Sneakerology 101 Founders on Teaching the World About Sneakers

If the best way to learn is to teach, what better way to deepen a love for sneakers than to create a class about it?

That’s how Jesse Chorng and Elliott Curtis paved their way into the sneaker world.

Since starting Sneakerology 101 at their undergraduate institution, Carnegie Mellon University, the duo created the sneaker event Kicksburgh, contributed to various sneaker-related causes around the country and launched a sellout sneaker collaboration with Reebok.

Sneakerology Skillshare Screenshot
Screenshot of Sneakerology course that was previously offered online at Skillshare.com
CREDIT: Skillshare.com

The duo, both now 27 years old and living in New York, now work together at online education site Skillshare.com — Curtis as an education producer, and Chorng as his video producer, shooter and editor. But they’re not done with Sneakerology just yet, having offered the course online on Skillshare and set to bring it back for a reprise this winter.

Plus, Curtis says, “50 percent of our in-office communication is sending each other links to sneakers.”

Chorng and Curtis, on how they keep up-to-date on the sneaker 411:

Their foray into sneaker studies started in 2008 as an effort to bring “something a little cooler” to CMU’s course offering, Curtis said. It was a departure from their majors: Elliott was studying decision science and communication design, and Jesse was majoring in economics. Through the school’s Student College at Carnegie Mellon — dubbed StuCo for short — program, they created Sneakerology 101 as a survey on sneaker history, business, marketing and ethics class all in one, with two assignments: a design-your-own-sneaker “midterm,” and for the “final,” making a contribution to Kicksburgh, which Chorng and Curtis created.

From the get-go, the class was a win. Though the class was capped at 50, 100 more students signed up for the wait list.

Chorng and Curtis, on the significance of Sneakerology’s popularity at its inception:

And students actually seemed to make an effort, even if the course was only worth 3 units (vs. 9 units for the average CMU class) and offered on pass/fail basis.

Chorng and Curtis said they were pleasantly surprised with the work — or at the very least vision — that went into the student creations.

“We were really shocked with how many people did the project and put a decent amount of work into it,” Chorng said. “There were a handful of people who just did a pencil sketch, but even then it was funny and thought-out.”

Chorng and Curtis, on their favorite design-your-own-sneaker submissions:

It seemed Chorng and Curtis had succeeded at their objective of encouraging students to think holistically about all the elements that go into creating and selling a shoe.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re artistic or a designer — it’s about telling a story. So you told that story through colors, materials, graphics, the way and where it was released and what it came with. There’s just so much more behind these shoes than just waiting in line,” Curtis said.

Chorng and Curtis had their own chance to apply their knowledge when Reebok agreed to collaborate on a sneaker. The duo’s inspiration — unsurprisingly, the classroom — was represented through nubuck leather with the hue and feel of a dusty chalkboard, complete with a felt tongue reminiscent of old-school chalkboard erasers.

The Sneakerology 101 x Reebok Reverse Jam, a $75 sneaker of which only 101 pairs were produced, was released in 2009 to great fanfare, with buyers lining up four hours prior to the launch. The style sold out within an hour and a half, selling not only to locally based CMU students, but to consumers located as far as Italy and Spain. All proceeds went to the Hill House Association, a Pittsburgh-based community center.

“I don’t have the actual data, but I pretend I do, to say we were the fastest-selling Reeboks that year, for sure. To create something that sought-after, something people were proud of, it was a big deal for us,” Curtis said.

Always the holistic thinker, Curtis added, “Affordable, unique, limited, charity. The recipe was there.”

Curtis, on how the collab with Reebok came about:

Was all this success a fluke? After all, the budding instructors were competing against other StuCo subjects like baking, figure skating and Warcraft. Curtis himself also admits that location played a huge role in helping Sneakerology grow as much as it did.

“If we went to New York University or Columbia and started the class there, I don’t think it would have been as big, because there’s so much else going on in New York. In Pittsburgh, it was like big fish, small pond. We were able to really get into the community with stores, with other events that happened, and really become a part of Pittsburgh outside of the Carnegie Mellon University walls,” Curtis said.

That said, the survey-course approach to sneakers was clearly unique, as “Especially on industrial design side, it’s a whole lane that isn’t really taught at school at all,” Chorng said.

And there’s proof the course provided hard value for students: A number have gone on to work as professional sneaker designers at companies including Nike, Adidas and New Balance. The duo won’t take credit for their pupils’ accomplishments, but, says Curtis, “I’d like to think they gained some details that improved their designs.”

Sneakerology Founders Chorng Curtis
Sneakerology co-founders Jesse Chorng and Elliott Curtis, featured in FN’s print issue in November 2014
CREDIT: Isa Wipfli

Sneakerology’s lifespan at Carnegie Mellon may have ended after two years, but the spirit still lives on, the instructors say. Curtis has given lectures at universities including UCLA, and the two have also worked with various organizations to spread sneaker culture through fundraisers and other sneaker-related causes. One such effort is Sneakers for Success, which plans grade-school education curriculums around sneakers, which teenagers can relate to better than abstract concepts — for example, teaching physics using footwear-based examples, rather than outer space.

Right now seems to be a good time to be into sneakers for other reasons as well. Not only is the market for the genre, whether at retail or from secondary sales, blowing up with demand right now, but styles have been bombarding the high-fashion runways as well.

So Sneakerology’s thoughts on ready-to-wear takes on sneaks?

“Street culture in general is being appropriated into the mainstream. Like, sure, it looks ugly, but that’s just my take. There are people who find that attractive, and if they wear it, they feel confident and it says something about themselves, and that’s fantastic,” Curtis said, stressing the positive.

That said, “What’s so great about street fashion is how adaptable it is and how fast it moves. So as soon as something becomes mainstream, then we’re just on to something else. We don’t give a [expletive]. We’re gonna set the trend, I think that’s just the natural lifecycle of fashion. It’s almost like a tip of the hat to the people that are setting that pace,” he added.

Chorng and Curtis, on sneakers in high fashion

Funny enough, both Chorng and Curtis hesitate to label themselves as sneakerheads, going as far as to state that, at 27 years old, they’re “past their prime” in the sneaker world, and Chorng even referring to himself as an “anti-sneakerhead.” Neither collect sneakers like they used to when they were younger, but that’s mostly due to budget reasons.

If they were to choose a new pair to buy, however, Chorng, who is a self-proclaimed design and technology aficionado, points to Nike’s Kobe 9 Elites, while Curtis, who is a longtime basketball player, is eyeing Adidas’ Boost runners.

But the go-to rule? “I love things no one else has,” Chorng said. “As soon as I see someone else with the same pair of shoes, it just kills it for me.”

Chorng’s last word

Access exclusive content