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

Love for shoes has transcended fashion and entered the realm of collectible and wearable art.
Updated 13 Mar, 2024

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.

 Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

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

 Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

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

 Photo by author
Photo by author

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.

 Photo by author
Photo by author

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.

 Photo by author
Photo by author

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.”


NYS Mar 13, 2024 12:49pm
Finicky topic albeit! Sneakers industry is booming and it's culture now. Sneakers/ Trainers have become cultural icon due to their comfort, versatility, combining style and function statement. They have evolved from simple athletic wear to fashion statements, featured in runway ,celebrity wardrobes and everyday street wear... Tbh, I personally big fan of sneakers ...
M. Emad Mar 13, 2024 01:21pm
Bangladesh Shoe City emerges as a beacon of innovation and a new hub of Global Footwear Industry.
Hammad Mar 13, 2024 02:20pm
These are all rejected products and is sell today in Pakistan.
Laila Mar 13, 2024 02:28pm
As somebody who wears sneakers I would much rather prefer that one can order online in Pakistan from the original retailers or shops of whatever sneaker brand you like. I don't mean just Nike, Adidas, NB, Puma etc but also other lesser known brands (in Pakistan) which makes the prettiest, feminine yet functional and durable sneakers for ladies. But sadly as with most retailers they don't ship to Pakistan but it's interesting how they do shop to countries like Iraq and Jordan. Wish we could make it safer for businesses to operate in Pakistan rather than copying their designs.
Taj Ahmad Mar 13, 2024 03:00pm
Sneakers good for casual walk or running and it’s comfortable than leather shoes. Always buy brand names sneakers and leather shoes.
Syed Hasni Mar 13, 2024 03:12pm
Are you referring to the guys who steals shoes outside the mosque? A sneaker. Thats nothing new.
Hamed Mar 13, 2024 03:28pm
Sneakers are sportive. You must wear suitable clothes!
Irfan Mar 13, 2024 04:36pm
Junk like yeezy makes only one statement; that the wearer has no taste. Pakistan is very nicely into sneakers now. I have seen suit and necktie with sneakers. Way to go before maturing. I only even look at these kind of shoes if I have to go on a long walk or run.
Laila Mar 13, 2024 06:16pm
@ Hamid, Yes, typically sneakers are sporty. But nowadays you can find sneakers for almost all purposes like leisure, sports, hiking, party, going out, office and even for the elderly.
mazhar Mar 13, 2024 11:16pm
After reading this well written article one feels that we Pakistani's are trying to sneak in to feel like Americans and Europeans, but with a difference we have too much ego attached to sneakers\brands, is all of personality now tied up with sneakers?
Ash Mar 14, 2024 03:31pm
Reebok high tops were hugely popular among mid 80s and early 90s youth in Pakistan