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8th March 2023 EDT FEATURES

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)

SNKRDUNK caught up with the head honcho while he was in town for the Singapore leg of the exhibit at the ArtScience Museum. Time is money for the busy man but that hour he gave us was gold.

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)
Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)

Words by Charles Basa
Photos by Hidayah Goh

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris

The mountain that was the pandemic is in our rearview mirror now, smaller by the day. Travel is easing, reunions are abound, music festivals are happening elsewhere in the world. It’s mostly business as usual. And Steve Harris is here, with him—Sneakertopia. What a time to be alive.

He’s here on business but we’re sure there’s no better pleasure anyway when it’s for a laboured dream, sharing his love letter to sneaker culture, a proud father of his brainchild. Between all the promotion, networking and other engagements, we can only hope he wasn’t famished from all the things on his plate. Before he met us, he’d just had one at BlackTap, a NYC-themed burger joint. He’s a New York native and I guess home truly is where the heart is, and the way to the heart is through the stomach.

We were grateful to have an hour of his time. It was more than generous, all things considered. He was thoughtful and accommodating, making sure we were calm and ready as he was. He mic’d himself up, “Do you like the framing? Good?”

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)7

How did you and Steve Brown (co-founder) conceive Sneakertopia? How did that conversation happen?

Steve Brown and I met when I produced a documentary called Sweet Mickey for President, and he was one of the people that helped distribute and market the film for us. Then he also did the marketing and launch of Candytopia, and I went to the opening (of Candytopia). 

So my background is in film and television and Marlon Wayans and I, my producing partner, were developing an idea for a sneaker award show, a sneaker concept/program. It was either an award show or a sneaker docuseries but we were developing something in the sneaker space. And I came up with the idea of creating a brick-and-mortar, immersive, experiential [exhibition] to help support the idea for a TV show.

When I came up with that, I reached out to Steve Brown and said, “I think I figured out what our immersive idea should be.” And we’ve never looked back since. But we’re still working on that TV show idea.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen or experienced here in Asia?

Just a little while ago, walking through the entire exhibit has been amazing so far. It’s not completely together yet. There’s still the finishing touches to be put on it, but to see what was in my head, in my heart since 2018, first come to fruition in 2019 in Los Angeles and then to see what the team here at the ArtScience Museum has done in the evolution of that process—I’m literally speechless.

To see something that I helped to think of and create evolve into something even more beautiful. The GushCloud team, the SPACElogic team, and the entire team here at the museum are just fantastic partners.

Any local artists part of the exhibition that stood out to you, that caught your attention?

So I’m really excited that here at the ArtScience Museum, we have 13 brand new local artists like Sam Lo, Soph O, and HURUHARA that were not part of the original exhibition in Los Angeles. Which is what we’re all about in continuing to provide a platform for exposure for street artists. They’ve never been seen before in Sneakertopia and we’d love to continue that part of our branding and concept where we provide a platform and a space for local artists to be presented to the public.

Are there plans to make a book out of the exhibition?

I think that the exhibition is a perfect material for a cocktail coffee table book. It’ll be fantastic for us to produce in the future. Especially as we continue to build upon the artists that become part of the Sneakertopia family.

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)

“… to see what was in my head, in my heart since 2018, first come to fruition in 2019 in Los Angeles and then to see what the team here at the ArtScience Museum has done in the evolution of that process—I’m literally speechless.”

Steve Harris seems like the the overachiever too humble to brag about his Emmy, his admission to a prestigious Black Ivy League university (Howard University), or his eminent role in creating a roving museum exhibition catered to a billion-dollar subculture.

He’s living several lives in one lifetime. At one point a studio executive, an entrepreneur, “wearing many hats” that complement his sartorial inclinations. While we all want to have a pick at his wardrobe, there was more gold to uncover in picking his brains.

With the progressive integration of AI, how do you see it changing how we experience sneaker culture?

That is definitely a Steve Brown question. I could talk about it but he represents our techgeek, guru side of Sneakertopia and that’s all he’s been working on. It’s evolving so quickly. He’s created and is knee-deep in developing this AI called “Jordy”, in which it collects all of this information about sneakers, more than any sneakerhead could possibly ever know.

It has actually condensed all that info, it’s always growing, and you can ask Jordy any question and it will respond… it can even recommend you sneaker movies. It will tell you any type of—any information you want to know about sneakers, sneaker history, sneaker culture, or the future of sneakers.

Is Jordy an acronym?

Jordy’s a name inspired by Jordan [laughs]. But I thought it was cute because it could be male or female but it’s still just Jordy, and it’s an homage to where it all began.

Sneaker culture began in the States (for the most part), now it’s reached a global scale. How do you see that influence being reciprocated back home? From the US out to the world, from the world back to the US.

I think that sneaker culture is a perfect example, if you identify how fashion, trends and influence continue to get interpreted, involved, and inspired.

So dig a little deeper, if you had to identify one of the milestones in which it developed, back before the internet, back before you had instantaneous access globally to items and merchandise, sneaker culture was very regional. It’s ironic how the world started out as flat. We discovered and acknowledged the world is round and now the world is literally [sic] “flat” again in the way you have instantaneous access to information, to merchandise, to interaction.

