelson, a Bay Area media professional. “You must know your sneaker history before you can consider yourself a sneakerhead or guru. Most designs that come out today are retro designs and inspired by the past. I get my sneaker news from Nicekicks.com and Hypebeast.com, [but] I prefer word of mouth. There is nothing like finding gems at your local mom and pop sneaker store, I live for moments like this.”

Another online magazine is evocatively called HighSnobiety, which celebrates “streetwear, sneakers, lifestyle and the arts,” seems to wrap all those things together (in male-centric fashion)—on the coolest, shiniest in footwear (and other wear). Unsurprisingly, they mostly focus on the latest and hippest, but like a lot of sneakerheads they enjoy stepping back in time to look at “vintage” sneaks, like this look at the influential design of the Nike Air Grudge. (Calling something from the ’90s “vintage” will make a 40-something shudder, but I get it.)

These sites also like to poke around Instagram to find some of the most inspiring shoewear. Instagram is not surprisingly Grand Central for drooling over new and fancy sneakers. 

Sneakerhead has some recommendations for you, and here’s just a sampling of some other eye-popping collections from Insta:

If you’re an Air Jordan aficionado you will practically fetishize some of the AJ’s collected in Dylan Ratner’s feedYou have to admit, these limited edition vintage Jordans are pretty sick, as the kids say:

A lot of these feeds and sites keep a decidedly male-dominated bent to their sneaker coverage, but there are thankfully exceptions. [From Complex:] “French blogger Amel Mainich, better known as Ugly Mely, reps hard for females in the heavily male-dominated sneaker world. If there’s an upcoming women’s sneaker release, chances are you’ll see her with it first. With a Reebok sneaker collab and a published book entitled Sneakers under her belt, there’s no doubting her importance to the culture.”

In fact, acknowledging how male-centric the sneaker industry had become led the Brooklyn Museum to host a discussion about it wherein a panel of women collectors, aficionados and designers came together to take head-on the “purposeful emphasis of sneakers as expressions of masculinity” in our culture. 

Care and Feeding of Sneakers

How do the most sneakerheaded care for their footwear, if they’re not necessarily taking them to shoeshiners on busy streets in Manhattan or San Fran? (Hey, if you can drop nearly $600 on shiny Italian raised-sole trainers by Alexander McQueen, you’d probably want to keep them professionally shined.)

First, let’s cut to the chase, if you’re here for some advice on cleaning your sneaks, GQ has you covered, including advice on the right kind of cleaning product.

Next, to get a sense of who sneakerheads are and how they act around shoes (and to see whether or not you may be one of them), in the spring and summer, there’s… [cue overly dramatic lightning FX and booming voice over] SNEAKER CON!  A gathering of shoe fanatics founded in 2009, it’s not especially shocking that such a thing exists. But it’s an eye-opening experience for anyone wondering about the lengths of obsessive interest that sneakerheads will go to.

And while at SneakerCon, The New York Times learned some great tips on sneaker care:

1) Store your sneakers in a dark space, because light can cause yellowing, which devalues your shoes.

2) Become friends with people who work at sneaker shops.

3) Always check details like font and stitching when verifying real versus fake sneakers.

4) Ask your elders for their old clothes and sneakers. Chances are they will eventually come back in style.

5) Wash your insoles for, well, obvious reasons.

Speaking of SneakerCon, could the future of sneakers be female? @ELLEmagazine writer Chloe Hall thinks so.

Meanwhile, there are multiple YouTube channels focusing on caring for and restoring special sneakers, including RetroSnickers.

Watch him restore these “peanut butter looking Space Jams” into their full glory:

To be honest, we’re not really sure how we’d care for shoes like this, or wear them, but we’re mesmerized when looking at them–and maybe that’s the main point.

Sneaker Art and Politics

But some would argue our obsession with sneakers goes well beyond just trying to look cool. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes in The Atlantic that sneakers have always been political as she surveys the lengthy and fascinating history of the sporty shoe. 

As the suburbs became overrun with joggers, America’s cities saw a rise in basketball players, particularly New York, where a bold new style of play transformed the game into a spectacle of masculine swagger. Like break dancing, schoolyard basketball ritualized a competitive physicality, which bled into mainstream (white) culture. “In the 1970s, New Yorkers in the basketball and hip-hop community changed the perception of sneakers from sports equipment to tools for cultural expression,” the sneaker historian Bobbito Garcia explains in the Out of the Box catalogue. “The progenitors of sneaker culture were predominantly … kids of color who grew up in a depressed economic era.”

A recent traveling exhibition referenced there, called “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” which originated at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, looked at “how the sneaker’s ever-evolving cultural significance offers insights into the world in which we live, work, and play” and covered iconic sneakers ranging from an 1860 spiked running shoe, track shoes from the 1936 Olympics, an original Air Force 1 and Air Jordan 1, and early Adidas Superstars, to contemporary examples designed by such prominent figures as Damien Hirst, Christian Louboutin, Kanye West, and Nike sneaker design legend Tinker Hatfield.

Exhibition preview video (soundless):

Too Obsessed with Kicks?

Before we get too carried away with this consumerist culture (as appealing as it is, don’t deny it), some observers are there to remind us that while having cool sneakers can make us feel better about ourselves, there’s more to life than that, and sometimes the feeling is fleeting.

Like filmmaker Justin Tipping, whose very appealing, semi-autobiographical indie film debut Kicks centered around a teen boy in the East Bay who finds a way to get some fresh shoes, only to have them snatched off his feet by a gang. Which sets him on a quest to get those sneakers back.

And, hey, even HighSnobiety wonders aloud about the dark side of a sneaker-obsessed culture:

Jankel argues that through shopping addiction and excessive consumption (including obsessive sneaker collecting), we very quickly become used to the feeling of enjoying a new pair of kicks, and so become desensitized to how awesome they actually are. As a result, we end up chasing “the feeling of change” rather than the object itself. Then, before you know it, you end up with 100 pairs, but they don’t give you the pleasure you thought they would, and the process becomes more about habit or compulsion than genuine pleasure release.

Can’t we just enjoy ourselves for once, you ask, within reason at least? Sure, knock yourself out, get that new pair of Adidas Yeezy Powerphases or Air Jordan 1 “Igloos” (though they’re probably sold out so never mind)*, but maybe take care of them as best you can, even knowing nothing lasts forever.

*but maybe not the $1000 pair of Gucci Gold Peggy Platform sneakers:

As Raekwon rapped, you don’t have to pay a fortune for a cool pair.

I’m not payin’ one forty for them (size eight and a half)/I’m tellin’ you I’m only payin’ ninety”

…Even if there’s “so many phat styles, make a kid’s head fall out.”