You get sneakers… and then you get sneakers. We look at the rise of the sneaker scene in Johannesburg.

Jozi has always been a vibrant, commercial hub. It is a clash of cultures, nationalities, languages and scenes.

One of these rising subcultures is coming to the fore, and they are wearing only the best on their feet – limited-edition sneakers and once-off runs of some of the world’s most exclusive footwear.

As with anything precious, the industry that is forming around Joburg’s sneaker scene has many players.

Retailers are bringing in limited releases that have collectors lining up, while resellers are keeping the trade going for exclusive imports and rare pairs that have made their way here in somebody’s suitcase.

And then there are the cleaners, the crews that keep the thousands of pairs bright and fresh…

The Sneaker Shack
The Sneaker Shack

The Rise

It is hard to pinpoint how and when sneaker culture in Johannesburg started to emerge, says Dane Maharaj, a serious collector and well-known sneakerhead.

Maharaj explains that Cape Town’s scene can be attributed to the rise of the popular Nike Air Jordan and Air Max, but Joburg’s scene can’t be likened to the same history.

“Cape Town’s sneaker culture has existed since the late ’80s, whereas Joburg didn’t have a discernible sneaker culture until about ten years ago,” says Maharaj. “Cape Town’s sneaker culture is heavily derived from American sneaker culture. The big difference for Joburg is that it pulls inspiration from more sources. We see more diversity of footwear here.”

The scene has always been simmering away quietly, but with the advent of Shelflife, South Africa’s most prominent independent sneaker retailer, opening a destination store in Rosebank, it seems to have burst into the mainstream.

The Key Stores

Originally based at the popular Keyes Art Mile, Shelflife offers sneakers and streetwear that you would struggle to find elsewhere in South Africa. David Davey, operations manager, moved up to Joburg to help establish the store’s presence in the city.

Since then, the store has relocated into Rosebank Shopping Mall, opening what can be described as a granite monolith that serves as a temple of sorts to everything sneaker.

Davey explains that the launch of the new store coincided with a limited-release sneaker collaboration with adidas.

The launch of the adidas Consortium x Shelflife ZX 4000 represents years of building relationships with sneaker collectors and brands alike, and in many senses displays Shelflife’s commitment to the local scene. Launching the shoe at the Rosebank store also indicates the commitment to the city’s scene.

Just a skip over the parking lot, you’ll also find The Sneaker Shack in Rosebank, one of five locations for this specialist cleaning service.

Founded by Lolo Ndlovu, this sneaker laundry has built a reputation for looking after the sneaker elite, ensuring that their kicks are well looked after and cleaned correctly when the need arises.

Plugging into what consumers want, The Sneaker Shack sees collectors regularly bringing in high-value shoes that require specialist cleaning materials and brushes.

Spotting this gap in the market, Ndlovu says, “We were sure of the upward trend of ‘sneaker culture’ when we looked at starting our business. We have seen the launch of bespoke stores like Shelflife and there is an education towards what people really want in their shoes.

“People know more about their sneakers and are falling in love with them, we are interested in brand collaborations as consumers, and we’re only at infancy stage in Johannesburg.”

The Resellers 

Most successful industries can be judged by the state of their second-hand market, and Joburg’s sneaker scene is no different.

Sneaker resellers have always been a part of the trade globally, and in this city, they are thriving. Bringing in select and exclusive orders from overseas, or even just trading highly sought-after pairs has become a full-time job for some.

Zaid Osman, Founder of Sneaker Exchange, is a testament to the growing sneaker and streetwear culture in the country. His first event in Cape Town was started on a whim, and was more popular than he could have ever imagined.

Now he runs regular events across the country that encompass resellers, retailers, big brands, artists, and even sneaker customisers.

In addition, Osman has worked hard to build his company, Grade Africa, into a representative for streetwear on the continent, exporting lines to countries that are looking for exciting new designs, and similarly bringing in sneakers and streetwear in demand in South Africa.

“I moved back from the States when I was a teenager, and people were always asking about the sneakers I was wearing. I decided to start importing what they were looking for. Soon after, local artists were getting in touch to import shoes for them,” Osman says.

The blend of sneakers, artists, fellow resellers, and brands led Osman to starting Sneaker Exchange, now one of the highlights on every sneakerhead’s calendar.

A woman wearing sneakers

The Future Is Female

But right now, it also seems that the market has reached its cap. Soaring prices of sneakers have made it prohibitive for newbie collectors to get involved, explains Anthea Poulos, long-time sneaker collector and director at the creative brand consultancy The Bread.

Poulos’s deep understanding of Joburg’s street scene allows her to be both optimistic about its growth, but also realistic about what retailers should expect in Joburg right now: a slower market that is being careful with their spending.

Anthea’s insights into sneaker culture also reveal a very male-dominated world where women are often excluded.

While it is not unusual that women are not fairly represented in a culture that has essentially been driven by male-dominated sports, Poulos does believe that there is a dedicated buying power in female consumers that is largely being ignored.

“Guys in the scene have always arranged meetups, created messaging groups, and sold to each other, and they don’t include women, but the crazy thing is, resellers would sell women’s sizes in five seconds flat, because they never get smaller sizes to work with.”

The representation of women in South Africa’s sneaker scene is certainly lacking, and maybe is the key to keep this subculture growing.

After all, international culture curators like website Hypebae have shown the power of women in sneakers and streetwear, so maybe it is time to put the sneaker on the other foot?

Words by Kate Els