DOWNTOWN — Shay Belvin decided during the pandemic she wanted to launch a sneaker exhibition — and she quickly realized Chicago had to be its home.
Belvin was living in Detroit, so she moved to Chicago in 2021 and began looking at properties for her sneaker showcase that summer. She settled on a Downtown spot and began building it in early 2022, finally launching Sneakerhead University this September.
“Chicago was like the mecca, to me, for fashion,” Belvin said. “This city has a lot of roots, and this is where a lot of people start, [so] there’s so many inspirations here.”
Sneakerhead University, 133 S. State. St., spans 15 rooms, with the exhibition is modeled after a university, Belvin said. In the “discussion board room,” visitors are invited to chime in on questions: “How much is too much for a sneakerhead to spend on sneakers?” and “What is the holy grail in your closet?”
Another room features a “real vs. fake” sneaker quiz where viewers can test their abilities to tell name brands from knockoffs.
“We went around America and got some of the best replicas we could find off the streets of New York … and whatnot,” Belvin said.
There are also sneaker workshops, which kicked off in October. Visitors can bring in a pair of plain, preferably white sneakers in any material, and the Sneakerhead staff will help them deck out the shoes during the design workshop.
“You probably can’t shapeshift a whole shoe in three hours,” Belvin said. “But you definitely give me the utensils to bring together any initial vision you have, and I will definitely help with that creative process.”
Though Belvin wasn’t always a “sneakerhead,” her interest in pop culture and love for museums sparked the idea of the exhibition, she said. She was also intrigued by how the music and sneaker industries have intersected as popular artists have launched their own shoe lines.
Belvin said Sneakerhead is different from other shoe exhibitions because it’s “not for the average collector.” The exhibit features shoes with interesting origin stories, along with the most expensive, hard-to-get sneakers on the market, she said.
In the past few months, Belvin has seen everyone from children and people who are more 70 years old to couples on date night at the exhibition, she said.
“I think everybody’s touched a pair in their life, and they can relate to it at some point,” Belvin said. “Aside from that, it’s a form of art that I feel like creators do not get appreciation for — it’s selling out on the sneakers app. … But nobody actually talks about the artists behind what is influencing everybody to wear these things.”
Sneakerhead University is open noon-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are available online or in person. General admission starts at $35 for adults.
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