Matt Powell spends his days consulting for sneaker companies—and sniping at Kanye West fans on Twitter. Critics say he doesn’t get the hype. Powell says hype doesn’t matter. Who’s right?
Matt Powell wakes up every day at 5AM to start going through his emails. Then, occasionally, before 6AM he denies that Kanye West moved ” the needle for Adidas at all.” After that, he catches up on the blogs he reads, like Retail Dive, Business of Fashion, and Linkedin. On certain days, right around 6:20AM, he tells a Twitter follower Kanye West isn’t the reason a certain adidas shoe is selling well. Powell then spends time combing through data surrounding the latest sneaker releases. Shortly after 9AM, he might tell off a West supporter by tweeting that the rapper is “inconsequential.” After taking a couple press phone calls, like the one he’s doing with me, he might visit a sneaker shop to talk to its salespeople or give a presentation to a retailer or brand. Or maybe he’ll get real fiery and come for West’s Yeezy Powerphase Calabasas:
In becoming a well-respected sports industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group—”I get to talk about sneakers all day and people send me checks,” he says—Powell has also become something else: the best-credentialed Yeezy hater in the sneaker world. He’s worked in the fashion industry for 44 years, starting at a department store after he graduated college in 1973. He worked for the short-lived MVP.com, the sporting goods retailer that was started by John Elway, Michael Jordan, and Wayne Gretzky in the late ’90s. He launched his own research firm in 2000, and joined NPD as an analyst three years ago. He has a treasure trove of retail data at his fingertips and is a key resource for brands and editors alike: NPD gets numbers from a large network of retailers, so the analysts know better than basically anyone outside the actual brands how different shoes and companies are performing. Highsnobiety’s editorial director Jian DeLeon calls Powell a “go-to resource” for gauging the health of a sneaker company’s business; Hypebeast editor Ben Roazen agrees that the analyst is “essential reading for fashion and sneaker writers, especially.” Roazen calls him an “elder statesman.”
His data-driven analysis is delivered in a deep, gruff voice that buttresses his no-nonsense approach. He typically emails me back within 10 minutes with messages that could fit into a tweet. The only time I got an exclamation point out of him was when I asked him to do this story. “Sure!” He’s a 66-year-old man—something that doesn’t escape his followers—analyzing an industry most fervently followed by fans we describe as a compound of “boys” and a four-letter word. Reading his Twitter timeline is a lot like watching an Uncle Drew commercial.
Powell says he can’t be specific about the exact brands he provides analysis for—on trends, categories that are growing and shrinking, and how millennials are shopping—but he’s quick to assure me it’s “all the major” ones. (It’s safe to assume this includes brands like Nike, adidas, Under Armour, and Puma, among others.) His time is divided between looking at data—Powell gets access to sales broken down by the week on every broadly distributed sneaker—and talking to people. He hops on the phone with employees at sneaker companies who want to pick his brain about the business, jets off to give presentations to retailers and brands both in and out of the sportswear world, and visits stores. But while he’s no doubt well-respected within his industry, he might be best known for his Twitter account—and more specifically, for the way he uses it to dump cold water on red-hot Kanye West hype.
Powell majored in sociology in college and that remains the most interesting aspect of the business to him. He says he spends a lot of time preparing brands for the shift from boomers to millennials and Gen Z. He writes about how Hispanics shopping habits are wreaking havoc on the industry. “I’ve always been interested in what makes groups do what they do,” says Powell. This now includes the younger cohort who hoover up Kanye’s every move. Kanye’s Yeezys are quite possibly the most hyped sneakers ever, and Powell steadfastly preaches what most millennials don’t—or won’t—understand: Your mentions are pretty much worthless.
In 2017, the sneaker industry revolves around celebrity collaborators. Pharrell, Kanye, Rita Ora, Pusha T, Rihanna, Big Sean, the Weeknd, Tyler, the Creator, Drake, Eminem, and Rae Sremmurd are all working with sneaker brands. Powell’s spent his whole career relying on numbers, only for the magic of hype and influence to become the top priority for brands and consumers. He dismisses what he can’t see, but those qualities—scarcity, influence, mystery—are precisely what inflame sneaker hype. “If you can’t measure it, it becomes religion,” he says.
That relationship describes the intensity of the interactions on his timeline: it’s a bunch of disciples being told that the object of their worship is merely mortal. Fans tweet all day at Powell trying to persuade him that their fave matters. They’re typically West fans who, if they don’t own the Yeezys, would kill for a pair: People who have spent upwards of $200 on a pair, or have set alarms on Saturday morning and spent all day strapped to a laptop in hopes of buying a pair. Everything they see and read (including on websites like this one) confirms that they’re making the right choice—the cool choice, and even the financially savvy one. And then some guy—an expert in the field, no less—comes around and says No, actually, those shoes are not cool and I have the data to prove it. It rubs some people the wrong way.
