Urge Overkill

An inquiry into morals based on 500 pairs of footwear

Photo credit: Timo Al-Farooq

Today, Tuesday January 16, at precisely 11 o’ clock in the morning, German sports brand Adidas and Berlin’s transport authority BVG, through two selected stores, the Adidas Originals flagship store in the central Mitte district and the non-chain, privately owned Overkill a few blocks down the road from my apartment in Kreuzberg, will release their much anticipated 500 pair limited sneaker, the Adidas EQT Support 93/Berlin.

Like with prior such releases at Overkill, where I worked for three years in another life, customers have been camped out in front of the store in the bitter Berlin cold since yesterday (some even since Sunday evening), in tents and inside their parked cars on Köpenicker Strasse, engines running sporadically to heat up the interior, patiently waiting for the doors of the hallowed walls to this Temple of Sneakerdom — a Sneakerdome if you will — to open like Sesame, while the store employees on their self-imposed nightshift serve hot beverages like volunteers at homeless shelters on Thanksgiving or Christmas.

This Full Camp-Out, as such shindigs are apparently called, follows strict procedural guidelines, and the related post on Overkill’s blog outlining the logistics of waiting is reminiscent of the TSA security screening information page in its anal-retentiveness: no reservations possible, first come first serve, having to put one’s name on a sign-in sheet, random checks to see if the signee is actually present, and if not, you are off the list and lose your spot in line (only bathroom breaks qualify as reasons for non-attendance at check time).

All these heightened security measures for a pair of shoes? Yup, ’cause boy oh boy, what a shoe this is: black mesh and a white leather application, with the key design element being the signature swatch of our U-Bahn seat covers (enjoying similar cult status like the former carpet pattern at Portland International Airport, also featured on an Adidas shoe). The three stripes that give every Adidas shoe it’s brand recognition simultaneously functioning as eyelets for the shoelaces in a signature BVG-yellow, the pictogram of a yellow heart on the side, alluding to the BVG’s hip slogan “Weil wir Dich lieben” — Because we love you.

And last but not least, a gimmick so gimmicky and original it makes your creative collarbone tingle with excitement: the sneaker moonlights as a one year U-Bahn pass as it features an integrated ticket stitched into the tongue, hence the word “Jahresticket” written on the latter. You just hop on a train (not the S-Bahn though) and should a ticket inspector show up along the way, simply point to your sneakers and your not only good but golden. No more nasty fumbling for your wallet and such.

But what makes the whole affair problematic: limited and innovative as Adidas/BVG marriage of convenience may be, and despite it’s bargain nature when one factors in what a one-year U-Bahn pass regularly costs, the sneaker is still an overpriced luxury consumer product manufactured under the unfairest of international trade regulations and poorest of worker conditions, in factories far away from the consciousness (and conscience) of the few privileged (Western) consumers they are meant for. Which makes the whole affair pretty damn unconscionable. And the fact that its release is accompanied by a ubiquitous PR-fanfare hedonistically celebrating this asymmetrical economic power relationship that is the hallmark of neoliberalism is even more deplorable.

Why a 8 Euro shirt costs 85 Euros

As a former minion of the sartorial industrial complex, I am still no angel as a retiree: even though I don’t collect sneakers — especially not to not wear them, as many a sneakerhead does — as a football fan I regularly buy a new FC Barcelona jersey (even if it is as ugly as the current one with the new Rakutensponsor on the front and the hideous stripes). Nike and Adidas men’s football jerseys currently sell at € 85,00 a pop, which is shockingly too much for a piece of mass-produced cloth made entirely of plastic, but far too little when factoring in the human toll of it all.

Of all the people involved in the production and selling of such a jersey, the highest profit margin is hauled in by the retailer. This fact is excused by the high costs of rent, maintenance, paying salaries and other costs of operating a business. But ever since online shopping has become a cultural norm, this argument is rendered somewhat obsolete. And from experience I can say that there were times at Overkill when the whole in-store business was run by myself — for way less than the hourly minimum wage — and an intern who was paid in occasional sneakers instead of money. Operating-costs my ass. And no one is forcing you to keep managing and expanding a sneaker store in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood where the only existential constant is the rise in rent: if you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime.

