Sneakertopia celebrates the art -- and commerce -- of sneaker culture

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Sneakers are very, very big business, a nearly $20 billion industry in the U.S. alone. Limited-edition kicks are released weekly, with collectors lining up overnight to get their hands on a rare pair and then reselling them online at significant markups. 

If you are in sneaker culture you are a “sneakerhead” -- and now you can celebrate the sneaker life in all its glory at a new pop-up themed experience called Sneakertopia. 

It’s in an empty retail space at HHLA, the rebrand of The Promenade at Howard Hughes Center off of the 405. 

Rare sneakers on display at Sneakertopia. Photo Credit: Anthony Ibra for Primitive and Sneakertopia, Inc.

“Sneakertopia is a celebration of sneaker culture and we celebrate it… through massive large scale installations, larger than life murals, sculptures” as well as “ some of the rarest sneakers in the world on display and actually for sale through a really big sneaker collector,” said Justin Fredericks, curator of Sneakertopia.

The installation is part museum, part store. It also has a made-up brand called Frugal, a kind of parody of Supreme, the skateboarding and streetwear brand. But the show is not about commerce, says Fredericks.

“It's very forward looking. You see a lot of installations that are projecting what the future of sneaker cultural will look like. But then it's also super nostalgic where, you know, you get brought back to that time where you wore your first Jordans or or the first Reebok pumps. And then it's cross-generational because kids who grew up in the 80s are now adults with kids of their own,” he said.

“Frugal, The Priceless Brand” is an installation at Sneakertopia that parodies the consumerism of sneaker and streetwear culture. Photo credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Sneakertopia, Inc.

We visited Sneakertopia with our colleague, KCRW DJ Anthony Valadez. And that’s because he knows sneakers.

“When I grew up, we were poor. There were the Jordans that we couldn't afford and there were like the $40 sneakers. So to get a fresh pair of Jordans when you got your first job meant a big deal. They were status, right? And you're wearing these sneakers and you're basically the king of your block and you couldn't wait to go to the club and break dance in them. And this was like, ‘I exist. I'm here.’ And to now see this play. And even corporations realizing the value of what we did when we were broke is interesting. It's been an interesting journey,” Valadez said.

KCRW DJ Anthony Valadez with artist Man One. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

We also met the veteran street artist Man One. He contributed an entire room to Sneakertopia, styled to look like a music festival. There’s a stage made to look like a blue Adidas shoebox, and a big mural with colorful drawings of hip-hop stars like Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliott, Travis Scott and the late Nipsey Hussle, all wearing oversized sneakers.

Wearing sneakers that are meaningful to you, said Man One, is “a moment of of self-expression that nothing else can provide.”

KCRW DJ Anthony Valadez with visual artist and sneaker customizer Sophie Mazzaro. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

Another artist, Sophie Mazzaro, had a display of sneakers on which she had painted custom designs.

“I was always a sneakerhead and always a tomboy growing up in Berlin. And I did graffiti and all that stuff. So you always needed to have shoes that you can run away in. And I always wore flats. And then the U.S. had the sneaker culture. So I had to order everything from the U.S. and it was hard to get my hands on some of the shoes. So I customized my own,” she said.