So when sneaker culture first started, just as an example: When you were in New York, when you went to visit family in Philly or Virginia or Florida and picked up merchandise there and came back, you were the freshest. No one knew where you got them. It wasn’t on Google. “What’re those! When did you get that?” And your sneaker was admired. Now that practice is done instantaneously.

So with culture being distributed and accessible globally and instantaneously, I feel like the evolution of how sneaker culture is impacted, how it reverberates and bounces back, that happens in a 24-hour period of like, “whoa did you see what they’re wearing in Paris?” And it’s in New York. It wasn’t like that.

There’s a story in Japan. I can’t remember his name. Is he the designer of ASICS? There’s some guy I saw on the sneaker doc—it’s terrible I forgot his name*. So he went to school in the States, he would fill up his case with sneakers and bring them back to Japan and flip them.

So he would literally fill up his suitcases and come back to Japan and sell them for two or three times more than what he had purchased. This was before SNKRDUNK or StockX existed. So what we’re able to have access to now, being so instantaneous in design, in inspiring, and in influence, I feel like there are so many opportunities for so many new creatives in this space.

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)

You’ve seen MSCHF’s Big Red Boots. What’re your thoughts on it and what do you think its virality says about our society?

I personally love MSCHF’s Big Red Boots but do I think I would wear them? Probably not. I like it when I see them worn in certain ways. I feel like they’re a statement piece that has the potential to be classic.

Basketball and skateboarding shoes were some of the earliest seeds that formed the sneaker landscape. What do you think is the next sport that will have that same impact going forward?

What do you think it is? And I’ll tell you what my answer is.

I’d say golf.

Golf? Oh! Okay. Have you heard of Eastside Golf?

Yes, sir!

Alright, that’s a good answer. That’s a great answer. I’d say we’re already experiencing it. I’d say it’s music. If you look at music as a competition sport with performances, battle rap. When you think of using basketball and skateboarding as how you set up the question, why those sneakers became so big is because they had a celebrity to brand it with, you had a superhero in that category doing superhuman, physical feats that represented that sneaker.

I will agree with you on golf. I can see that the potential is there. I think that it currently already exists in the music space. Collaborations with artists like Travis Scott, Kanye, Pharrell. I think that music is the sport that currently exists post-skateboarding and basketball. Tennis was kind of there, as part of street culture. It was kind of there, just never as big as basketball. But I think music is there right now equally as basketball and skateboarding.

Thoughts on the proliferation of clogs into the sneaker landscape? With Salehe Bembury and the many Crocs collaborations.

My thoughts on leisure slides footwear becoming a canvas for fashion pieces, for comfort, and practicality is… it kind of already existed back with Birkenstocks. I think that Gucci and Versace slides and the like already kind of existed, just not fully-permeated. These are just opinions, not facts but the last big—before Salehe—the last big surge of interest that the culture has embraced as far as leisure slides go were the Yeezy Slides.

Crocs were there too. Crocs and Birkenstocks were always there but it’s nice to see that Crocs have partnered and collaborated with really talented designers to help elevate, re-establish, and reinvigorate the brand.

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singare Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)11

“…what do you choose in your life and how your life evolves and sometimes a happy ending is not so happy. Life is like a beautiful opera. There is happiness and sadness but learn to find joy in both.”

There were more questions to ask, more answers to ruminate over. There’s more food for thought from so erudite a man.

On the surface, everyone can see all he’s done, all he’s created and shared with the world. They’ve entertained and educated us, elevated the culture. As many stories he’s helped tell of others, there’s more of his own worth knowing, if only we would ask.

How big is your sneaker collection now?

My sneaker collection is constantly growing. I picked up another four pairs in LA before I flew out here. I don’t have a full count, I stopped counting at 80 pieces. If you had to quiz me, I’ll say around the 120 range.

I picked up a pair of Fear of God. I picked up these Off-Whites (Off-White x Nike Air Force 1 Mid “White”). I had to get something for the Virgil pants to match [lifts his foot to show the matching fit]. I picked up a Ben & Jerry’s, the Ben & Jerry’s Dunks—

Those aren’t cheap!

How can you put a price tag on them? [laughs] I picked up a pair of BAPE x fragments. It’s like the Travis Scott Jordan 1 frags, except they’re BAPE.

Is there a sneaker that you wish you had right now?

If I had to get something today that I don’t have, it would probably be the Air Force One “Tiffany’s”.

Is there any pair that holds sentimental value to you?

Those would be my “Tiffany” Dunks. My son has a pair and I’ve wanted them for a while. I was able to get them about a year ago. I bought them used, and I’m about to do a sole swap on them with some “Panda” Dunks. They’re in good shape but I’m about to break them completely to get them restored. They’re a classic now. The soles are a little yellowed and aged but when I do the sole swap they’re going to be great.

You wore a lot of Fear of Gods at one point. Have you added any more brands to your rotation as part of your staples?

