Sneakers. Footwear, equipment, fashion statement, cultural phenomenon, or living art?
For most people sneakers have a relatively simple and utilitarian purpose. They’re comfortable and – thanks to the latest trends – versatile, allowing us to make the most of a busy, active lifestyle without the burden of stiff soles or weather sensitive materials.
Anyone paying an inkling of attention to pop culture is aware that sneakers represent more than footwear, but it wasn’t until the mudac hosted an exhibit in 2019 looking at the influence of sneakers on high fashion that we began to understand the outsized power of “the culture.”
Indeed, for the initiated, sneakers are about so much more than shoes. Sneaker culture is a living, breathing, ever-evolving ecosystem, with players spanning from the corporate brands at the top of the chain to retailers to consumers to influencers and tastemakers to collectors and even counterfeiters. There are computer programs built to snatch up the latest designs the nanosecond they’re released for purchase online. There are unofficial sales channels – WhatsApp groups and physical meetups. There are risks and rewards, with big money on the line. There’s hype and ego. But also there’s passion and true affinity. To those who understand its codes, sneaker culture has a language all its own.
Refreshingly, unlike many other conspicuous consumption choices, you can’t just buy your way into this community. Anyone can drink a glass of wine, but it takes talent and determination to be a connoisseur.
That’s not to say you can’t drop several hundred francs on a sought-after collector pair of shoes and get the admiring looks of teenagers huddled in the Flon. You can. But if you really want to embrace the essence of all that sneaker culture represents, you’ll want to pay a visit to Olukorede Aiyegbusi and Tyson Lewis on Avenue d’Echallens.
In a former gas station turned café, turned flower shop, finally turned sneaker culture bastion, Olukorede and Tyson don leather aprons – a nod both to their professions’ cobbler origins as well as the craftmanship and care they apply to their work. Along the wall, shelves display brightly colored canvases of street art (signé by Tyson himself), and recessed lighting illuminates ornately painted shoes. The store is called Sole Savaz – pronounced “sole savers” with a flick of Olukorede’s native UK accent on the end.
Behind the counter, the two men attended to sneakers – washing away embedded dirt, repairing leather, or replacing the soles – in the same way a traditional cobbler would a pair of Italian leather loafers. They’d met by chance in Lausanne, after backstories starting in the UK and the US and taking circuitous turns from Los Angeles to Kazakhstan. Both felt a pull to expressing themselves professionally in sneaker culture – for Olukorede through his impulse toward business and Tyson through his art. By joining forces they offer something unique and complete – a service spanning from cleaning to radical personalization of a client’s sneakers.
When I explained that I’d always considered sneakers to be a pair of shoes that I would wear hard and then discard after two or three years, they looked at me blankly.
Olukorede then climbed up a ladder to retrieve a pair that a client had brought him. The client had purchased them in 2001 and here they were, awaiting a new sole and a new life. They were admittedly much cooler than the hot pink Asics I’d purchased on sale a couple years ago when I decided with ambivalence to start exercising. But I was struck, nonetheless, by how sensible this was, especially in light of our collective need to reduce unnecessary consumption. I then pictured myself in 2041 still wearing those Asics, and an acute sense of regret overcame me.
Tyson’s work as artist in residence was especially captivating. Wielding a tiny brush and hunched over a white high top, he explained his process. In some cases, a client comes with a specific request in mind – most often anime, he shares with a laugh. Those who know his skill are more likely to offer direction but ask for his creative conception. Like any artist on commission, these are the projects he enjoys the most. Some clients display the shoes in their homes, like the works of art that they are. Others slip their feet into them and take his art onto the streets.
Hype has no place here. Olukorede and Tyson are purist and quick to point out flaws in the system. Like true connoisseurs, they master the codes and understand the intricacies of the field but also warn of its excesses.
Sole Savaz’s feet are planted at the frontier of sneaker culture, inviting true sneaker enthusiasts to unlock another dimension of self-expression, deconstructing the codes of both their profession and mass-market sneaker brands, and sending art out into the world where it can live, adapt, and evolve.