The revolution has been hyper-televised. In some future now behind us, still present and yet to come people rebelled against the privilege of a few, and they rebelled for the individualism of many. Vice-versa, perhaps, depending on where you are. Here’s the thing though. Not every tool of revolt is lucky enough to be labelled one. Sneakers earned that distinction much, much after the fact. But now that we all agree the ‘shoe’ has earned political and cultural significance for days, it’s fair to admit sneaker and street culture kicked off the graffiti-lined streets of New York and Los Angeles first. Most of the ‘80s and ‘90s kids with a pair of Jordans to their name reading this probably still see stars and stripes. Who cares if they grew up in an over-developed Mumbai suburb? What matters now is sound and style travel fast and it’s equally fair to say nobody owns what it’s becoming.
Just ask anyone here at Homegrown. Interpretations of street culture have been dipped and dyed in the pop-colours of global youth identities ever since; transforming itself into each one’s interpretations of pop culture, art, food, music, style, sports and so much more. We’ve learned that firsthand from our experiences in India. In late 2013, we set out to change the youth culture narrative of our home with our digital publication and creative agency. We wanted to provoke but we also wanted to provide. We told ourselves (and anybody who would listen, really) that Indian sub-cultures were here and ready. Somebody just needed to set them a stage.
So we tacked one together with a little experience and a lot of love, then tracked their determined beginnings curiously as they crept their way through cracks in the concrete; getting as up-close and uncomfortable as we could to lens the moments others might miss. And we tracked them until bright bouquets of break-dancers sprung up across local clubs trading their high heels for kicks and hoodies. Until young boys (and then, girls) sprouted up from the seedling skateboarders they were to the pro-skating teenagers they became building DIY half-pipes from Jharkhand to Bangalore. Until clusters of hungry rappers rose up from the violence and poverty of their slum-homes to reclaim Hip-Hop from colonially hungover elites spitting scathing verse in everything from Urdu to Punjabi. As unlikely as lilies in a junkyard but as impossible to ignore. By the time we looked up next, it was a jungle out there.
And it was in full bloom.
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A Clearing In The Forest
We didn’t know what to call it at first. This almost anthropological phenomenon gripping all kinds of young Indians at their soles. Not when we were cheering loudly from the sidelines and not when we were leading the charge (when we could). It took time and many learnings, alongside a handful of others equally excited by what was brewing, before we understood how deeply all the roots of these sub-cultures intertwined underground. Tied together firmly by their laces. The deeper we went, the more our questions changed too. How does a pizza delivery boy-turned-champion BMX rider from a Kurla chawl feel about the latest Yeezy drop? Does his excitement differ from a self-confessed sneakerhead who can afford to own them with the instant swipe of a card he may not have earned himself? Have their heroes changed? Do they love them because they can relate to them or do they love them because they give them hope? It’s not about judgment but there’s merit in understanding where the hype ends, and where the ‘culture’ begins. At least we like to believe so.
Still, truth be told we don’t have most of these answers yet. What we have had is enough time to see the nuances. And that’s what led us to the question we needed to answer most urgently–was it finally time to create a space dedicated purely to sneaker and street culture? The answer to this last one, for us, came out a resounding yes. We’ve learned the hard (and fulfilling) way that if you want to see things grow, find a little patch and make it fertile. Yourself. It’s why we’re hell-bent on throwing down India’s first Sneaker and Street Culture Festival (#HGStreet) in 2018, which will be a yearly property that will travel across Indian cities. And it’s why we’re here to tell you the story of our own journey with Indian Street Culture for the first time.
A story that involves all of you.
Awakening The Third Eye
It wasn’t always like this. For most Indians, our first sneaker memories are more likely to conjure up vivid imagery of BATA canvases or Tuffs sports shoes. Your fondness for them was probably partly dependent on both your P.E. skills and your ability to make them survive through an entire monsoon. (Seriously, did anybody manage? Asking for a friend.)
