Sneaker culture is taking off in Pakistan—but there’s more to being a sneakerhead that having really cool kicks

Love of sneakers has gone beyond fashion — people are proudly displaying their curated sneaker collections against a wall as artwork.


In today’s Pakistan, where tradition and modernity are often deeply intertwined, the meteoric rise of sneakers marks a striking new chapter for all culturally savvy Pakistanis. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

March 14, 2024

ISLAMABAD – My high school friends and I, all dressed in fresh red and white shalwar kameez, stood backstage, exchanging excited looks. I was 15, and Bollywood tunes like ‘London Thumakda’ and ‘Kala Chasma’ had everyone pumped. The stage, much to our surprise, resembled an ice rink with its incredibly slippery surface. Quickly, we swapped our Peshawari chapals for sneakers. Stepping into the spotlight, we felt invincible.

I was sporting my slick Nike Blazers high-tops — the black and white ones with that cool suede stripe. The crowd went wild with applause as we busted out our moves. We were on fire, nailing every dance step, from the crisscross to smooth slides. It wasn’t just about showcasing our dance skills but also about showing off our sneakers — talk about a double whammy!

In today’s Pakistan, where tradition and modernity are often deeply intertwined, the meteoric rise of sneakers marks a striking new chapter for all culturally savvy Pakistanis. From hand-picking sneakers among the narrow shelves of Lighthouse in Karachi to eagerly anticipating the latest drops chasing hashtags on X (formerly Twitter), Pakistanis are forging a promising relationship with this piece of footwear, using it to communicate themselves to others — engaging in a silent yet expressive dialogue.

Love of sneakers has gone beyond fashion — people are proudly displaying their curated sneaker collections against a wall as artwork, differentiating between original and fake sneakers through minute details like the number of lace holes. Especially popular among Gen Z, sneakers have transformed into an unofficial dress code, worn to make a statement at parties and family gatherings — anywhere we can get a few heads to turn. It’s our way of making an entrance.

Just so we’re on the same page, when I talk about “sneakers,” I’m not referring to the typical rubber-soled shoes you’d find at Bata or Servis. I’m talking about those cool and iconic kicks that are all about their freshness, closely tied to street fashion, pop culture, and the latest trends. Nike Air Force 1s, Adidas Superstars, Onitsuka Tiger — a few popular names for you to get the picture.

Central to this sneaker revolution is Gohar Qayyum, the visionary CEO of Hopkicks, arguably the first digital retail store of sneakers in Pakistan. Gohar, in the final year of his electrical engineering Bachelor’s programme, stumbled upon a part-time job opportunity at Hopkicks while seeking to earn some extra cash.

A friend already involved in social media marketing referred Gohar to the company, as a favour. Gohar then joined as a part-time marketing manager in 2018. “Hopkicks, back then, was a baby company,” Qayyum recounted, reclining in a luxurious cushioned chair in the centre of Hopkicks’ dimly lit, almost royal, boardroom. “At that point, I had a general idea about sneakers — Jordans and all that — but I was undoubtedly a newcomer. I couldn’t even pronounce the word ‘Balenciaga’.”

Back then, he recalled, many footwear retailers hesitated when stocking sneakers, questioning whether these shoes would truly appeal and sell.

Pakistan’s entering its sneaker-head era

I was introduced to sneakers back in 2015 when I was in my Eminem poster on the bedroom wall and snapback cap with fingerless gloves phase. Kanye West dropped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 and Yeezus in 2013, the only two full albums I had on my matte-black iPod shuffle, which makes sense because the first sneakers I ever got my hands on were the Yeezy 350 Moonrock Colorways, which I had a relative bring me from the US for my birthday.

Up until 2018, I rarely saw sneakers in Pakistan, especially in my social circles. Sometimes, maybe at Karachi Eat and Cokefest, I saw people wearing green and white Adidas Stan Smiths (OG) or all-white Air Force 1s, but nowadays, sneakers are everywhere.

Shahzar Khalique, a thrifty sneaker-head, witnessed sneaker culture pick up pace during Covid–19. Thrift sneaker stores started to emerge on Instagram and Facebook, selling sneakers at a fraction of the price of the originals. “In Pakistan, whether you’re wearing fakes or originals, that’s just how it is; it’s not a big deal,” he explained while strolling through a colourful alley in Karachi’s Lighthouse Market.

His finger pointing at makeshift stalls set up by thrift sneaker retailers, he said, “Nowadays, even these people know sneakers by name and brand. Prices vary — Jordans are expensive, Superstars are cheaper. It wasn’t like this before.” As Khalique walked towards one of the stores, I noticed something different about his Vans Old Skool. He had laced them differently from the traditional cross-laced style — opting for bar-lacing. “Why’s that?” I asked out of curiosity. He responded with a smile, looking down at his shoes, “Well, it adds character, you know. I even prefer them slightly worn out.”