Ryan Tremblay, a 32-year-old who founded the site shoeengine.com and has tangled with Powell online, says he respects the analyst even though he disagrees with his stance on Kanye. He argues that Powell doesn’t see how Kanye influences the brand in less tangible ways. And while Tremblay adds he’s not a Kanye fanboy, he believes Powell paints people as hypebeasts to make them easier to discredit. “He wants to pigeonhole anyone who disagrees with him as a Kanye stan,” says Tremblay.
Powell, meanwhile, believes these fans are more personally offended than they are interested in having a thoughtful, constructive argument over the relationship between hype and sales. “It says to me they own that shoe,” he says, laughing. Kanye’s shoes aren’t the only ones Powell dismisses; he doesn’t buy that athlete ambassadors and celebrity collaborators are pulling their weight in general. He takes a hard line here. It’s money he doesn’t consider particularly well spent by companies—it’s good for the celebrity endorsees (“They get their name in the paper,” says Powell) and it can be good for a retailer that sells a couple thousand shoes in a day, but it doesn’t do what Powell calls “commercial numbers.” These are the mind-boggling ones with a lot of zeroes attached. You can probably picture what a 1,000 boxes of shoes might look like—100 rows, 10 columns—but that exercise is impossible to replicate with 15 million boxes, the number of adidas Superstars that sold in 2015. “I’m hearing from people all the time, ‘This shoe sold out in a minute,'” says Powell. “Well, there were a thousand pairs, who cares?”
Some people! At least according to Joe Favorito, a longtime sports marketing consultant who teaches on the subject at Columbia. Favorito says that the right celebrities paired with the right brands can “100 percent make a difference on the grassroots level.” While Powell’s analysis focuses on how Kanye didn’t turn around adidas’s sales in the two years after he signed, there’s an argument to be made that hype takes time to seep in. “With apparel it takes longer because people don’t have disposal income to go spend on shoes all the time,” says Favorito. “So they’re going to make a decision on quality and what people are saying around them, the buzz.” That buzz is the constant churning of posts and thinkpieces about Kanye’s shoes and his relationship with adidas. It’s hard, impossible even, to accurately point to the larger effect Kanye has on a customer’s subconscious, if he has one at all. You’re either a believer or you’re not.
Powell is firmly in the latter camp. And from a certain angle, his perspective even begins to look a bit populist. When I ask if Kanye’s shoes can be cool even though they’re not critical to adidas’s overall business, Powell bristles. Part of the Yeezy’s appeal, in Powell’s view, is that they’re extremely limited. But in his mind, that just means they’re not cool enough. Which requires you to zoom out and shift your understanding of what cool actually means. If Yeezys were really cool, couldn’t adidas sell them for those eye-popping numbers? The Superstar is cool because you can buy them online, you can buy them in a store, you can buy them right now, you can buy them in twos or fours, and people still want them. More people bought Superstars than any other sneaker last year. This is the kind of data that’s shaping Powell’s opinion.
Kanye fans are stubborn, and loud. Why spend all day fighting them? Powell says it’s because he wants to teach people about the sneaker business. Information still matters, Powell argues, and enough of it turns into power. “It’s really cool being considered an expert, right?” he asks rhetorically. He’ll tell followers to “do your homework” if he believes they’re relying on spurious statistics. And when these students use up Powell’s patience, the teaching turns into roasting. A follower tells Powell he knows Kanye’s shoes are important because he reads “comments on posts.” Powell tweets back: “Wow!” Somewhere, Powell hopes, a comments-section troll has learned something about the importance of verifiable information. Class dismissed.
But Powell says he wants to teach because most people who follow him on Twitter are probably fans of sneakers who are interested in the business side of it all—and he doesn’t want them to go on holding onto wrong information. He points to his Twitter header, a Maya Angelou quote that reads: “When you learn, teach, when you get, give.” Surely Angelou was referring here to the fiscal and cultural implications of a Yeezy Boost. The next line: “When you buy, flip.” For Powell, sneakers are a business, and hype isn’t numbers.
But what Powell holds most dearly—more dearly, even, than his Kanye opinions—is his objectivity. He serves no master in the footwear industry; in fact, Matt Powell doesn’t even own a pair of sneakers. So next time you catch him on Twitter at 5AM ranting about Kanye’s overrated influence, know this: the sneaker business’s holy warrior is sitting pretty in his favorite pair of OluKai flip-flops.