Yet, in January 2014, we bore witness to over 150 skaters as young as nine and as old as 30 came together in the first ever International Skateboarding Tour and Competition in India. They sported worn-out Vans and laces tucked-not-tied DCs as they kick-flipped their way across the first ramps to ever pop up across India. These were kids from Bhopal, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jharkhand, Pondicherry and they knew exactly what they were stepping into. It was... a moment. Until then, everything we’d seen of skate culture was still fragmented. Pockets of people doing pockets of things. In collaboration with partners like Nick Smith, Abhishek Khan, Alis, HolyStoked Collective and facilitators like Vans, Redbull and Top Grom, we’d managed to create a common ground that brought them all together, and that ground became a goddamn time machine. We were those uncles and aunties gleefully asking the bacchas to perform stunts for us at family reunions. Only these kids didn’t need our approval. These kids were the future and they owned it.
In the years leading up to it and since, all of the aforementioned names have truly built the skate movement that exists in the country today. Suffice to say, it’s a thing of beauty now. There are as many as 17 (pretty legit) skate-parks across the country, a rural skate community in Bundelkhand with some of the incredible talent being honed, so many skate crews, homegrown hand-crafted skateboard brands like Tattva, and of course, all the skate crews who built it up. We’ve always been grateful for the opportunity they gave us to come play in their sandbox, even if we didn’t understand exactly what we’d witnessed just yet.
Not too long after, Puma gave us the impetus to engage with Bangalore in our own Willy Wonka way too. Since 2010, the sneaker giant had noiselessly been nurturing a culture of creativity in larger metropolises with properties like Creative Factory and Puma Loves Vinyl. So we put together a ‘Collectors And Curators’ space where we could engage with art, music, film and collector communities united by a common love for sneakers. A curated selection of collectors came by to showcase their unusual passions and disciplines. Think lomo cameras, rare Indian comic books, antiques and LPs, even exoskeletons of animals. Once again, the response was electric. And once again, we felt a similar shiver of excitement akin to Third Eye but it didn’t register as much more than a coincidence.
As it might be clear by now, up until this point, we were still floundering. Perhaps not with individual projects, but we lacked the understanding that all of this was part of something bigger. That turning point came with Nike thanks to an exhaustive three-hour-long brand induction (and revelation) on the architecture of Tinker Hatfield and the cultural significance of the Air (Max). It marked a first at many levels. For one thing, we truly understood that the without the rich history, the products were a mere commodity. Harness the emotional connection they naturally harboured, however (be it via fashion, tech, sports or personal self-expression identity) and they had such power to bring more voices into the youth culture narrative. Long ignored voices, especially. This had always been our goal with every story, campaign and event ever since. Each project an opportunity to shine a light on localised Indian identity, a chance to educate and encourage beyond the hype.
I guess you could say our third eye was finally open.
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Up, Up And Away
The rest is just history we’re interested in rehashing with a purpose, our mid-2014 Nike Dunk Sky Hi campaign being one of them. How the hell had we ended up hop, skip and jumping past three decades of history to an entire Lakme Fashion Week being dominated by a sneaker with a wedged heel? There’s a reason fashion has always been considered the final frontier for sneakers, it’s taken years of mindset changing and active efforts to change it everywhere else. In India, however, things were clearly a bit topsy-turvy and it didn’t have to be a bad thing. It just meant we had to start building the culture differently.
So that’s exactly what we tried to do, along with a fair few others. In the years that have followed, a motley crew of true lovers of youth, street and sneaker culture have run their streets fuelled entirely by a sheer love of originality and authenticity. Sportswear brands were critical to Street Culture’s widespread adoption pretty much everywhere, keeping a ton of faith in their partners’ understanding of youth culture in India. With Nike Sportswear, aside from co-conceptualising and executing many urban street styles, identity-driven lookbooks, we helped throw down a major Air Max campaign in 2015 which brought a wide variety of (previously hidden) Air Max lovers to the forefront sharing everything they loved about their kicks.