Me in my overpriced and undervalued Barça jersey

Take Germany’s 2014 World Cup jersey for example, made by Adidas and costing the aforementioned whopping € 85,00. According to t-online.de, € 15,88 of those € 85,00 went to Adidas, € 13,59 to the German state in form of VAT, € 8,24 were used for the actual manufacturing (cloth, stitching, transport), € 5,10 went to the German football association DFB in licensing fees, € 2,25 were used for marketing and € 1,90 for distribution. Leaving a whopping €38,04 for the self-finger-licking retailer.

And the most perverse thing is that the actual labor of manufacturing, done by some anonymous and unfortunate human being(s), the most fundamental part of the whole production process, is not even deserving of being listed as a separate item in this price structure: stitching is lumped together with cloth and transport, leaving little to the imagination regarding how much of that € 8,24 is actually left (over) to go to the worker(s).

Like the whole fashion industry — hell, like all consumer industries for that matter — the sneaker business is also built on this same anti-meritocracy where the people who do the actual work get paid the least and the people who profit from the work of others get the most, cutting to the heart of the endemic and systemic economic injustices that define neoliberalism. Limited edition products celebrate these injustices in the most hedonistic and reckless way. And the fact that a broke-ass city like Berlin, broke partly because of neoliberalism, and represented by its state-owned public transport authority, is on this day at the forefront of said celebration of systemic injustice, follows its own warped logic.

Poor but sexy: that is Berlin

Klaus Wowereit, our former long-term mayor, to my knowledge the first openly homosexual leader of a Western capital — sans the narcissistic affectations, depraved exhibitionism and sexualized hedonism of many a member of his social group here in party-hardy Berlin — coined two phrases that have since gained legendary status: the rhetorical eloquence of his coming-out when being elected to office (“Ich bin schwul, und das ist gut so”, I’m gay, and that is ok, even rhymes in English), and his prophetic realization that Berlin is “arm aber sexy”, poor but sexy, successfully capturing the incapturable vibe of this grand and shabby city, apology and rallying cry rolled into on, and a call-to-arms not to bow one’s head in the face of despondency but to be proud of this idiosyncratic place steeped in Cold War history and post-reunification financial ruin.

Since Berlin is a city-state boasting the highest percentage of people on the dole, with a government and its private contractors too incompetent, corrupt and lazy to finish an international airport on time, a city with a soaring crime-rate where police recruits divulge sensitive information to mobsters and where none of its two major football teams have any say in national or international championships (an utterly unique deficiency for a European capital), such words are chicken soup for the soul of a 3,47 million-strong metropolis suffering simultaneously from a humongous inferiority-complex à la Napoleon and grandiloquent hubris. Unable to resolve this internal conflict, under Wowi’s (as he is affectionately known) hipster politics (and economics), Berlin has at least learned to party away its financial woes and dispensibility, using the lemons handed down by life to make not lemonade, but gin & tonics.

The smug face behind the city’s sellout: Berlin’s former mayor Klaus Wowereit, befittingly embossed on a commemorative collector’s coin

And readily answering Wowi’s call to reinvention towards more hipness in the face of chronic broke-assness is our beloved BVG, probably one of the most affordable mass transit systems of a capital city in the Western World, where a monthly pass will cost you less than 60 Euros, provided you don’t use it before 10 a.m. (which is a spot-on non-stipulation for late-sleeping, party-hard hipsters, the unemployed and “creatives” who make up a key part of the city’s demographic, and gentrified Berlin’s mythology for that matter).

Ever since having teamed up with the advertising firm Jung von Matt, the BVG is following Mr. Wowereit’s unofficial city slogan to a fault, with ad campaigns bordering on the hilarious, be it through their merchandise or Twitter feed. Their first scoop even goes back as far as the year 2000, when at the dawn of the new millennium the BVG released its own undergarments line, each item named after a Berlin U-Bahn station eligible for word play with body parts and sexual organs: The guy’s boxers were named “Krumme Lanke” (crooked Lanke, the latter being a name of a sub-district), the women’s slips “Jungfernheide” (virgin meadow) or “Gleisdreieck” (Gleis = track or platform, Dreieck = triangle (my favorite wordplay), and the bra named after the district Schöneberg (a hybrid of beautiful and mountain). Tortured or imaginative, these sexual puns (“sex sells” is a key marketing strategy of neoliberalism, at least in the Western world were the degree of one’s freedom is measured in one’s level of willingness to get naked) definitely paved the path for a stuffy transport company to make its way to hipster greatness.

