Sneaker fetishists discuss the shoes that turn them on (and off)

The men who get their kicks from kicks weigh in on fashion’s ugly trainer trend

Most of us have pretty much never lived our adult lives without the internet. It’s affected us in innumerable ways – some good, some very bad – and despite not really knowing what a world without it looks like, it still continues to surprise us. In our Extremely Online series, we explore the apps, trends, subcultures, and all the other weird stuff the internet continues to offer.

Where do our kinks come from? Some, like the classic schoolgirl uniform, are obviously what happens when you put horny teenage memories, under-18 taboos (fuelled by porn’s categorisation of any woman below 35 as a ‘teen’), and the culturally agreed ‘hot’ short skirt and knee socks combo into a libidinal blender. Other, more niche proclivities are perhaps sparked by a moment in early childhood – like that time when philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau got spanked by a female guardian, changing the course of his sexual interests forever. “Who would believe this childish discipline, received at eight years old, from the hands of a woman of 30, should influence my propensities, my desires, my passions, for the rest of my life?” he wrote way back in 1782, pre-dating even the Marquis de Sade.

From uniforms, latex and leather to stockings and sportswear, clothing is a common object of fetishisation. And while the humble sneaker might strike you as less worthy of masturbatory fantasies than, say, a highly shined stiletto, there’s a whole community of people who get their kicks from kicks. For many of them, including @texasneak, an enthusiast who loves to post pictures of his Nike running shoes after getting them good and filthy, it’s been a lifelong passion that started way, way back. “I was in middle school when I decided to do a web search for sneakers,” he says. “I didn’t even know what a fetish was. I was amazed there were actually people into the same thing as me.”

Take a trip down the #sneakerfetish rabbit hole on Instagram, and certain themes emerge. It’s a mostly male, largely gay scene (“true for a large portion of the population, but not universal”, according to @texasneak). Although the pictures and videos posted are usually faceless, there are lots of different subsets: whether you’re into socks on/off; scally or chav boys in pristine Nike Air Maxes or TNs and matching tracksuits; shoes that are well-worn and stained; or trainers getting completely destroyed. It’s sometimes hard to work out whether there’s even really anything sexual going on – one account owner just films himself wiggling his toes while wearing different footwear. “Some guys like it really down and dirty, while others just get off on the look and smell of brand new socks and sneakers and everything in between,” the man behind the Berlin Sneakers website and community adds. “Some are super-fetishist about specific labels or models and that’s all they will deal with on a potential hook-up.”

For the most part, the shoes featured are more sportswear than streetwear or skate shoes – classic silhouettes rather than more directional Raf Simons x adidas Ozweegos or Converse Chuck Taylors. Some of the most extreme – and artistic – videos feature sneakers getting mutilated: cut up, burned, buried, submerged, and otherwise humiliated. @lvnsnkrs, who posts regularly on Instagram and YouTube, creates a lot of this kind of content – despite what you might think, though, he is not into the sexual side of sneakers – “I just like to wear them – or destroy them :)” he wrote in an email. In one clip, he jams the blade of a pair of scissors into the air holes on the soles of some Nike Air Max 97 Silver Bullets, while another film sees him crush tomatoes while wearing adidas Top Tens. He even films himself writing a slave contract on some Air Force 1s with a black marker.  

For him, the obsession started back in high school, when “my classmates were wearing cool shoes like adidas Trophy or Superstars and I was only able to wear some cheap no-name shoes”. Back then, he saved up all his pocket money to get a pair of Superstars of his own, but today people sponsor his videos – either sending new shoes for him to destroy, or paying money to request content featuring sneakers in various settings.

“I was in middle school when I decided to do a web search for sneakers. I didn’t even know what a fetish was” – @texasneak

While maybe not arousing for him personally, his videos certainly do it for others. His audience, he says, is divided between sneakerheads who get a nonsexual kick out of seeing their beloved shoes get tortured, and the fetishists who actually get turned on by it. “My indication is that the rarer and more expensive a pair is, the more people get attracted from both groups.”

Even if they aren’t rubbing up against the shoeboxes, sneaker obsessions certainly border on the fetishistic. The shoes become an object of desire which is lusted after; the virginal, box-fresh pair is hunted down, and then handled and stored as if it was a piece of art to be looked at rather than an item of clothing to be worn. Knowing all this, seeing shoes someone would pay hundreds of pounds for get gleefully trashed elicits the same emotions as the Humans of Late Capitalism Instagram account: a kind of nihilistic, smug satisfaction. We know paying triple figures for shoes because of a brand name or limited edition status is ultimately meaningless, an exercise in effective marketing. So why not watch them get annihilated?

