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Illustrator Karabo Poppy's take on sneaker culture celebrates African design

February 23, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 38.4%. 2 min read.

The young South African talent went from collecting Nike sneakers to collaborating on them, weaving African-inspired motifs into her work. Her sneakers have won fans worldwide, and even landed on the feet of basketball star LeBron James.

"When I started my (art) journey, I was really inspired by hip-hop, rap and basketball, and I'd always seen this theme of Nike Air Force 1s and Air Jordans," she recalls.

But the Forbes' "30 Under 30" creative found a supportive community through sneaker culture.

"People identify from their sole, S-O-L-E, on purpose," says DeJongh "Dee" Wells, a self-proclaimed "sneakerhead" and creator of the podcast "Obsessive Sneaker Disorder (OSD). "

"They choose their footwear very specifically to give them a little glimpse of 'who I am and what I'm about; what's important to me,'" Wells says, whether it's an iconic pair of Jordans or maybe "a Jeremy Scott Adidas sneaker with the wings, because they're holding on to dreams of hope and change. "

Shoebox collections like Poppy's tower are a source of pride within sneaker culture, according to Wells.

Most recently, she worked with Nike on a release of the Jordan "Why Not?" Zer0. 4 sneaker, basketball player Russell Westbrook's latest signature shoe.

The origins of sneaker culture

Sneaker culture is hard to define, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, historian and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

Ultimately, she says, it's a group of individuals interested in the history and the storytelling opportunities offered by sneakers.

The rise of sneaker culture began in the 1970s when shoes designed for sports like basketball and tennis crossed over into lifestyle fashion, according to Wells.

This paves the way for the huge cultural uptake in sneakers," says Semmelhack.

Perhaps the watershed moment for modern sneaker culture was when NBA star Michael Jordan signed with Nike to launch Air Jordans in 1985.

By the time a young Poppy encountered sneaker culture in the early 2000s, it had become a full-fledged global phenomenon.

"It's the most diverse culture that I know," says Wells.

"Hair has been something that's important for not only my family but a lot of African people as well; it's really like the center of our identity in a way," she says.

Those designs are evident in her shoe collaborations with Nike, a partnership that Wells says is all too rare in the world of sneakers.

There's not enough," he says.

"I'm extremely proud to be a Black female African illustrator because this was a space, I'll say 10 years ago, there weren't a ton of us there," she says.

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