In the last couple of years, I’ve fallen for more central pieces. More AMIRI, I like that designer. More Reves Paris by this designer David Weeks. I really like his collection too.

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)

You started a clothing line called “Tribe Vibe” a long time ago. What kind of offerings were part of the collection?

That was years ago, I’m not even sure if it exists in any form. That was years ago back in college, back in the early ‘90s, early 1990s, or as you guys would refer to it as the 1900s [he jokes].

It was mainly t-shirts and sweatshirts but they were all hand painted by artists. Everyone was individually hand painted. No two pieces were exactly alike so even if you got the same picture, if it’s hand painted by an artist, every piece was going to be a little bit off and different every time. And we had it distributed by Macy’s in Maryland.

Could you recommend a book, a film, and an album?

You ask some good questions. These things change daily but for an album, I would recommend Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation” (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill). It stands the test of time. You could play it over and over again, and the beauty of that album is that you can play it in sequence or out of sequence. It’s a whole story, it feels like a movie when you listen to it. It’s amazing, and also what’s amazing is that it’s the only solo album she’s ever put out. When you put out something that good, you don’t need anything else. I can’t play a lick of music but If I was a music artist, I would strive to achieve that level of (artistry). “I made A album. I didn’t make 20 albums. I made AN album”.

For film, my favorite film that I recommend would be… that is a crazy question. There’s so many good films. I feel like I should text my wife, “what movie’s our favorite movie?” [laughter]

I can’t remember what it is but I just remember the feeling. Let me just throw one out there. It’s not my favorite movie but this movie was kind of like it. It had the same emotion and it was “La La Land”. There’s something else that I’ve seen recently that I remember my wife and I saying that it’s our better version of the feeling we had after (“La La Land”).

Because of the relationship that the two main characters had, the love story that existed, of the work-life balance that did not exist, and what do you choose in your life and how your life evolves and sometimes a happy ending is not so happy. Life is like a beautiful opera. There is happiness and sadness but learn to find joy in both.

My favorite book would be The Alchemist. She just started reading it and I’ve read it three times. It’s one of those that everytime you read it at different points of your life, something clicks and it resonates. It’s a book that gets better and better with age.

Sneakertopia CEO Steve Harris on the Singapore Exhibit, its Future (and Other Things)

Who is the most consequential MC out of New York? Between Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z.

They’re all fantastic for different reasons. It’s really hard to choose one. I can’t choose one, I could only explain their reasons for greatness. For me, I feel Biggie’s greatness comes from… they’re all fantastic storytellers. But for Biggie who passed away at such a young and early age, to still be able to hear his songs and his lyrics and still have them resonate to a new audience is fantastic.

Jay and Nas, I feel like… they both kind of started out at the same time. Nas became bigger, quicker, earlier than Jay did and then (Jay) eclipsed him. But to where they both are levelling out now with the music they’ve produced, with the business acumen that they both have, I’d have to say that they’re kind of equal at this stage. They’ve always been equal. Now they’re both elder statesmen, who have survived violence, survived the industry, survived financial literacy. It’s not an easy business. Life is not an easy business to navigate. And Nas and Jay have done a fantastic job, gracefully and with example.

Who are your top 5, dead or alive, artist or groups?

Not in this order but let me just rattle off. I would put Public Enemy in there. I would put the Fugees in there. Now I can’t say the album but if I say artist that would put Lil’ Kim in there as an artist. Not necessarily a crazy album but as an artist definitely Lil’ Kim. One of my top 5 hip-hop songs would be “The Benjamins” (It’s All About The Benjamins). Whenever that comes on it’s still…

Two more. I would put A Tribe Called Quest in there. I would put Kanye in there as one of my top five albums, producers, artists. See and the reason I put that in there’s because… by saying Ye, I still include Jay. How many artists do I include by acknowledging Ye’s greatness and contributions to hip-hop.

Who was your idol growing up?

Your idols change as you get older and wiser, as you achieve and evolve. I’d say as a young child, one of my idols, going from like, five years old to 12 years old was probably Louis Armstrong. So I grew up in Corona, Queens and his house… he lived two blocks from me.

So I met him when I was a child and he would get his haircut at the barbershop across the street. And to actually see him in the flesh and have a conversation with him or be with him at the barbershop and then watch Ed Sullivan or some evening broadcast and to see him there on my black and white television was like “wow, anything’s possible.”

Then as I got older, in college, I’d say my idols were—I gravitated towards filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Kenan Ivory Wayans. So ultimately to work with the Wayans family and to be Marlon’s business partner wasn’t anything I kind of like—it did manifest but it was just like, oh this is what I gravitated towards so the universe put this in my (trajectory), of the path of which I would create, and evolve, and develop.

*Presumably Hommyo Hidefumi, the legendary founder of Japanese sneaker boutique, atmos. He studied in Philadelphia in the early ’90s, buying rare sneakers for US$20 and selling them in Japan for 20 times the price.

Sneakertopia opened at the ArtScience Museum on 25 February and will be showcased until 30 July. Find out more about what you can see and how you can see them here.

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