Kicks According to Sarah
Recently, I met up with Sarah Keem at Birch Coffee, my favorite West Village coffee shop in New York, to discuss sneaker culture and her role at retailers KicksUSA and Ubiq. Keem manages the entire customer service team for the two brands.
Philly-based KicksUSA and Ubiq have been around for about thirteen years. They currently have 45 KicksUSA stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, plus one higher-end Ubiq store in Center City, Philadelphia.
Keem describes KicksUSA as a family-friendly neighborhood brand focused on excellent customer service. “KicksUSA is a stepping stone into sneaker culture. Our employees wear simple blue tees, and they are fairly young but not intimidating,” said Keem.
As sneaker culture continues to grow and evolve, it’s important to remember that not everyone is on the same wavelength when it comes to brand knowledge and sneaker significance. That can be a challenge when walking into a big store, or a shop with lots of exclusive product. The moment you walk into a higher-end store, you may feel judged for what’s on your feet.
“I am pretty new to sneaker culture myself,” admitted Keem. “I graduated from the University of Virginia and then taught in an elementary school. After that, certain circumstances led me to my job at KicksUSA.”
Watching the madness unfold over rapper/designer Kanye West’s first Adidas sneaker was an eye-opening experience for Keem. “When the Yeezy’s came out a few months ago, KicksUSA got about 100 pairs total. We get about twelve thousand people shopping online daily on our website, but that went up to sixty thousand for the Yeezy’s. We also got over five hundred phone calls,” said Keem.
“People were begging and crying for them, but they sold out in three minutes. We didn’t think they would be that huge. One caller said he needed a size 9 for his sister or else she would die of cancer. It was one of the most unexpected busiest days in our history. After it was over, all we could do is laugh and say, ‘This is what sneaker culture has become.’”
Keem’s story of the Yeezy craze shows how much the sneaker game has become like a legal drug for people. The anticipation, the passion, the “high” of actually picking up a sneaker that you’ve coveted for years can be quite addicting. As far as Keem and KicksUSA are concerned, the sneaker game is only going to get crazier. “I don’t see it dying anytime soon,” she said. “The culture does something to you – it sucks you in because a lot of times the shoes bring back childhood memories.”
This is a phenomenon that many sneakerheads and collectors agree on. When Jordans and other higher-end sneakers were first releasing in the 90’s, most kids couldn’t afford them. Now that the 90’s generation has grown up and has money to spend on shoes, Nike has wisely pushed the nostalgia factor by bringing back plenty of classic basketball shoes, runners and trainers. Oftentimes, all Nike has to do is leak a picture of the retro’d sneaker and the Instagram/Twitter/Facebook hype machine does the rest.
There are still subtle differences depending on where you go in the US, however. Keem spends her time in Philly with KicksUSA during the week, but most weekends she hangs out with friends and family in New York. I asked if she noticed any differences between sneaker cultures in the two cities. “For Philly, it’s all about style and the brand name – Jordan’s, SB’s, whatever is popular. It’s more about showing off your status. Mothers will come in the stores and know sneaker culture – they’ll buy Foamposites for their babies. In New York, it’s about runners like Flyknits. People are running around a lot more in New York.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, I had to ask what Keem’s favorite coffee shops were in Philly and NYC. “In Philly, it’s Elixer Coffee (on Sydenham Street). In New York, I think I’ll stick with Birch (from now on). I can’t believe how good that Chai latte was!”
Sneakers and caffeine – two of the most addictive legal drugs out there.