Since then and in-between there have been major campaigns featuring the country’s DIY generation across mediums, slick suits-and-sneaker pairings, experiences for adidas Originals with the hottest drops that would have been unimaginable a few years ago (think Yeezys, NMDs, ZX Flux) and the nationwide onslaught of the Stan Smith and the Superstars. It was about giving back to the key sneakerheads and culture drivers of the past decades (who did it for nothing but the love) and propping up the next generation of people who were going to build it further. It was about keeping it democratic and appreciating everybody’s contribution to the table.
That purpose we speak of? Aside from being milestones in our personal understanding of the street culture beast, we made amends with the realisation that brands didn’t have to be the giant outsider putting their foot where they weren’t welcome. They could truly be the facilitators that helped people take the culture forward, and if history tells it right, they were the ones that helped shape formative decades.
It Takes A Village
Of course, we were hardly the only people to think it or make strides towards it. Plenty of real sneakerheads—the ones who’d made their own way through lines around the block, auctions and customisation, the ones who knew the long-winding history of anything that touched their feet—were coming together to mark their own square territories on the gap in the map.
Sneakernewsindia’s emergence as a media platform dedicated solely to cops, drops, steals and more in late 2015 represented a real revelation. It insisted there were enough people out there wanting and needing a single destination to go deeper into sneaker news, with a completely Indian context. Founder, Henry Vinoth, thinks of it as a “sneaker portfolio of India,” this season, and few are better equipped than him to talk about how the game has changed. “I remember when I started there was just handful of good sneakers to talk about in our Instagram handle, now there’s a hot launch or event from the brands every week,” he says. “I feel globally things are feeling super saturated now, but in India, it’s all fresh and exciting.”
In Mumbai, four sneakerheads took it upon themselves to launch Sneakerstan, an Instagram page and soon-to-be running destination dedicated to a couple of different things. One, create a community where true sneakerheads could come by, listen, learn, ask questions, cop new drops. Two, actually help those struggling to get a particular shoe track and source them down. According to Jonathan Rego, one of the founders, they’ve already had one customer willing to pay $1200 on a pair of Yeezys and another who’s copped as many as five pairs since their existence.
Then there’s VegNonVeg, a veritable haven for sneaker fiends and India’s first multi-brand boutique sneaker store in Delhi. Launched with a whole lot of love by Abhineet Singh, Emilia Bergmans and Anand Ahuja (founder of Bhane), this is one of the few spaces in the country that truly understands how influential sneaker culture has been and can be across subcultures.
Some individuals touched upon it before anybody else had even realised it was happening. Uday Shanker, one of India’s first male bloggers who pushed sneaker and street culture through his blog and Instagram page relentlessly, never doubting the culture would catch up. His gut was right. Having nurtured his obsession in the early 2000s on “old sneaker forums like NikeTalk and Crooked Tongues on a dial-up internet collection,” Shanker is as happy as anyone to see the way things have taken off in the last two years. After all, it means brands are willing to stock product they wouldn’t have dreamed of retailing here in the past. However, he has bigger hopes to move beyond the hype. “Right now, the the average Indian sneakerhead is only interested in hype sneakers and mostly makes purchases that provide instant street cred,” he says. “As the culture matures, I hope that these ‘heads learn more about sneakers, their history, what they stand for, and develop a more personal and unique taste.” Allen Claudius’ ‘Bowties and Bones’ blog was another example, as he became one of the first to marvel and document the sudden rise of sneakers as cultural capital in the fashion world. Others like Ardy Ghosh never went public with their love, but it showed in they ever-growing collections. In earlier days, the small but motivated community of sneakerheads kept in touch via an incongruous WhatsApp group called ‘Bombay Sneaker Talk’ in which they could share their interests privately and would help one another cop the sneakers of their dreams. Admins maintained a strict checking policy to ensure no resellers or anybody who was there for the wrong reasons could partake in it.
