Profile of Sean Williams: A Passionate Educator and Sneaker Enthusiast

Tell us a little bit about you.

My name is Sean Williams; I am a Brooklyn native, passionate collector, and lover of sneakers. I have been collecting and loving sneakers since he was 13 years old, and my mom helped foster my lifelong addiction by rewarding me with new sneakers if I got good grades in school. My love for sneakers grew as I started off every school year with two fresh pairs.

Every new pair solidified my love for sneakers, and I began working with my dad at an outdoor parking lot in Manhattan to buy more pairs. Coincidentally, the first shoe I bought from that job was the original Nike Air Max 1, a revolutionary shoe because it was the first shoe with a visible air bubble and used “Revolution” by the Beatles for their advertising campaign (even though they got sued for it).

In 2007, Dee Wells and I started the first sneaker talk show called 'Obsessive Sneaker Disorder' (OSD). Initially, people were confused about how to listen, and we had a lot of naysayers, which is ironic given the crazy growth and audience for sneaker podcasts now. OSD opened up some incredible opportunities for us, as we were brought in to consult for some of the largest brands across the world. We worked with incredible people and brands - I even have sneakers from countries I have never been to!

Exclusive: Drexel University Welcomes Rankin Scholar Sean Williams for  "Sole of Philadelphia" Sneaker Exhibit - WearTesters

One of the things we noticed when working for these brands is that there was little access to the industry for women and people of color. There was also no formalized education around sneakers, and we decided in 2011 to found the SOLEcial Studies sneaker industry education program. We wanted to show people that you can work in this industry and not just be a consumer; this was a major focus for us!

We launched classes around the world, educating people on everything from the culture behind sneakers, to the societal effects, and many of the professional careers related to sneakers. I had a renewed passion for building community while the industry was focused on clout chasing, reselling, and raffling sneakers.I have been doing this for over 20 years professionally, 37 years as a lover of sneakers overall and I want to help people understand that you can work in this industry, not just be a consumer, and that everything I have done since OSD’s creation is centered around this goal.

What influenced you when you first got into sneakers?

Hip hop was the driving force for me to get into sneakers! Before Red Alert and Mr. Magic began playing hip hop on the radio, I remember local block parties and park jams. Sneakers were permanently embedded in the culture (since the beginning). Sneakers also represent the anti-establishment sentiment which is at the root of Hip-Hop’s foundation. In society at the time, people who wore sneakers all the time were marginalized and judged negatively. Wearing a fresh pair of sneakers allowed us to express ourselves as individuals who practiced key principles of style on a daily basis, while the rest of the world looked, judged and whispered their predictions of what we would become in life!

Stemming from being exposed to various elements of early hip hop culture, I fell in love with graffiti - because unfortunately, I was never much of a dancer!

For graffiti, we required a pair of reliable sneakers that had certain performance elements based on the crazy places graffiti artists venture into. We were walking over train tracks, in dark tunnels, needing non-reflective colors and something that could withstand wear and tear of some the most dangerous dark corners of New York City. 

How have sneakers changed over the years? 

I am surprised by the business and culture of sneakers, as I never anticipated that sneakers would explode into the massive phenomenon it is today! The most exciting thing has been who moves the needle for the brands, especially if you think Michael Jordan’s original contract with Nike was only worth $2.5m over five years. It is crazy to think about Jordan Brand's impact and the precedent it established for other individuals - Grant Hill, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe, and the rest who have come after that.

Beyond basketball, the cultural impact of sneakers is enormous. Look at Run DMC and their Raising Hell Tour in 1986, performing “My Adidas” to sold-out crowds across the country. It showed that sneakers have a large desirability beyond the court and with everyday wear. This helped establish the huge deal between Adidas and Run DMC and paved the way for future highly successful collaborations with Travis Scott, J Balvin, Beyonce, and much more!

adidas Originals Superstar 80s - Run DMC "My adidas" 25th Anniversary |  Sole Collector

What is your go-to sneaker right now?

My go-to sneaker right now depends on my mood and the time of year. In the winter, I like to wear black,  gray and burgundy colors. The shoe I’m wearing the most this winter is the Air Jordan 4 Black Canvas; it looks like the Jordan 4 Retro Eminem x Carhartt (which goes for about 25K in my size). It's a comfortable shoe that I will wear(a lot) until springtime. Another sneaker I like is the Adidas Ultraboost 21s in Army Green. I received an exclusive colorway as a birthday gift from my wife.

What would your dream collaboration be?

My dream collaboration would be to create an OSD sneaker. The mantra of OSD is to appreciate, elevate and educate. I’d like to create a sneaker that will allow all 3 of those words to represent a different feature in the sneaker we create. That’s all I can say there, as something may actually materialize soon!

What was your inspiration for building in 2023?

I have three primary goals for 2023 that I am excited to achieve:

  1. Taking SOLEcial Studies to another level by building the physical space. This is a lifelong dream of mine.
  2. Active involvement with celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture by being able to talk about the marriage between Hip Hop and Sneakers.
  3. Lastly, continuing the fun work with you guys at Yofi, I want to help empower brands to cultivate strong communities with their customers.

What is something you wish you knew before starting OSD?

Growing up, I’ve always been known for sneakers and I’ve always had artistic talent.  I never had anyone come up to me in my early years and say, “you can design sneakers,” and then show me how to transform my passions into a career. I am dedicated and have made it my mission to ensure that it does not happen to other people!

How can the larger sneakerhead community help you with OSD and everything you got happening in 2023?

The old saying “you didn’t learn it to keep it to yourself” has always resonated with me, as I believe we only can make progress with education and empowerment. If you have ever talked to me, Dee Wells, or anyone at SOLEcial Studies, please pass on whatever you learned to a couple of people.

Sean showing sneakers to the SOLEcial Studies community

Fortunately, we have fostered an inclusive and inquisitive community of budding professionals, and students coming from various brands all over the industry. They are taking off their “brand hats” and looking at the larger changes happening in the ecosystem and understanding their impact on them. For example, if I work at Adidas, I need to know about the state of neighborhood and community stores because they are essential to the community.

One of the things that I hope brands and retailers focus on in 2023 is the community and personal connections. Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) has become a strategic initiative for many brands but displaces many personal relationships with consumers. It is causing a strain on the larger sneaker community by widening the gap between brands and consumers — visit one of your neighborhood stores, and you will be happy that you did!

Who would you like to nominate for us to profile that is making big moves in the sneaker space?

I want to nominate David Filar at EndState! They are doing incredible things by bridging the physical and virtual worlds for their partners by reimagining the loyalty experience. You would love what they are building!