Scottsdale nightclubs, unlike most clubs in Phoenix or Tempe, often require a second form of identification. After the doorman’s flashlight shines on the driver’s license, it shines on the shoes of those waiting in line.
Old Town, the city’s bustling shopping, nightclub, and restaurant district, attracts locals and out-of-towners every day of the week. At the northern end of the old town, a U-shaped street is home to some of the valley’s most popular clubs. In the afternoon, most of these establishments serve as a family brunch. At night, black-clad security guards guard the gates as the booze flows, the amps pump, and the crowds get into their groove.
The nightlife atmosphere comes with a small set of rules: Guests must be 21 to enter, and they must adhere to the dress code. These guidelines are synonymous with fun after dark, but some clubbers are upset about one section of the code: the footwear policies, especially regarding retro basketball sneakers.
“It’s not even a secret,” said security guard Jordan Baines. “The locals, we know them. All the people outside have a surprise, or the people who don’t go out often, they don’t know.
Some clubs ban Jordans. Others ban Jordans and Nike Air Force 1s. All employ security guards to scan every foot that passes the red rope.
Many clubgoers say the application seems arbitrary, raising deeper questions about racial/cultural diversity and the motivation behind the selectivity. Simply, is it a way to discourage black patrons?
A rich history
Sneakers have long lived at the intersection of sport and fashion. Over a hundred years have passed since Chuck Taylor entered into his deal with Converse that forever changed the athlete-brand relationship.
In the mid-1980s, Michael Jordan’s collaboration with Nike to create the Air Jordan is widely considered revolutionary for shoe culture. Nike publicly paid the fines Jordan accrued for wearing his shoe during games, which violates team and NBA rules.
By being “like Mike” and wearing the Jordan 1, sneaker lovers were fashionable while making a statement against authority. Basketball shoes have become everyday shoes. With Michael Jordan back in the news cycle following the 2020 release of his long-awaited documentary “The Last Dance”, Jumpman’s image has seen a resurgence.
A typical pair of Air Jordan 1 hi-tops costs around $150 on Nike’s website.
“From 2018 to 2020, (we) saw the acceleration of ‘The Last Dance,'” said journalist and sneaker expert Luis Torres. “The Jordan boom recently, and some people having more money, (have) really flooded the demand for more Jordans and Nikes.”
Air Force 1s have been around hard courts since the early 80s, when Hall of Fame center Moses Malone debuted them for Nike. They have stood the test of time from a fashion standpoint, with shoemakers and sneakerheads altering their products to mimic the sleek design.
“It’s what everyone (wanted), because it’s so clean,” Torres said. “But now it’s kind of fashionable among young people to…just wear them beat up. As if it’s kind of the trend to make your sneakers look like they’ve been squashed multiple times.
No entry allowed
Despite their popularity, Air Force 1s and Jordans, or “Js,” aren’t allowed at many Scottsdale nightclubs. The rules are meant to give the club a certain appearance, but Valley residents are unsure why they should opt for cheaper clothes when the rest of the dress code implies an upmarket image.
Noah Jones, 23, said he was wearing a pair of beige Air Force 1s the first time the Casa Amigos bouncers refused him entry. Jones had worn Yeezy sneakers, which is Kanye West’s fashion and sneaker collaboration, to the club on a previous occasion, so he was confused why his more subtle AF1s were causing so much trouble.
Bouncers told him those rules were in place to prevent fights, as patrons in the past have aggressively guarded their high-end sneakers, leading to clashes.
“I could see how it could happen, but I didn’t personally witness it,” Jones said. “Besides, that wouldn’t really explain them denying me my Air Force 1s because it’s just not a shoe people get upset about.”
Brandon Jones, 22 – unrelated to Noah – was also wearing Air Force 1s when HiFi Kitchen and Cocktails refused him entry. He received a similar explanation.
“It would only concern me if someone looked like they were wearing new shoes, or more specifically, Jordans,” Jones said. “Ninety dollar Air Force 1s shouldn’t start any type of combat. In fact, there are more expensive shoes that they allow people to wear in the club than the Air Force 1s.”
The rules themselves raise questions, but the inconsistencies in the application of these rules are confusing to some clubbers. Although the dress codes come from management, it seems to be left to the bouncers to enforce, and it’s quite arbitrary.
Sarah Kurtze, 21, frequents Scottsdale nightclubs, including Casa Amigos, on weekends. She never had a problem with her white Air Force 1s.
“It’s, like, my shoes (that) I don’t care what happens to them,” Kurtze said. “And my feet often get stepped on in clubs, so I prefer not to wear nice shoes because I don’t want them to be ruined.”
Justin Tinsley, senior culture editor for Andscape, formerly The Undefeated, tweeted in April that a Scottsdale bar wouldn’t let his friend in because he was wearing Jordan 1s: “A sports bar. This shows the UNC game. This is the definition of irony.
Upon request, a Casa Amigos security guard provided Cronkite News with the club’s nighttime dress code: pants with belt, no open-toed shoes, no face tattoos, no gang-affiliated merchandise, no gym gear and no Jordans. The Air Force 1s were not mentioned.
Asked about the Noah Jones account, Casa Amigos management and security declined to comment.
HiFi Kitchen and Cocktails also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
As a bouncer at Hifi and Casa Amigos, Baines, 26, regularly steered customers away from lines because of their sneakers. He has since chosen to work for the security of establishments further west and closer to Phoenix.
Baines, who is black, doesn’t believe the sneaker bans are meant to prevent fights.
“It’s something they say,” he said. “But in the end, that’s not the reason.
“From my experience and, you know, what I’ve seen and on both sides, just, you know, partying and working, it’s really more to keep a certain crowd out. Because you know, if you had 10 people online with (Jordans), eight of the 10 people would probably be black.
While some say these rules could be motivated by race, others point to class distinctions in Old Town club demographics. Baines also said it’s common for bouncers to accept cash at the door to allow patrons to skip the lines, reserve a table or order bottle service.
In Scottsdale, a $20 bill can also double as a free get out of jail card for revelers who forgot to leave their Js at home, he said.
“You can wear whatever you want…as long as you want to pay,” Baines said.
For some, coughing up the cash is worth keeping the plans intact, but not everyone can afford it. Hope Denslow, 26, decided she would not return to Old Town nightclubs after her boyfriend, who is black, was repeatedly refused entry because of his Jordans.
Like Baines, Denslow suspects race plays a role.
“We just decided to start going to their clubs in downtown Phoenix or we’re just going to dive bars farther south in Scottsdale,” she said. “Why waste, you know, $14 on drinks for some people who don’t want those kind of people?” We work hard for our money. Why would I spend $15 on a club that doesn’t want my boyfriend to go?
Torres, the sneaker journalist, believes there is a disconnect between club managers and the culture and lifestyle they promote. Fashion trends come and go, he said, and sneakers are no different. Five years ago, designer brands like Balenciaga and Versace caused a stir with sneakers, promoting them through social media and song lyrics.
Now, retro-style basketball shoes are back in the spotlight, but the design phase could make a comeback, he said.
“Dior, Givenchy, Prada, you see all these high-profile brands collaborating with sneakers,” Torres said. “So I think, maybe in five years we’ll have a reset to some degree, where a nightclub might be more tolerant (retro shoes).”
Sneakerheads plead for transparency.
“I don’t know what their end goal is and why they continue to be inconsistent with the rules,” Noah Jones said. “But I know it backfires because a lot of my friends who used to hang out in Old Town don’t go there anymore.”
As Baines said, these rules aren’t new to most nightlife-loving Valley residents. They just know that when the beat hits their feet, it’s time to check their shoes.