The movers and shakers within India’s explosive gully hip-hop movement deserve a space unto their own (and they’re finally getting their due commercially and critically) in this conversation. World over hip-hop and sneaker culture has been synonymous with one another but it wasn’t always the case in India, where the former only really came into its own over the last few years. A far cry from the early 2000s where Western tunes only spun for the privileged few at expensive nightclubs like Red Light and Aziano, and any ‘homegrown’ rappers were still looking to the West. Today, we have rappers like Naved Shaikh (Naezy) Vivian Divine, Prabh Deep, Sun J, Brotha V, Feyago who have wielded their regional languages into weapons telling their stories with complete authenticity. Of growing up in lower-income, drug-infested neighbourhoods, of their growing frustration with unemployment and societal divides, of their sometimes anti-authoritarian viewpoints that make their shows hotbeds for police intimidation as in the case of young Kashmiri rapper, MC Kash. We have entire crews like The SlumGods (“you can’t learn hip-hop, you have to become hip-hop”) who rep every facet of the culture from b-boying to turn-tabling to beatboxing and rapping. In the last few years, so many of these voices have risen out of our burning cities that those on the inside worship them because they’re telling their stories, and those on the outside can’t ignore them anymore even if they try. The fact that a label like Azadi Records–helmed by Uday Kapur and Mo Joshi–even exists proves just that. The duo is running a small operation as dedicated to supporting and promoting more diverse voices in the hip-hop ecosystem as they are to disrupting the innate elitism that exists within our current indie music-verse; they’ve moved far beyond paying lip-service.
More recently, the launch of Street Style Spotlight, a first-of-its-kind Indian magazine dedicated to documenting the country’s fast-evolving street fashion identity has excited us. They’ve done a fantastic job of keeping things fresh by shining a light well beyond the manicured version of the fashion industry that it wants you to see. New faces, up-and-coming talent and an aesthetic that doesn’t shy away from showing you the real deal is what they do best.
And finally, we have celebrity sneakerheads like Ranvijay Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Badshah who are only spreading the hype further. They matter hugely in a country like India where the pedestals fans put them on remain stronger than ever, especially from an introductory point of view. Badshah even recently revealed plans to launch his own sneaker line in an interview with GQ. Considering his personal collection’s count is well over 500 (“I stopped counting after that”) this hardly comes as a surprise. More heartening still is that those close enough to him to be in the know vouch for the fact that his heart is as invested in the culture, as it is excited by the hype. With millions of adoring fans all over the country, green lights like his prove sneaker culture here has already entered the mainstream, whether or not it’s orchestrating its own future.
But does any of that even matter if we don’t care about its past?
To collaborate with us on #HGStreet you can sign up here.
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Don’t Believe The Hype
“Kids these days don’t know about the story behind the sneakers, the event tied to it, the struggle you faced in finding it in your size and colour,” wrote Karan S Thapa, a young copywriter at Ogilvy Mumbai and a bonafide sneakerhead, when we put out a call for street style writers. “Nor is it about the technology in the sneaker, why it’s there and what it does. They just do it for the three stripes and the Jump-man logo. There are people that just want Air-Max but don’t know what they’re looking at when they see a ’97.”
It’s hard to disagree with him. The hyperactive nature of our media eco-system can make it easy to lose sight of what’s real. All of the above can either make you think “we’ve arrived” or make you wonder “is sneaker culture just about aspiring cool kids?” For us, the beauty lies far away from a system that can be so easily gamed by an algorithm or boatloads of cash to burn. Yes, the hype in a place which doesn’t share any of the sneakers’ actual history can seem misplaced. But when the desire to do and create cool things takes over the desire to just be cool, culture gets built. Authenticity and vision get acknowledged.