R.I.P. Kazim (1982 - 2017)

The BVG’s last marketing ploy was a bombshell: a satirical rap video titled “Ist mir egal” (I don’t care), also the refrain of the song, by comedian Kazim Akboga (who, suffering from severe depression, took his own life last year, at the young age of 34, R.I.P. abi) that poked fun at stereotypical clichés regarding passengers and BVG-employees alike and the madness that is a Berlin U-Bahn ride. The clip was so popular that it got more than 12 million hits on YouTube, still makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it, and even had a stuffy and obese professor of mine at uni, known for her dictatorial style of teaching and highly immobilizing stick up her butt, suddenly do a rendition of the refrain in some topical context related to the class.

Such is the success and range of this reinvented Berlin, which in reality is more of a renaissance than a reinvention, as this in-your-face attitude culturally typical for pre-gentrified Berlin has the indigenous BVG realizing the full marketing potential of the indigenous language of “Berliner Schnauze” (Berlin snout), the loveable Tourette-like and tough-love variety of speaking your mind, regardless of the other person’s sensibilities who you address on a first-name basis, employing the driest of humors to shamelessly humor your victim.

Oh the hypocrisy…

Masochistic consumers — especially the gentrifying elements of Berlin society who finally feel included into a city narrative that couldnt care less about them — might fall for this cheap trick of a public transport company diversifying its portfolio of selling mobility by hawking lifestyle, but true Berliners, especially the ones true to themselves — to quote Public Enemy — don’t believe the hype. Bear in mind that this is the same BVG that unsuccessfully tried to ban the Graffiti-documentary Unlike U about the history of the scene in Berlin, a fascinating movie with hauntingly beautiful shots and an eargasm-inducing soundtrack, celebrating a subculture so singular to Berlin in quality and quantity.

Overkill, where the Adidas/BVG-sneaker will be released, started out as a simple graffiti store, selling spray-cans and fat caps, markers and magazines, long before they discovered the sneaker business and ultimately “went corporate” to the degree of selling-out. There used to be plain-clothes cops parked in front of the store monitoring the comings and goings of customers/would-be felons buying their tools of the trade. Book signings with the most renowned graffiti artists from New York were organized, these trailblazers from the long gone capital of train bombing saying that they had never seen a city with so much and such good graffiti as Berlin.

Graffiti is to Berlin what Hip Hop is to the Big Apple and surfing to Hawaii. So the perverse irony of a state-owned transport company at the forefront of criminalizing street art marketing itself at a store that still sells items related to said illegal street art is not only another example of the powers that be saying one thing and doing the other, but also of the dishonorable lengths neoliberal entities will got to in order to make money.

The movie trailer of the documentary Unlike U, unsuccessfully banned by the BVG

Same goes for Overkill, once an underground and respected honest broker straight outta the pre-gentrified hood of days gone by, now willfully and in an unambivalently un-#metoo-like manner sleeping with the enemy and relishing its newfound — and lucrative — role of devil’s advocate and partner-in-white-collar-crime, shamelessly profiteering from the destructivness of gentrification in Kreuzberg in particular and Berlin in general. Not to mention having alienated its long-term core customer base, and former employees like myself. Even though I celebrate the Adidas/BVG collaboration and as a former employee have nothing against a graffiti store selling sneakers, having the “New Overkill” be an active part of an appropriation of a subculture by the “the Man” makes the the whole matter stink to high New Berlin heaven.

And on a more macro-level note: by proactively promulgating a Berlin identity to tourists, investors and other cash-strapped visitors through official image campaigns like “Be Berlin” (also initiated under Mayor Wowereit as a means to lure even more tourists to town), “Weil wir Dich lieben! and unofficial ones like “Arm aber sexy”, Berlin is simultaneously destroying the same identity it is relentlessly expounding. This cannibalistic hunger is totally in keeping with the corporate identity of a broke-ass capital shamelessly kowtowing to mass tourism, start-up culture and “creative” industries that all together make up most of the reasons for the organized crime of gentrification. As for the BVG: the hypocrisy of feeding into the Berlin narrative of an urbane metropolis boasting hip subcultures but at the same time uncompromisingly going through the courts to suppress said subcultures, should not be lost on us.