Khalique believes that if you want Pakistani culture to adopt something new, thrift markets are the way to go.

The life of a sneakerhead isn’t easy

I vividly remember getting into the online thrift sneaker craze, and I want you to hear me out. As I lay upside down on my sofa, doom scrolling on my phone during the Covid-19 quarantine, I stumbled upon an Instagram page called selling Vans Flame, one of the best-looking and ultra-rare sneakers to find that seemed like a steal at the price of only Rs5,000. Without hesitation, I immediately placed an order. A week later, my much-anticipated package arrived, and I eagerly opened the box.

The sight of what lay before me hit me like a truck — instead of the sought-after Vans Flame, I was faced with shiny, heart-stitched black office shoes, forcing me to enter a state of perpetual disappointment; “my neutral state.” I still have those shoes, because when I tried to contact the store for a return, they simply blocked me.

Life would be three times better if I were wearing Vans Flames while writing this, but as any economist would say, resources are scarce — not for Bilal, though, for whom tirelessly collecting sneakers felt like a movie.

“I felt like Thanos in The Avengers, collecting all the infinity stones,” Bilal declared, standing triumphantly in front of his impressive collection of 11 pairs of sneakers — almost like a proud dad. Bilal vividly remembers preserving separate boxes for each pair of sneakers, carefully cleaning his sneakers with a disposable toothbrush and Max dishwashing soap at the end of every week, almost like a ritual.

He wore a different pair of sneakers for each day of the week, treating his collection like art, the best to be displayed on special occasions. One such special occasion was his high school welcome event, where he sported off-white Travis Scott Air Force 1s with three Nike Swooshes — a special edition sneaker. “I wanted everyone to know what I’m all about,” Bilal emphasised.

However, recently, as a member of Karachi’s premier League of Basketball, Bilal has drifted significantly from his previous path with sneakers. Under his bed, I saw his Nike SB Dunks, revealing open seams, broken stitching and partially peeled-off designs. “To me, now they’re just shoes waiting to be used,” he mused, bouncing his basketball off his bedroom wall. “Like last week, I couldn’t find my slides to wear to the Friday prayers, so I wore SB Dunks to the mosque instead.” He laughed at the expression on my face. I get it; he’s moved on, but I’ve had a history of shoes getting stolen outside mosques, so excuse me for being shocked.

I understand that sneaker culture can be puzzling for some, even for us in Gen Z. Zarish, whose ex-boyfriend was a sneakerhead, shared an amusing, yet not so amusing for her, anecdote. During her time at Nixor, Zarish often carpooled with her ex who was a hardcore sneakerhead. He’d occasionally steer them to the mall on their way back from school. “This guy had the audacity,” she began, her words punctuated by a playful hand slam on the table, “to make me wait there for him for three whole hours while he browsed through sneakers.”

For some men, sneakers play a unique role in their fashion decisions, she said, describing them as the equivalent of “makeup, but for men.” According to her, it’s a way for men in Pakistan to express themselves and what they consider “dressing up”. “Men can’t do much anyways,” she said snidely.

For Hopkick’s Qayyum, sneaker culture in Pakistan does not operate in a vacuum. “When Kanye West performed at his listening party, we saw a spike in orders for Yeezys here in Pakistan,” he said. “No one can pull off fashion better than Black people,” he added. Qayyum observed that after pop culture moments like these, landowners from all over Pakistan often make bulk orders for sneakers, with a preference for Air Jordans. At the same time, the brand will also receive a wave of “pp” messages, with people asking about the price but never proceeding to actually place orders.

In the Pakistani sneaker scene, Qayyum, a seasoned player, emphasised the absence of any prominent sneaker brands in the country. “Pakistan has just one urban fashion brand, and that’s Rastah. We don’t really have sneaker brands; what we have are stores,” he explained, sighing in disappointment. “You can’t build a brand solely by hosting seasonal sales. Gucci didn’t become Gucci just because it had sales,” he said, expressing a wish for a more solid sneaker presence in the local market.

With sneakers gaining popularity, there’s an open market for anyone wanting more than NDURE or Outfitters, which simply copy foreign designs. “Designers in Pakistan are dead!” he lamented, emphasising the need for fresh ideas and originality.

For me, amidst the many divides that separate us in Pakistan — be it class, ethnicity, or gender — there’s a heartfelt nod followed by a smile that I feel I can give any sneakerhead I come across. It celebrates the commonality and appreciation we share for a cooler way of self-expression and “aha” moments. Sneakers have become our canvas, painting a picture of ourselves and our journey through this ever-changing landscape of traditional interaction.

Qayyum put it best, “What you give to the world now belongs to the people — now belongs to everyone.”

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