And this extends to the consumers too. It’s not about who has the most sneakers or even the most expensive ones. Sneaker and street culture obsessives like Shravan Shetty know what it means to do. the. work. The 24-year-old live visual artist and animator with Wolves sounds off like the backend of a google search request if you throw even the simplest question about any sneakers at him–his gateway into the world being the graffiti crew, DIS, that he used to tag with. Pages and pages of information you didn’t know you wanted or needed. And he wasn’t born into the kind of inventory you need to obtain the shoes he covets, so he works his ass off for them. As a result, his collection is growing slower than others but we’ll be damned if he doesn’t know every single thing about every shoe he owns. The technology, the history, the name of the designer’s first-born child. “I think a real sneakerhead is somebody who finds his niche in a particular product and then keeps collecting them irrespective of the hype,” he says simply. “For me, that will always be the Air Jordan 1s.” He’s not the only one of his kind, either. Over the last four years, our efforts to document these stories have led us into the rabbit holes of many others like him who represent that intersection of hip-hop, self-expression, nostalgia, fashion, art, shoes, and more. The ones who represent the lifestyle.
The regional differences are drastic too. Major metropolises like Mumbai and Delhi are ahead of the curve, of course, but even they fall far behind the North East of India. On the streets of places like Shillong and Sikkim, you wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if street style is a subject offered within their public schooling system. Perhaps it’s the proximity to the border or perhaps it’s the heavy influence of K-pop. Whatever the reasons, it’s a story (that we’re committed to telling) another time. But it does prove that a culture has potential to become whatever we make of it, which brings us back to #HGStreet 2018.
Shoes Are Just The Half Of It
India is ready. And by that, we don’t mean just those few people lucky or driven enough to already be in the know. With #HGStreet, we want to create a space where all people of all backgrounds striving for individual expression in their own right, can find a home. A place for people in the know, yes, but also one that serves as a place where people can get a clue without judgment. A place where authenticity and originality can stand up and be counted, and a place where the gap between those who make the stuff, and those who wear the stuff can be bridged. But most of all, this will be a place that acknowledges sneaker culture at the centre of a much, much wider ecosystem.
It’s not a coincidence that hundreds of subcultures—hip-hop, skate, street art and so many more—are seeing their own emergence or resurgence at a time when sneaker culture is making its presence felt in the country. They feast at the same table when it’s carnival time. And for most, it’s one of these subcultures or the other that acted as a gateway to it all.
So think the rise of homegrown independent streetwear brands like NorBlack NorWhite—whose entire aesthetic is an impossibly fresh mish-mash of their love for ‘90s RnB/ Hip-hop and Indian craftsmanship—and Huemn, who provoke for everything but the sake of provoking with arresting imagery of their own unfussy clothes. Nought one, an engineer-turned-streetwear designer’s latest labour of love looks poised to be mentioned in a similar breath soon, too. Of essential-driven straight-up goodness like Haul Apparel and Kokkivo Clothing. Think dance pioneers like Prosenjit Kundu and crews like Beastmode and Calcutta Waack bringing real dance culture back to clubs. Think a generous chunk of the country’s explosive street art scene from Zake’s graffiti to St.art India’s multiple city-takeovers, descending to colour it all in. Think the middle-fingers-in-the-air generation of young, contemporary artists. The kids who care less about what you think, more about what you don’t and are ready to make you question everything around you with their art. Think the new breed of desi hip-hop artists we couldn’t be more excited about, laying claim to their stories via vicious rhyme. Think ground-up Indian skate and surf brands like Tattva and Temple Surfboards that showed up and stayed there when the community was first growing.
Think conspiratorial, think confluence, think every damn person out there with a stake in Indian street culture.
This isn’t about clothing, or shoes or brands. It never has been. This is about our stories and how we choose to live our lives. Your story and how you choose to live your life.
We’re here, we’re listening, and that’s the bait.
Getting hooked is on you.
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