A good example is Virgil Abloh’s hugely popular Off-White x Nike collaboration models. @lvnsnkrs has written “TRASH” on the Air Max 90s, crushed eggs with the Vapormax; and burned the Air Jordans with a cigarette before folding and clamping them. While some of the comments on these posts are left by those who feel a way about seeing the shoes getting “abused” (“I lived seeing the Vapormax at work with those eggs!” and the brief, pleading: “please in Deep mud” [sic]), others are from shocked sneakerheads. “I’ve got sponsored for exactly this purpose: to destroy them and test reactions of hypebeasts,” @lvnsnkrs says. “Based on the comments on the videos and pics, it’s obviously working.”

The ugly sneaker trend has dominated fashion ever since the remarkably monstrous Balenciaga Triple S made its first step onto the industrial grey carpet of the AW17 menswear showspace, with high fashion brands from Dior to Calvin Klein and Maison Margiela all riding the wave. But for the fetishists, there’s a big difference between trainers like the Off-White Nikes and anything that’s graced a runway. “For me, we need to separate between the Virgil Abloh sneakers from Nike and these ugly Raf Simons x adidas or Balenciaga shoes,” @lvnsnkrs explains. “The Virgil Abloh sneakers just look great! Love to wear and play with them. The others are just ugly.” @texasneak agrees when it comes to the Triple S. “Unless you were into sneakers I bet you would think these came from Walmart.”

Berlin Sneakers (whose personal taste requires the brand of socks to be coordinated with the sneaker when possible) takes a similar stance – and not just on the Triple S, which he describes as “fucking laughable at best.” “High fashion sneakers have been around for a while with the Y-3s, Jeremy Scotts and others before, but from the viewpoint of the gay sneaker fetish world, almost ALL of them are completely a NO GO,” he explains.

“I used to run a monthly sneaker fetish sex party here in Berlin and there was a really strict door policy of no designer labels on anything. These events are very adamant about advertising to their guests that a strict dress code is enforced at the door. If a person tried to come into my event wearing those Balenciagas… they would get the full wrath and be denied entry.” The only exception? Maybe some of the adidas x Jeremy Scott collab. Otherwise, he says, the worlds of fashion trainers and sneaker fetishists “are like oil and water and do not mix”.    

Instead, Berlin Sneakers says there are different geographical tribes with different interests. “The ‘Kiffeurs’ in Paris usually (wear) Nike TNs, the ‘Prols’ in Berlin are mostly adidas fans of old school styles like ZXs, Hightops, or even Sambas. The gay skinheads here prefer classic New Balance 574s, with adidas a close second as it is a homegrown German label. Puma just does not make the cut in the fetish world, for some reason.”

“If a person tried to come into my event wearing those Balenciagas… they would get the full wrath” – Berlin Sneakers

This speaks to something which seems to sit at the heart of sneaker fetishism for many who partake in it: a sense of (often personal) history. Much fandom seems geared towards vintage, classic, and retro models – shoes that might hold a nostalgia for the wearer or voyeur. The scally or chav look plays into this – an image of possibly violent heterosexual masculinity is queered and eroticised, becoming a source of pleasure rather than (or perhaps because of) fear. The problem @lvnsnkrs had with the Ozweegos was that there was “no history or deeper story in them” to justify the shoe’s ugliness. “I don’t need these high fashion sneakers and I’m fine with my classic retro models,” he surmised.

You would think that the rise of streetwear, and with it sneaker culture, into the fashion mainstream would have bred a new generation of trainer fetishists. Considering the obsessiveness of streetwear consumers and the lengths they’ll go to to possess the pieces they want, it’s surprising that hypebeast porn doesn’t really seem to be a thing. Being forced to fuck for Supreme is not yet a fantasy an LA adult studio has turned into a video series – although Pornhub does host a singular DIY, POV clip of a guy fucking a Yeezy Boost. Still, as Berlin Sneakers says, “it takes all kinds” – will a new generation of sneaker fans rise (sorry) to the occasion? Or has our ugly sneaker obsession already reached its climax?