Sneaker collabs are everywhere and easy to avoid if you're not one to chase trends. That's a mistake. The best tell rich stories, and look damn good doing it.
I love sneakers that tell a story. Shoes that evoke a place. Or even a historical event.
In late June, Asics launched a somewhat under-the-radar dual collaboration with famed Japanese design house Atmos and Simon Wood, the editor and publisher of Sneaker Freaker, a beloved Australian sneaker zine. The canvas for this shoe is the Gel-Lyte III OG, The Gel-Lyte first launched in 1990 and is constructed in a manner that lends itself to radical color-blocking. The “story” this shoe tells is about the stray cats living in the alleyways of Tokyo and Melbourne. Gray suede toe and heels along with deep purple color at the mid-foot read like nighttime in the city. Plasma green laces and a pop of neon on the sole, along with glow-in-the-dark logo stripes, function as city lights. Pale bands of slightly furry cowhide represent feral felines. The concept is clever. The gray/purple/neon green colorway is irresistible. The weight of the materials will make these a go-to shoe in my rotation this coming fall and winter. (The Ally Cat retailed for $160 and can be purchased now on StockX for under $200.)
My affinity for this shoe came as a surprise. I largely stay away from collab shoes. In the mid-2010s, when it seemed like every B-list rapper and Brooklyn-based graffiti artist had a sneaker collab, these joint projects generally yielded a loud color combo on a standard pair of trainers. The opportunity to design a pair of Dunks or AF1s engendered an “everything but the kitchen sink” design mentality. The phenomenon birthed scores of very loud but utterly forgettable kicks. Eventually, cultural fatigue set in. I’m not sure if the number of collab sneaker releases has decreased over the last decade or if I just started paying less attention to the dreck?
To this day, the hype cycle is driven by collabs. There’s been a paradigm shift. Instead of Sound Cloud MCs, the partnerships are now between sneaker giants and red-hot luxury brands like Union in Los Angeles or Atlanta’s A Ma Manierei or Gucci. Many of the shoes have been spectacular. However, the bar for entry into this space is extremely high. It’s practically impossible to snag a pair of Union x Nikes for under the price of a kidney.
Besides, we don’t chase hype at Fatherly. Chasing a shoe that everybody has or wants is boring. We love subtlety. We’re keenly interested in the forgotten, overlooked, and under-appreciated. And we want shoes that tell a story. To that end, we present three of our all-time under-the-radar collab kicks.
1. Sneaker Politics Cafe DuMonde
Sneaker Politics, the Louisiana-based chain of sneaker boutiques, is the best place on the planet to buy a pair of shoes. The brick-and-mortar locations are brilliant tributes to Louisiana’s history and culture. Over the years, the collaboration shoes designed by owner Derek Curry and his creative team have followed that same ethos. There have been designs inspired by King Cake; the blue cannons used by the United States at the Battle of New Orleans; HBO’s Southern Gothic crime thriller, True Detective. They cheekily affixed Mardi Gras beads to Jordan IIIs. By far our favorite is the Sneaker Politics tribute to the iconic coffee served at New Orleans staple, Cafe Du Monde.
2. Sneakers and Stuff Swiss Air
A close friend picked me up a pair of these exquisite and exquisitely random kicks during a stop-off at an excellent Swedish sneaker shop called Sneakersnstuff (https://www.sneakersnstuff.com/). The SNS Business class pays tribute to First Class air travel on Swiss Air during the last century with soft, caramel leather; rich suede; funky blue knit, and the iconic mid-century, Sigvard Bernadotte pattern, Virrvarr, on the footbeds. When I opened up the box I also found a Swiss Air toiletry kit, eye mask, and ear plugs. It’s the details that count. I go through long stretches when this is my favorite pair of shoes.
3. Salehe Bembury x New Balance Peace Be the Journey
Salehe Bembury is the most exciting footwear designer in the world. His first job out of design school was at Payless Shoes. After that came Cole Hahn and then Kanye West’s Adidas vertical, Yeezy. Then almost four years as head sneaker honcho at Versace. In 2021, Footwear News named Bembury designer of the year. He made Crocs cool and created this magnificent version of the New Balance 2002R. It’s called “Peace Be the Journey.” The yellow/orange/magenta/powder blue color scheme was inspired by Bembury’s early-morning hikes through Arizona’s Antelope Valley.