RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — For some, they are just as magical as Cinderella’s glass slipper.

“It’s a huge part of who I am. You make that space for yourself,” said Josh Leak.

From the basketball court to the ball field to the casual stroll — sneakers are not just functional, they’re a lifestyle.

“Sneakers are just me. They are who I am. Like even when I go to work now it’s almost like my co-workers are looking to see what I have on my feet that day,” mentioned Kala Nwachukwu.

Dr. Delisia Matthews, Associate Professor in the Department of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management at North Carolina State University, said her fascination with sneakers started at an early age.

“I grew up with a cousin who was all about sneakers.  I’m going to take it way back to Bo Jackson and his sneakers that he came out with,” she explained.

Matthews’ fascination developed into the focus of her research.

Investigating sneakerhead culture

In Matthews’ project, “I wear, therefore I am,” she dives deep into sneakerhead culture.

So, what is a sneakerhead? 

Matthews defines it as “individuals who collect, trade, and/or admire sneakers.”

“Beyond just a shoe, it was a part of their maturation. Man, you go to middle school, and you got your first pair of Jordan’s,” Leak stated.

Leak works in tech and Nwachukwu is a neuroscientist.

“Being a sneakerhead has a story behind it. It’s like almost every pair of shoes I have its ‘ah, I remember when I got that,'” she described.

Both call themselves sneakerheads.

Matthews’ research directly ties the rise of hip-hop in the late 1970s, early 80s with the start of the sneakerhead subculture.

“My motivation was because I wanted to tell the story of our culture and how sneakers are engrained in black culture,” she explained.

The early beginnings consisted of notable sneakers like Adidas shell toes and Puma Clyde’s. 

The Jumpman will always live

The mid-80s saw the introduction of Nike Air Jordans.

A line of shoes that Matthews and the owners, Mike Cadwallader and Eddie Platon, of Capital Buy, Sell, Trade in Raleigh say still reigns supreme.

“In this area especially. Absolutely,” said Cadwallader.

“The Jumpman will always live,” Platon mentioned.

“Even with a younger generation?” CBS 17’s Nick Sturdivant asked the pair.

“At this point we’re, what, two generations removed from him actually playing? The kids and college and the NBA didn’t actually watch him. It became a culture,” Cadwallader said.

Matthews says the Jordan resonates with so many people still because of what it stands for.

“It’s what that original Jordan One stood for. He decided to take those fines just so he could wear those shoes. He decided to break the mold. I think that counterculture is something that a lot of sneakerheads get behind,” she said.

Brand preference among men

As a part of her research, Matthews interviewed a dozen male sneakerheads between the ages of 23 and 44.

Most of the interviewees said they have a deep connection with Michael Jordan and his shoes. 

However, she found that younger people even gravitate to celebrity collaborations like rapper Travis Scott’s collaboration with Jordan.

“In fact, the younger sneakerheads weren’t just so focused on basketball shoes either. We know that Jordan account for over half of the market for basketball shoes, but they were even most interested in comfort-oriented shoes like some of the Adidas,” stated Matthews.

Nick: “What was your biggest takeaway from doing those interviews with those men?”

Matthews:Going into my research I thought it was about the consumption and making sure I get every single one of those pairs when they drop.  But it’s deeper.  It’s about community.  It’s about making shoe contact before you make eye contact to know that’s one of my people.”

Matthews said she wants to do research into another important part of this culture.  Female sneakerheads.

The business of sneakers

Inside Capital BST there are a plethora of rare and popular sneakers.

“Basically, six years ago we definitely identified a need. We noticed the sneaker culture really growing around this area, but there wasn’t a store that people could go,” Cadwallader said.

Cadwallader and Platon not only run the store, but are also long-time sneakerheads.

“I saw a pair of Jordan 6’s and my dad got them. So, that right there I think was the first moment in my life I got to appreciate,” Platon mentioned.

While the big wall inside the store is filled with a variety of colorways, the biggest by far in the sneaker industry is green.

“Consumers are spending a lot on sneakers.  The sneaker market from a global perspective is valued at $72 billion right now,” Matthews stated.

Matthews said by 2026, it’ll climb to $100 billion.

“So, that then tells me that’s something I need to understand and really get a deeper understanding from a cultural perspective,” she said.

For the culture

Matthews further examines sneakerhead culture in her research project, “I Wear, Therefore I Am.”

Nick: “How many sneakers do you own? Roughly. Give me a rough amount.”

Nwachukwu: “Right now I’m probably at low hundreds right now.”

Leak: “I’m probably at 150-175.”

Leak said that number is a healthy compromise for he and his wife.

“(I use) about three closets. That was the deal when we had our child, it was like this cannot breach. This is her closet,” he said laughing.

As for Nwachukwu, being sneakerhead entrepreneur is her side hustle.

“People were already doing them in like other states and stuff like that, but I knew it’s something that we needed in Durham,” she said.

She started the Kickback Sneaker Expo in 2014. It’s an event where people can buy, sell and trade sneakers.

“We started at 33 vendors.  Our last event we had 155,” Nwachukwu said.

Matthews’ research has shown some distinct differences between the types of sneaker consumers in the marketplace.

“Hypebeasts are individuals who definitely stay on the pulse of what’s popular, what’s hyped per se,” she explained. The mentality for hypebeasts, she said, is “I’m going to get behind whatever shoe drops and whatever shoe everyone is following so I can use it for my marketplace.”

“The problem,” Matthews explained, “is the true sneakerheads who are trying to get these sneakers because maybe they couldn’t have them when they were younger—the nostalgia piece of it—they don’t like the actual hypebeast because they are marking up the costs.”

Nowadays, Leak said there may be five or six shoes dropping on a single day and sometimes, multiple times a week. 

“So, I think it’s very much so ‘you miss the bus you might catch the next one’ type of ordeal. But people still want what they want,” said Leak.

As for the guys at Capital BST, it’s a constant balance of cultivating a place for sneakerheads and trying to stay on the pulse of what’s popular.

“We’ve always branded ourselves on having a wide variety of things and trying to appeal to a lot of different customers at a lot of different price points. But that was the one of things that when we opened the store we had to just teach ourselves and kind of learn over time—What sold? What didn’t? And it changes from year to year,” explained Cadwallader.