Under the Influence charts the often-mysterious ways that art begets art, calling upon moviemakers to write about one creative work that informed and inspired their own.

In this edition, Dutch director Sam de Jong talks about what sneakers from designer label Giuseppe Zanotti have come to mean in contemporary Amsterdam youth culture, and how the popular pursuit of these shoes is a central drive of his debut feature, Prince.

My first feature, Prince, digs into the life of outcast Ayoub, a troubled Dutch teenager growing up on the streets of Amsterdam. Ayoub is head over heels in love with the local beauty queen, Laura. But with few muscles and many enemies, his raggedy swag—especially his worn-out sneakers—stands in the way of conquering her heart. Ayoub knows exactly which kicks he needs to win her: Giuseppe Zanottis.

Giuseppe Zanotti men's sneakers

Giuseppe Zanotti men’s high-top sneakers

I built up to Prince by making several short films and music videos, all dealing with identity one way or another. The streets we shot in were the streets I grew up in. The movie shows certain codes kids in Amsterdam need to abide byif they want to gain respect. When I was 16, this involved wearing Prada sport shoes and mullet haircuts. Today the mullets are still there—fortunately, as they tend to look funny on screen—though the Pradas have been replaced with Giuseppe Zanottis. These gold-embroidered, bling-enhanced sport shoes cost $500. They are pretty ugly. To look at them, it’s hard to imagine youngsters in Amsterdam going crazy to obtain status symbols like these. Although I participated in this idiocy, I scrutinize myself. Why do we risk so much, work so hard and spend it all, exploit resources so valuable to us and future generations—all to come across a certain way?

Perhaps it’s the need to belong but also to simultaneously express a sense of individuality—and by extension, feel meaningful and unique. In 2015, contemporary fashion design has become an important form of artistic expression. Fashion, together with music and movies, is by far the liveliest art form amongst younger generations; it’s an inevitable influence and important ingredient for a movie about growing up in the 21st century.

Ayoub Elsari plays Ayoub, a Moroccan-Dutch teenager in Prince

Ayoub Elsari plays Ayoub, a Moroccan-Dutch teenager, in Prince

If art is self-expression, fashion is the most democratic art form. Nowadays you don’t have to be rich to dress well. We have thrift stores, flea markets and cheap retailers to which all social classes have access. You don’t have to be able to paint to articulate a sense of who you are. You can scrutinize your peers, be creative, and make a statement.

While researching Prince, fashion, image and machismo gradually became very important ingredients. I used our hero’s obsessions with his new identity to reveal his darker compulsions and internal moral code. There is a thin line separating fashion as a tool of self-expression and obsessive consumerism. Many kids in Amsterdam worship Dan Bilzerian, a popular Instagram icons. He spends his days blowing up Ferarris and roaming around Las Vegas with his playmates. The life he preaches is unattainable for anyone but his following is enormous. Longing for such a life when you live on the outskirts of a big city is bound to be a disappointment.

When Ayoub finally manages to get himself a pair of new shoes—after going on a heist and nearly killing someone—he is high on life. He starts to behave like a megalomaniac, Dan Bilzerian on steroids. But like any high, his feelings slowly wear off, into a predawn haze. He finds himself utterly confused and trapped in his own ambitions.


Crowned, armed and dangerous: Ayoub falls in with the wrong crowd in Prince

The short-term feeling buying something can give you had to be incorporated in Prince. Stylistically, I wanted the aesthetics of the film to match Ayoub’s inner feelings. As he grows entangled with the source of all evil, a purple Lamborghini-driving, geek freak kingpin named Kalpa, his world transforms into a hellish, stroboscopic disco dream. A world where butchering pigs is considered pasttime. The gold, shiny designs of the shoes are a motif that echo in the dark universe of Kalpa’s makeshift living space. Kalpa’s terrain looks like a synthetic wasteland covered in blow—an ominous precursor to Ayoub’s life, were he to choose to become one of Kalpa’s disciples. So when Kapla finally crowns him and gears him up to retaliate on some bad guys, Ayoub, luckily for himself, starts to second-guess his chosen path.

In Prince, Ayoub manages to save his soul, but not before repelling everyone who truly loves him in the search for his ideals of success and affluence. His teenage belief—that a bad-ass style would give him a corresponding personality—makes him utterly unhappy. A change in exterior shouldn’t change your interior. Once he learns this, he’s finally able to connect with Laura. MM

Prince opens in theaters and on VOD August 14, 2015, courtesy of Vice and FilmBuff.