Jonathan Fong Of Sole Superior Talks Sneakers, Conventions, And The Pair That Nearly Made Him Cry

He also told us who exactly Stan Smith was.

BY BEATRICE BOWERS | Jul 7, 2016 | Shoes

Dexter Tan and Jonathan Fong of Sole Superior | Straatosphere

Sneakers, street style, and atheleisure. These are the pillars that have been dominating fashion's most coveted aesthetic for the past couple of years. Hypebeast has even entered common vernacular, being used as an adjective to define a look or behaviour that aligns with the haute street fashion blog's visual creed. While fashion purists may scoff that the sneaker craze is just a fad, shoes like the adidas Stan Smiths have settled into a pretty comfortable pedestal that doesn't seem to be crumbling from passing hype.

Jonathan Fong is someone who knew what queueing hours for a pair of kicks felt like before people lost their heads over NMDs. He's been a sneaker aficionado since 2007 when the fervour was at its historical lowest. Growing up during the pre-Internet '80s, Fong's television diet led to him becoming enamoured by the style of '80s pop culture icons, like Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, and Back To The Future's Marty McFly, who all knew how to rock a pair of sneakers. 

Growing older meant getting jobs with more disposable income, allowing Fong to fuel his passion. At one point, his sneaker collection grew to over 350 pairs. With such an ardent love for the culture that surrounds sneakers, meeting Dexter Tan while waiting in line for a new release was the spark they both needed to start Singapore's pioneering sneaker convention, Sole Superior. It's been four years since the advent of Sole Superior, held annually at Zouk. Attendees have amassed a staggering 6,500 across three days, and the following is constantly on the rise thanks to an ever-present sneaker fanaticism.

ESQ: Tell us about your first pair that sparked off a "this is it" moment for you.

JF: The first pair that sparked off my sneakers affair were the AirWalk One, which cost about SGD100 at the time. I got them from 77th Street, and it was such a big deal. Man, I loved those shoes. I wore them to skate, to trek, to chill... My first “grown man” purchase were the Jordan 1 Old Love, New Love Pack, which was about SGD380 for two pairs of shoes, and I never looked back.

ESQ: How did it go from Jordan 1s to starting Sole Superior?

JF: Meeting Dexter and becoming friends is something incredibly rare in such Hypebeast-like situations. Meeting new people would tend to be fleeting experiences, but we became friends through a common envy of Singapore not having large-scale sneaker conventions like abroad. We both had a background in events, so it just made sense to try to start something like that here as no one else was going to do it.

ESQ: What's the reception been for Sole Superior?

JF: We’re incredibly fortunate to have the investors and the support we’ve received so far, and it’s grown organically, as much as I hate using that word. Sole Superior takes pride in being original and unique for a sneaker convention—we have a mix of global and local labels, retailers, resellers, artists, and customisers who participate each year. I attribute this growth to the rising appreciation for sneakers, especially in Singapore. People look forward to these activities the same way one does with ComicCon, or AnimeCon. It really does bring together people with likeminded passions.

ESQ: Why do you think people have become so captivated by sneakers?

JF: Fashion trends are cyclical in nature. As of late, popular culture plays a massive part. Take Kanye West, whose collaboration with Adidas has made waves. He previously worked with Louis Vuitton for sneakers too, but Adidas truly allowed him to reach the masses. The K-Wave has really contributed to the hype, especially Korean hip-hop. One would usually associate hip-hop artists with sneakers, and the growth of that subgenre’s popularity, as well as K artists looking to the West to emulate their aesthetic has helped expand the appeal of sneakers to the Asian market. 

ESQ: How about social media?

JF: It's played a massive part as well. Take the adidas Stan Smiths. Stan Smith was a famous tennis player in the 70s who exclusively played in the shoes, but no one knows who he is. The craze over the shoe kickstarted when Marc Jacobs and Phoebe Philo wore them down the runway. Social media eradicated the need for fashion magazines to be the connecting point between trend and consumer. Now, you’re just overwhelmed with floods of images saying “look like this, it makes you cool”.

ESQ: Could you tell us about one of the most memorable sneakers you've seen at Sole Superior?

JF: It was during our first year where I had a moment that nearly made me cry. . It was seeing the Air MAGs from Back To The Future 2 in person. In 2013, Michael J Fox made the actual Air MAGS from the movie, except they don’t tie themselves, but they did light up. There were only 2000 pairs auctioned off for charity. Seeing someone wearing that pair into Zouk, and watching them light up…it was surreal.

ESQ: And a pair you wore?

JF: They’re a pair of Adidas Ray Fongs, by the designer Barry McGee. Those shoes got pulled out when they dropped as they featured a squinty-eyed Chinese man on them. The irony was, McGee was half-Asian himself, so it wasn’t as if he was lampooning on a racist trope or anything. I found them on Carousell after five or six years, after constant searching. I got it for only SGD100, and yeah, it was used, but in great condition.

ESQ: How much have you spent on sneakers?

JF: When you’re on a good date, you don’t look at your watch. It’s the same way for sneakers. I don’t look at how much I spend.

ESQ: You must own a lot of pairs.

JF: In 2009, before I moved out from my mom’s place, I had about 350 pairs. But now, I’m married, with a 2 year-old kid, and the collection has shrunk to about 150 pairs. There’s limited space in the house now, so I try to work with a one-in, one-out policy.

ESQ: Is getting your hands on limited releases hard? 

JF: When we found Sole Superior, we wanted it to be a connecting point between the dedicated consumer and manufacturer. It’s always been an interest point for me to find out how they allocate their shoes. Why does Korea maybe get 500 pairs, while Singapore gets 100? Is it difficult to get your hands on exclusive releases? Yeah, but it’s part of the fun when it comes to being a sneakerhead. I’ve met grown men like myself from overseas who collect sneakers, and we’ve worked together to help attain Asia or US exclusive releases. There are means and ways to go about it, like purchasing off global sites, or waiting for the popularity to wane so the prices drop. If you’re someone who can’t get your hands on a pair you want, let it go for now. You will get another pair you covet in due time.

ESQ: All the zeal surrounding sneakers and collecting them could make it akin to collecting art, don't you think?

JF: The lifespan of sneakers aren’t that of a canvas. Like with art, popularity comes and goes. A part of what makes sneakers an art form is the ability to take classic models and reworking them. Like the Stan Smiths are an iconic classic that have gone through so many remakes, with various designers, differing fabrics and elements. Packaging also factors—what the box looks like, and the shoe paper, whether it’s printed, or scented. These never really used to matter, but now, sneaker companies are really trying to outdo each other in terms of packaging. Sneakers can be appreciated as art when displayed in a glass case, but I truly believe that they’re best on your feet, spurring neck-breaking reactions as you walk down the street.

ESQ: Have you had any such neck-breaking reactions?

JF: I haven’t had a neck-breaking reaction in a really long time, but once, I wore a pair of Kanye West Air Yeezys out and a bunch of patrol servicemen were like “sh*t! Look at his shoes!”, but they were still on duty and trying their best to retain their cool.