Lifestyle & Culture

Sole Food: How ‘shoeshi’ became flavor of the month

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A year after the release of the Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG “Shattered Backboard,” Yujia Hu spotted an opportunity. The 2015 sneaker, an homage to the 1986 exhibition game in Italy where Michael Jordan landed such a powerful dunk that it shattered the backboard, had been designed in the colorway of the Trieste team’s orange, black and white uniform.

Hu, an art student and sushi chef, began to experiment with onigiri ingredients – nori, rice and salmon – and realized that the colorway fit perfectly with the original design’s black swoosh, white quarter and orange toebox.

Having dropped out of art school to help his family run their Japanese restaurant in Milan, Hu was seeking a new way to channel his untapped creativity. Combining his skills as a sushi chef with an eye for design and a love of basketball, he began crafting sneakers out of sushi and documenting it on his Instagram, @theonigiriart, which quickly went viral. The styles he replicated, such as the Shattered Backboard, often had cult-like status, with a following that he adopted – or, perhaps, adopted him.

When people are fanatic about something, they find innovative ways to take their appreciation to new levels, as Hu’s tributes – and the online response – illustrate. And he’s not alone.

Artist Ro Jacla, known by her handle @eatlikeyoureondeathrow__ , also tickled the tastebuds of the online subculture, with edible footwear made using sushi, pizza and steak, as well as Filipino foodstuffs like sapin-sapin, mochi and pork belly adobo. What began as a way to make her son’s bento lunchboxes more appealing evolved into a creative pursuit that has gained a community of enthusiastic followers.

Whilst consumers commonly pledge allegiance to a brand, a model or an athlete, these artist-slash-chefs honor iconic design and sporting legacies using knife skills as precise as Kobe Bryant’s footwork, with just as much discipline. But their approaches couldn’t be more different.

“I use classic Japanese sushi ingredients only,” Hu told The Fresh Press. “Nothing fancy or over the top, no added colors.”

The result? Finished products that taste exactly like traditional onigiri. Hu uses market-fresh fish and dextrous handiwork, in the same way legacy sportswear brands use high-quality leather, craftsmanship and technology to create footwear that is, at its core, functional as well as stylish.

Jacla’s attitude is more playful, prioritizing visuals over flavor, using a wider range of ingredients and food coloring and styling her “sushi kicks” with the IRL version. She cites street culture kingpins Basquiat and Nychos as inspiration, both of whom make abstract use of vibrant palettes. 

By simultaneously occupying space in the spheres of art, culture, sport, fashion and food, artists like Hu and Jacla have carved out an intersection in the Venn diagram where these communities overlap, uniting social media scrollers with die-hard sneakerheads and everyone in between.

“When I first joined Instagram, there was definitely segregation between different groups, but fast forward a couple of years and there’s been this amazing transition of communities exploring beyond their passion or what they normally post,” Jacla said.

“Everyone loves sushi, and everyone loves sneakers, so everyone loves ‘shoeshi’,” Hu adds. It’s also helped amplify their art, generating collaborations with brands: Jacla has worked with Nike, Foot Locker and AGE, and appeared in The Art of Sneakers, a hardback which highlights the next-level creativity sneaker design has required and inspired.

Hu’s ‘how-to’ book came out in 2018, and he is in the process of collaborating with an Italian streetwear brand. He won’t disclose which, but my money is on County of Milan, which often references the NBA in its collections. “Most of my inspiration comes from basketball culture,” Hu, a Damian Lillard fan, explained.

“I love the fact that it’s not just about the sport, it has a hand in many different subcultures – hip hop music, art, fashion, particularly streetwear.”

So what’s next? Nike collaborated with Krispy Kreme in 2016, and this year dropped a design with Ben & Jerry’s. Saucony produced a Kinvara with Dunkin’ Donuts. Last year there was END x ASICS’s Wasabi model – could shoeshi be about to become a reality?

If Jacla and Hu have proved anything, it’s that there’s certainly an appetite for it.

Anna Prendergast is a London-based travel journalist with a weakness for vintage Vans.