Sean Williams, FIT Jury Member, Shares Valuable Insights from His PathFebruary 8, 2024
Passions often fuel our conversations and endeavors. For Sean Williams, that passion is sneakers—a subject he’s been deeply engaged with for over 37 years. You might wonder, “Why sneakers?” But as Sean would tell you, there’s no such thing as having too many shoes. His fascination began at the age of 13, and nearly four decades later, his obsession is still burning as bright as when it all started.
However, Sean’s enthusiasm didn’t stop at just collecting sneakers. With time, it grew into a full-fledged career and business, a development that might raise eyebrows. Nevertheless, Sean is keen to share his journey and shed light on why his love for sneakers runs so deep.
Engaged in various social initiatives, Sean Williams is a highly regarded figure in the New York City sneaker scene serving as a trusted consultant to sneaker brands globally. Additionally, he co-founded the innovative SOLEcial Studies sneaker industry education program and played a pivotal role in creating the first-ever sneaker talk show. Beyond his consultancy work, Sean’s role as an exhibition curator has brought his passion for sneakers to audiences worldwide, with his public art exhibitions captivating over 10 million viewers to date.
Everything started when he made a deal with his mother to receive a new pair of sneakers every marking period if he kept his grades up. “In New York, we have four marking periods,” explains Williams. In this way, he had the opportunity to collect more sneakers than his peers. “Usually, you would have two pairs of sneakers – one for outside after school and one for school, for the gym. And if I kept my part of the deal with my mom, I would get four additional pairs per year,” adds Williams.
Following that, Williams immersed himself in work, a move that only fueled his passion for sneakers even more. This newfound momentum not only enabled him to indulge in his love for footwear but also provided the opportunity to delve deeper into this niche interest. It was this shared passion that ultimately led Williams and his friend, Dee Wells, to establish OSD (Obsessive Sneaker Disorder), “the first sneaker podcast talk show in the entire industry,” elaborates further Williams.
When asked how this happened, Sean Williams answered:
We (Dee Wells and I) felt it was the right time for it. His experience made him believe that it was time for people to have somewhere to express their love of shoes. A magazine already existed. But there was no talk show. There were of course forums and people were blogging about this but there was no talk show available. Dee came up with the idea for us to do the show. And it became wildly popular. At our peak, we were getting 10,000 to 12,000 audio downloads per week.
OSD (Obsessive Sneaker Disorder) provided an opportunity for individuals to have a platform and voice their passion for shoes without fear of judgment or stigma. “We accomplished what we set out to do in the first place,” mentions Williams. According to Williams, in America, collecting certain things might seem odd. He explains that in the past, collecting sneakers wasn’t common, leading to judgmental questions like, “Why do you need so many shoes?”
However, Williams and his partner, Wells, didn’t know that sneaker companies were also listening to them. “We were talking about the mature subjects in the industry, the business endorsements, lawsuits, technology and we were having interviews with designers at the companies. We were on top of the latest news. We were sort of the business news of the sneakers industry. And we were talking about sneakers at a level people didn’t anticipate.”
Back in 2007, before social media became widespread, the talk show gained followers naturally. “We have so many ties from our previous jobs. Dee did banking and financing and I was doing TV production and sports. We had a large network and we just knew a lot of people who were into sneakers,” explains Williams. This allowed them to have the connections and vehicles needed to promote before social media started being used the way it is now. “It was still the very early stages of Instagram and Facebook so this kind of helped.”
With OSD (Obsessive Sneaker Disorder), Williams and Dee realized there weren’t enough women and people of color working at sneaker companies. They wanted to change this. According to Williams, these companies were ignoring the very people they were trying to sell to. Many of these potential buyers didn’t even know the industry existed. The big question for Wells and Williams was: How do we get people interested in an industry they don’t know about?
This is also what triggered the birth of SOLEcial Studies back in 2011. “We set out to teach all the non-design-related topics related to the sneaker industry.” SOLEcial Studies operates on a three-pillar mission, emphasizing smart consumer entrepreneurship, corporate employment opportunities, or venturing into entrepreneurship—a vision shared by both OSD and SOLEcial Studies. Additionally, upon enrollment, individuals are exposed to a diverse array of non-design-related career paths within the industry. This serves as an eye-opener for participants, broadening their understanding of the myriad opportunities available.
The course lasts four weeks, followed by Career Council Day on the fifth week. Here, students have their resumes and portfolios reviewed to see if they’re ready for their desired job opportunities.
“The target for SOLEcial studies is everyone older than 14 years,” explains Williams. He emphasizes that this age is optimal because once individuals enter the sneaker industry, they can easily acquire additional skills needed for the future. “My oldest student did a career retraining, and he was 63 when he did it. This was 6 years ago, and before taking the study to requalify, he was working in logistics and delivery services. He switched to photography and book publishing, and he is an ambassador for Converse now,” adds Williams. “This is a story I like to tell. He is a great person, and he’s already published six books.”
When asked if he ever wanted to quit on his journey, Williams responds with a firm no. “It was like a renewed love for me. Before 2007 it was second nature to me to have a lot of shoes. It was not a big deal anymore. But once OSD started, the companies we got to work with, the places we’ve been able to travel to, and the network of people we created, brought back the spark. We’ve been through a lot during that time both good and bad, but the sneaker industry is what kept us going”.
“What difficulties did you experience on the way” was a genuine inquiry. Establishing an educational program, launching a podcast, and cultivating numerous connections demand significant effort and time.
“Luckily, we overcame our biggest obstacle. A recent struggle was to find a physical space to run our program. Thankfully in July 2023, we opened the SOLEcial Studies Community Academy, in Brooklyn. And this happened after five years of trying to get this done. And we were also lucky because it happened on the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop in 2023.”
Now the goal is to build community relations and partnerships to bring the work of SOLEcial studies to a different level. “We would like to offer new classes such as IP science which is a branding masterclass. We’ve taken what the core of the SOLEcial studies curriculum of business and culture and we are teaching the relevance and marriage between Hip-Hop, sneakers, entrepreneurship, and corporate life.”
We asked Williams if he thinks his work has an impact on the world, considering the broader implications beyond personal interests.
On the grand scheme, no. But in a more hyperlocal sense, I would say yes. We design our SOLEcial studies courses for smaller, more intimate groups. We have a personal relationship with everybody that takes SOLEcial studies and we’re able to support them through that journey. We keep in touch with a vast majority of our alumni. Over 150 people who did the program have been working in the industry now either as business owners, for brands or they’re consultants. We are still in touch with them because in this way we can have mentorship and guidance.
In the next five years, Sean Williams envisions SOLEcial Studies attaining financial stability to provide its courses free of charge. “We want to remove the financial barriers to every single course we offer,” says Williams. Furthermore, he wants to expand into embracing more technology and use this technology for footwear production. This technology would include 3D printing, VR, and AR.
As we wrap up our chat with Sean Williams, it’s clear that his love for sneakers goes beyond just wearing them. He’s made a big impact on the sneaker world through projects like SOLEcial Studies and OSD, helping others find their place in the industry. Sean also plays a role as a judge for the FIT Sport Design Awards, showing his expertise. With big plans ahead, like offering free courses and using new tech in sneaker-making, Sean’s influence will keep on growing. He’s definitely someone to watch in the sneaker world and beyond.
Text: Polya Pencheva