Late at night, men would stare into the dimly lit vastness of the Internet, feverishly typing URLs that led them to the kind of sites where they could see the sort of things they lusted after in secret.
Written by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)
Some even did it in the workplace, hiding behind anonymous names and figuring out ways to outsmart the I.T. department—clearing caches and deleting web histories. These were the type of guys who were not yet ready to let the world know that deep down, they really, really liked clothing.
Well before the days of menswear blogging, there was already a thriving community of men who discussed the minutest clothing details at length. Since the early 2000s, Internet forums like Ask Andy About Clothes and StyleForum provided older men with a predilection for bespoke suits and Goodyear-welted, shell cordovan footwear an outlet to talk about their mutual interests with other like-minded men. And then something happened. A younger crop of sneakerheads and streetwear aficionados began using similar fora, and inadvertently birthed a digital subculture.
Next to World Star, NikeTalk is probably the site I check the most. - Bobby Hundreds, The Hundreds
Unlike modern forms of social media, message boards thrive on longform conversation. It’s not about simply throwing 140 characters out into the ether and hoping for a retweet. While today’s media diet of shortened links, status updates, and endless aggregation is akin to small bites, gleaning useful information from a forum is like a five-course meal to be savored, not just skimmed through.
Besides being a resource of information on clothing, these forums also facilitated the buying and selling of these cult brands. Before Kiya Babzani opened his San Francisco denim store, Self Edge, in 2006, there was hardly a place in the United States where people could buy artisan Japanese denim brands like Iron Heart, Momotaro, and The Flat Head.
Of all the multiple forums that would comprise this niche culture of Internet sneaker and clothing nerds, undoubtedly the two that had the most clout were NikeTalk and Superfuture. Both sites began in 1999, and both sought to bridge the same information gap: helping men spend money on cool shit. For NikeTalk founder Nelson Cabral, that meant anything and everything Air Jordan.
PART ONE: Enter NikeTalk
“NikeTalk was born out of my obsession for all things Air Jordan,” wrote Nelson Cabral in a 2009 e-mail to Complex Sneaker Editor Russ Bengtson. Cabral, 35, launched the site when he was 22. “This started thanks to my dad, who thought a good shoe might prevent me from spraining my ankles so much. Back before the Internet age, shoe release information was basically non-existent, especially for me in Canada. Every few months you'd go to your local sneaker store and cross your fingers they'd have your size, or you'd go a size bigger just to be able to get a pair. Just seeing them before they came out was a huge deal.”
Cabral’s obsession with Jordan sneakers was exacerbated by a series of ads featuring the Spike Lee character Mars Blackmon, which fueled his desire to cop a pair of Black/Cement Jordan IVs. Unfortunately for him, by the time he got to a store, it had been three days since the shoes had dropped, and they were long sold out.
That’s when he decided to start NikeTalk. A recent college graduate, Cabral was spending his days fine-tuning his resume, but when night fell he often found himself trapped in an Internet k-hole of shoe information, scouring NikeTalk predecessors like 23 JumpmanSt and NikePark for whatever dirt he could find.
“It's one of the reasons that NikeTalk's background is black—it's so much easier to read at 3 a.m.,” he said. “My first objective for NikeTalk was to create a place one could go to freely exchange ideas, opinions, and of course, release dates in a comfortable, serious environment with that was being run with the community's best interests in mind.”
Unlike modern forms of social media, message boards thrive on longform conversation. It’s not about simply throwing 140 characters out into the ether and hoping for a retweet.
Cabral had spent time on message boards before, based around cars and toys, and he thought the same system of community moderators and e-mail-based registration would translate well to a sneaker board. NikePark’s unmoderated discussion and no-registration-required posting system meant any information posted had to be taken with a grain of salt. He sought to build a self-policing community that sneaker heads could trust, so Cabral and his team went to work.
On December 10, 1999 NikeTalk went live. The date was chosen to predate the release of the White/Black-Fire Red Jordan V retros on January 5, 2000. Within days, the site accrued over 200 members. Today, it boasts thousands, with numerous unregistered “lurkers”—guests who simply read the site’s content without contributing—visiting daily. The Hundreds co-founder Bobby Hundreds has been a member since 2001.
“Next to World Star, [NikeTalk is] probably the site I check the most,” Hundreds says. “When NikeTalk came around, the obvious commonality was collecting sneakers and the streetwear that would complement those type of shoes,” he says. At the time, brighter colorways started making their way onto sought-after kicks like the Nike Dunk, and the big trend was matching your clothing to your sneakers. Although much of the The Hundreds’ gear ended up coordinating well with numerous colorways, the designer insists this was pure coincidence.
“I wasn’t intentionally trying to lock up the color combos with the shoes, but it just so happened that a lot of it worked out because I had a lot of the same inspiration and influence in my design as the guy designing the Dunks at the time,” he says.
In the mid-2000s, Hundreds’ interest in the sneaker game dwindled, but NikeTalk had become useful for reasons beyond gathering information on the latest kicks. “I kind of stopped collecting sneakers for whatever reason, but I stayed on NikeTalk for the community,” he explains. “There was a subforum on NikeTalk called ‘General Forum.’ In there, you don’t talk about shoes at all. You just talk about everything outside of sneakers. That’s where I fit in; I don’t visit anywhere else.” To Hundreds, the forum had superseded its original purpose of connecting him with the latest info about drops, and become a way to keep his finger on the pulse of pop culture in general, as filtered through the unique lens of the sneaker head community.
"That’s the beauty of NikeTalk. There are so many community members involved that it’s just constantly updated. I get all my news from there; it’s more active than Twitter for me. I don’t follow a lot of people on Twitter because I find them annoying. I go on NikeTalk to find out celebrity deaths. NikeTalk is just where it happens first.” In addition to being a resource of information, Hundreds also uses the forum as a way to gauge the interests of streetwear’s most fickle consumers: high schoolers. “It’s kind of like hanging at a high school every day, seeing how kids are thinking. If it wasn’t for NikeTalk, I don’t know how else I would be tapped into that community. I can kind of get engaged in what the kids are into.” To this day, NikeTalk serves as an important hub for Hundreds to stay connected to his demographic, his customers, and the world at large.
“This is still my little underground club and you can’t forget that. The Internet is everywhere, but there’s only so many websites you can check in a day,” he says. While NikeTalk is arguably the most popular community based around sneaker culture, streetwear and clothing still played second fiddle to coveted sneaker drop dates. In that realm, another forum would soon establish itself as the go-to destination.