Dan McQuade Dan McQuade is a writer living in Center City born and raised in the Far Northeast. He writes primarily about culture and sports with varying degrees of silliness. In addition to City Paper, his work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Philadelphia magazine, the Village Voice, Vanity Fair and other fine publications.
There will be lines down Walnut Street on Friday night and Saturday morning again this weekend. Scores of sneakerheads waited outside UBIQ one night last summer for the Benjamin, the boutique sneaker store's Benjamin Franklin-themed collaboration with New Balance. This week's release promises to be even bigger. In fact, it's Ubiq's biggest launch ever, an event that just might solidify Philly's place in the sneaker scene.
This weekend's specialty kicks are two pairs of Vans sneakers, the high-top Sk8-Hi LX and the low-top Era LX. While the Benjamin was just an eye-catching red and blue version of the New Balance 1600s, these sneakers — part of the Vault by Vans boutique line — are covered in the work of Japanese tattoo artist Hiroshi Hirakawa.
"When Vans wanted to do a project, we wanted to come to the table with something bigger than us coming up with different colors," Ubiq buyer Paul Lee says. "We said, 'Why not do something that represents art?' We reached out to some colleagues over in Japan, and one of them threw out the idea of working with Three Tides."
Three Tides Tattoo is well known among aficionados. It was one of the first Western-style tattoo shops to open in Japan, a country where tattoos are very much still taboo due to their association with organized crime. The shop has done collaborations before — such as in toys — but this is the store's first sneaker collaboration.
Before he was a tattoo artist, Hiroshi was known as a painter in ukiyo-e, a traditional form of Japanese woodblock painting that rose to prominence beginning in the 17th century. Per Ubiq, Hiroshi's painting usually depicted "geishas in nature scenes or samurai fighting dragons." Hiroshi previously did the cover art on a 30th-anniversary book about G-Shock watches.
"It made sense," Lee says. "When people think of Vans, people think of art, youth and rebelliousness, and the tattoo culture kind of represents that. Us being UBIQ, that's our forte, too."
Lee says the whole process, from concept to release date, took about a year (which is typical). The buzz has been building for a while. "We're getting people from Japan calling about these shoes," store stock manager Richie Phoeung says. And there's an appropriate over-the-top launch event for the exclusive-to-Ubiq shoe. Saturday's event is an all-day party, where Hiroshi will be tattooing people — three contest winners, plus an employee from the store and one from Ink magazine — in the actual Ubiq store.
The hype among both local sneakerheads and international Vans fans is one indication of just how radically Philly sneaker culture has grown in the last decade.
When UBIQ opened in its original basement-level Gallery location in 2002, it was an attempt to bring boutique sneaker culture to a mass audience. UBIQ distanced itself from chains like Foot Locker or Modell's: It was a lifestyle store, not a sports-focused store. But it also chose its location and pricing accordingly: It wasn't trying to be as upscale or pricey as current sneaker boutiques Sole Control in the Piazza or Suplex on South Street. It wanted to bring sneaker culture to the mall — and not a particularly well-regarded one, either. "It's not trying to disguise itself as an underground, boutique collector's shoe store," store architect Karl Peters told City Paper in 2002, right before Ubiq's launch. "It's an underground style, but it'll be accessible to everyone."
In that 2002 CP article, UBIQ employee Sang Yi said he thought Philadelphia's sneaker culture was underrated. "People usually go to New York," he told CP. "They think Philadelphia is one step behind. We want them to come here first." Today, UBIQ store manager Woody Kumetat says he does see people coming down from New York and North Jersey for releases. There were plenty in the line for Benjamins.
"Being in the middle of it, I knew that New York is the mecca still," he says. "But I think we have a better sneaker culture than … any other major city. I'd put us number two in the country."
And it's not just UBIQ doing special events. VILLA, another Philly-based lifestyle sneaker shop with locations in seven states, recently held a scavenger hunt in Philadelphia where contestants could win two of the most coveted Nike sneakers in recent memory: the Kanye West-endorsed Yeezy 2 (resale approaching $2,500) and LeBron Cork (resale $500-plus). VILLA recently opened a location in the iconic (for '90s kids at least) South Street building that previously housed Tower Records. Ubiq itself was a sort-of test run for Kicks USA, a more mainstream take on Ubiq with locations in area malls, owned by the same Far Northeast Philadelphia company.
So where does Philadelphia's sneaker culture go from here? When we recover from another long night camping out on Walnut Street this weekend, maybe we'll find some answers.
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