Finally, it behooves to point out that the same level of red-carpet treatment rolled out to the supposed movers and shakers of this city by the powers that be is not afforded to refugees, the working class and others financially less fortunate who are the true movers and shakers of Berlin, unraveling not only the wolfish neoliberalism of our sheep-like elected representatives, but going even further by poking fun at despondency: That poverty should be considered sexy and financial brokeness be elevated to a lifestyle speaks volumes about a city desperately seeking for attention and habitually caught between the rock of being the reluctant capital of a wealthy nation and the hard place of nobody giving a fuck about our broke asses.

My neighbor’s Overkill-branded doormat. Where people wipe their dirty shoes on. The symbolism is uncanny

The Night’s Watch of Capitalism

Nevertheless, while in the heated comfort and darkness of my Kreuzberg living room, drapes warding off the early morning light, my face illuminated in the halo of the desk lamp, I am putting the finishing touches to this article criticizing an economic and cultural system that is beyond saving and thinking of many of it’s proudest proponents just a few blocks away proving their mettle and loyalty to aforementioned system by having pulled and still pulling an open-air all-nighter in the wet winter cold.

These die-hard cohorts of adolescents and (wo)manchilds, absurdly waiting for the most godless of Godots, are the unsung heroes of capitalism’s most radical sect, the Neoliberals, staunchly defending it’s core tenets of a hierarchical world society strictly divided into haves and have-nots, and of bland consumerism and seething inequality, devoid of any spiritual meaning. They are the Guardians of a Galaxy gone awry, where globalization is nothing more than a politically correct extension of colonialism: brown, black and yellow skinned majority still slaving and laboring away to supply a privileged white minority (and their increasingly non-white co-religionists) with luxury consumer goods and collectibles that these people are brainwashed into desiring.

True, the idea of selling a sneaker designed after the swatch of our beloved U-Bahn seats combined with the grandest of gimmicks, a yearly ticket integrated into the tongue of said footwear, is shockingly refreshing, innovative and even practical, and not at all like the other sneaker releases solely meant for the purpose of collection and value appreciation.

But in the end, even the Adidas/BVG collabo is nothing more than an ode not to consumerist joy, but to the narcissistic, hedonistic and reckless nature of neoliberalism and the extra miles its blind followers will go in defending this insult to human decency that is our prevailing economic order and lifestyle. The pinnacle of a societal civilization where “having” not only trumps “being”, but goes to the absurdist of lengths to even further alienate oneself from who one is up to the point where who you are is solely defined by what you have and what you will readily do to have it, even if that means camping out in the cold and dark of night for something you don’t need. A consumerist overkill, if you will, which is why it is so befitting that one of the two shops that is exclusively releasing the shoe today is named exactly that: Overkill. Where — apart from the fun and games side of the sneaker and fashion retail business, e.g. the parties, the fun(ny) colleagues, the generous employee discounts — I also gained valuable, paradigm-shifting insights into the superficiality and recklessness of it all.

But Capitalism’s Night’s Watch, selflessly camped out on the cold sidewalk of Köpenicker Straße in the service of materialistic self-love, couldn’t be less concerned with these socio-critical matters of mine. Just a few hours ago I took a pre-dawn stroll towards Overkill in the mushy sleet to see how these self-disciplined Nerds of Neoliberalism with the falsest of priorities and most myopic of mental eyesights were holding up: the sun had still not come up and some of these Martyrs of Materialism were sitting on fold-out camping chairs, wrapped in thick sleeping bags, listening to music on ear pods and patiently burning down the that midnight oil, weary and wet but stoic, making me wonder if that kind of symmetry in life occurs where these members of the Order of the Phreaks — in keeping with the occasion — might actually be listening to the “Ist mir egal” ditty. Not only a song befitting the situation, but the slogan of an entire social group of loveable degenerates I feel some kind of compassion for, as I — even though I have never camped out for a shoe, an iPhone or a Star Wars flick before — used to be kind of one of them.

And I’ll be damned: even in their self-imposed waiting for a not-so mass-produced sneaker there seemed to be a meditative quality to this superficial idiocy, one that was totally at peace with the philosophical absurdity of a meaningless, human existence, their vacuousness almost dada-like.

Journalist from the gentrified wastelands of Berlin, the capital of the Merkelian Postdemocratic Republic. Based in London. www.torial.com/timo.al-farooq