Shopping

“Back then, people here didn’t get it.” Berlin’s sneaker king speaks

Hikmet Sugoer is a pioneer who helped make sports shoes cool in Germany. We call him up for a chat about his ascent to footwear royalty.

Article image for “Back then, people here didn’t get it.” Berlin’s sneaker king speaks

Sneaker culture is a global phenomenon, exemplified in Berlin by long lines of young footwear enthusiasts camping outside shops like Overkill to get their hands on the latest hyped-up kicks. But when Spandau-born, Charlottenburg-raised Hikmet Sugoer first got interested in sneakers, West Berliners would only be seen wearing them to do… well, sports. “When I was 15, I wore a pair of Adidas Proshells, a mid-top with velcro straps, to school and my classmates laughed, saying they looked like bowling shoes.” One or two years later, he remarks with some satisfaction in his voice, they were all wearing either Proshells or Superstars themselves.

It was the late 1980s, video was killing the radio stars and MTV brought hip-hop chic to German living rooms. “We had cable TV pretty early on and it was the first time we could see the people making the music we’d been listening to on the radio, and what they were wearing,” Sugoer remembers. LL Cool J was wearing Nike Jordan 1s, EPMD had Adidas Public Enemies and the Beastie Boys rocked the brand’s iconic Campus model. Young Hikmet was hooked.

At the time, it wasn’t easy to get hold of the latest in sneaker fashion. But Hikmet made connections: “The US Airforce base was near U-Bahn stop Onkel Toms Hütte, and I made friends on the basketball court there. They went shopping for us kids at the US Post Exchange store.”

Soon, not dissimilar to today’s Depop generation, Sugoer started trading sneakers to make some cash off of his passion. He resold his own purchases and worked in a sneaker shop while he studied computer science and business economics at university. In 2001, he opened his first shop at Alte Schönhauser Straße 50, selling dead stock of original ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s footwear.

“Back then, people here didn’t get it. They thought it was all second-hand, I didn’t sell much.” But while Mitte shoppers shunned his vintage sneaks, lifestyle agencies paid close attention. One day, trendscouts picked up a pair of Adidas Aztec Golds.

“I don’t want to lie, but half a year or maybe one year later, Adidas published this exact shoe that I had in my shop, only this time it was made in China, not in Germany – and people were buying it.”

Once again, he felt validated, but his business wasn’t viable. In 2002, Sugoer opened Solebox, a different kind of store on Prenzlauer Berg’s Oderberger Straße, where he sold hyped international brands like Supreme, A Bathing Ape and Undefeated that were unavailable in Germany. He also closed his vintage shop. “I didn’t work with the brands directly, but would travel around, to the US, Japan and so on, buy the shoes and put them on my shelf with a small margin.”

This time around business flourished. Sugoer became known as a trendsetter and asked to design shoes for New Balance, Asics, Reebok, Puma, Adidas and Lacoste as well as a Smart Car, Sinn watches and a suitcase with a transparent lid for Cologne-based luggage manufacturer Rimowa – which he believes later inspired Virgil Abloh’s work for Off White X Rimowa.

The heyday of Solebox also saw the first of those footwear fanatics happy to spend a night outside a shop to be among the first to own a new model. Sugoer remembers the first time this happened. Sitting at home, checking his store’s security camera, he spotted a guy camping in front of the door.

“These days, the kids you see queuing want to make money reselling limited-edition shoes. But back then, it was a community,” he romanticises. “I would close the shop at 8pm and come back a couple hours later with beers and pizza and we’d just hang out there.”

Sugoer was running the shop with his brother, a family business that eventually had to give way to family concerns. “My father became ill and I realised that all the travelling and spending my time at the shop wasn’t what I wanted to do any longer.” Solebox was sold to Snipes, keeping Sugoer as an employee. But stripped of his decision-making powers, he ended up feeling like little more than a mascot.

He quit – and found himself at the Arbeitsamt where his caseworker offered him a hospitality training course. It was time to start his own brand, and, defiantly as always, name it Sonra – Turkish for “Next” – the name Steve Jobs had chosen for his new company after being ousted by Apple. He put all his money made from selling Solebox into the new venture, produced a few prototypes in his living room with the help of his wife, then found a factory in Saarland to make a first batch of 100 pairs. Within minutes, the €250 shoes had sold out, a triumph for Sugoer. “I now sell them on my webshop and at places like Patta in Amsterdam, 24 Kilates in Barcelona and Hanon in Aberdeen.” Sugoer remains faithful to the old-school style and points out that, after sleek, more high-tech looks, good old vintage is back.

His name and face are known in the world of sports shoes – mostly because of a viral Instagram video of him eating ice cream from a shoe, he jokes. But have sneakers made him rich? “I live a comfortable life,” the 47-year-old father of three says, for once not wearing athletic footwear but slippers, ready to hit the pool at his family home in Stahnsdorf, just outside Berlin.