Sneakers. Trainers. Crepes. Kicks. Steps. Daps … whatever you want to call them, the culture that surrounds athletic footwear has certainly had its highs and lows over the past few decades.
With multiple brands offering thousands of styles and colourways, sports shoes naturally lend themselves to a collecting culture. Quick-strikes, limited editions and high profile collaborations all add hype to the “gotta have it” mantra of the modern day sneakerhead.
Having spent the ‘90s-’00s travelling the world as an international sneaker hustler, and amassing a personal stash of over 500 shoes along the way, I have seen the “Sneaker Boom” both explode then implode several times over during the past two decades. What interests me right now, in 2014, is that the thirst for sneakers appears bigger than ever despite any form of global recession.
Back in the day sneakers where sought after for numerous reasons - whether it be a love of basketball getting you into Jordans and Uptowns, skateboarding for Vans Old Skools and Chucks, terrace casuals for Adidas Munchens and Sambas, Hip Hop for Puma Clydes and Baskets…the list that influenced your stuntin’ goes on and on.
What appears to be more prevalent these days is that the blogosphere (fed largely by the brands themselves) and social networking sites are driving the consumers to a fever pitch with hype. “Leaked” factory sample photos and pre season line-sheets appear online sometimes 6-12 months in advance, upon which the dedicated sneaker forums start debating over where/when will they release, how limited will they be, will they have to camp out to get them, etc. By the time the shoe eventually hits the market there are thousands of hungry buyers sitting eagerly at their keyboard or waiting outside specialist stores worldwide. What happens next is also fascinating; visit eBay on a major release date and within a few hours you’ll see hundreds of pairs of the shoes that just dropped earlier that day, most starting at double (sometimes triple) the retail value.
So who is buying these shoes - are the people buying them at retail just internet-savy young entrepreneurs jumping on a business opportunity?
Are the people buying them at double the price the ones who genuinely wanted them in the first place and, if so, why didn’t they just cop straight retail?
It would be interesting to know if the majority of these resold shoes actually get worn or do they just spend a lifetime in shoeboxes, exchanging hands from seller to seller across the globe?
With sneaker fever at an all time high, I decided to check out two dedicated events; one on each side of the Atlantic, both within a few days of each other.
My first stop was Sneaker Con, a travelling buy/sell sneaker event that tours across North America throughout the year. They decided to finish off a successful 2013 with a sold-out homecoming event down by the Hudson River in lower Manhattan, NYC.
I arrive at New York’s Pier 36 to the sight of around 5,000 ticket-holding sneaker freaks snaking a line around all four sides of the vast warehouse style building. The age ranges from six to sixty with the dress code styling from loungewear (I saw at least two guys rockin’ PJs) to high-end fashion. There are whole families of sneaker heads, groups of high school kids, fashionistas, couples in matching kicks and the odd strange looking dude who looks like he lives in his parents basement and really should get out more.
Many are armed with shoes to sell or trade: some just single pairs, some in multiple sets of rolling luggage. When the line gets so big that it starts to double back on itself, you know the sneaker game in New York City is big business in 2013!
The talk outside is all about shoes and the business of selling: “I’m gonna trade Grape V’s for Stealth Foams”, “I flipped some KD’s for Cork LeBrons”, “you got jacked on those Bred XI’s fool?” etc. Sneakers appear to be the ONLY thing on the minds of this crowd; they are here for a reason. Some hungry sellers are walking the line offering the chance to buy shoes before people even get into the event. Bags are opened and inspected and a few deals go down in the parking lot before the doors have even opened.
I chat to one guy Aaron, aged 16, whose parents had driven him down from Connecticut at 5am that morning and dropped him off armed with a suitcase full of shoes. Aaron showed me his stash of five pairs: two Nike KDs, Jordan Fire Red V’s, Adidas Jeremy Scotts and New Balance “Made In the USA” 1300’s then explained he was hoping to raise $1,200 from the sale of those to buy a pair of Nike Air Yeezy II’s in Black/Solar Red. I asked him if he thought that five pairs of shoes for one was a good deal in his opinion and even he seemed unconvinced “Um, I guess… maybe. I just really want them and this is my only chance.”
Once inside the vast open plan hall you’re faced with the scale of the current sneaker scene in The States. Hard cash is changing hands like the floor of some kind of urban stock exchange with prices ranging mostly from $150–$2000. The overwhelming smell of rubber and leather plus the sheer volume of thousands of people talking at once all adds to the energy of the event.
Most traders have pitched well organised tables with shoes neatly arranged; some shrink-wrapped like in the Tokyo consignment stores, some in perspex boxes, many with the sign “No Touching” displayed predominantly. Smaller scale traders pitch up on any valuable bit of floor space available, others walk the floor proudly lifting their shoes in the air above their heads - the American hustle is definitely alive and in the building!
The predominant brand of choice here is Nike and mostly basketball shoes: J’s, Foams, LeBrons and KDs taking the lion’s share with a respectable amount of Air Max’s (mostly ‘90s & ‘95s) and even some vintage SBs in the mix. A handful of Adidas, New Balance, Vans and Converse are on show but the Swoosh definitely takes it in popularity here. Some higher ends of the food chain included the Back to the Future II Nike Air Mags priced around the $3,500 mark, and if you were really ballin’ hard then a pair of box fresh Red Octobers in size 11 will set you back a cool $4,600. With every deal being made in cash, the staggering amount of paper money flying around that building was probably the equivalent to a hard night out in Atlantic City!
Throughout the madness of the event I had a chance to grab a few minutes with the owner of Sneaker Con, Yu Ming, for a quick chat about the event:
Yu Ming: I was quite inspired by Comic Con and I thought maybe one day there would be a sneaker convention similar to that so I quickly purchased the domain in 2007. The first Sneaker Con was then held in a comedy club in Times Square, New York City on March 1st 2009.
We had great momentum since the first show and it put us on the map as a group who can put together a good show for sneaker heads and with each show we’ve done, especially in NYC, we give people more reason to come back so it grows bigger with each show.
Picking the correct venue for our show is extremely important. We always look for venues where our attendees will feel good and can have a good time. We also make sure the venues can support our expected attendees and their needs, such as parking in certain cities, or that the floors are clean so sneakers don’t get dirty.
R1: Are you amazed about the amount of cash that trades hands during these events?
YM: Yes, we are still blown away by the amount of exchanges that happen at our events. I’ve personally witnessed several transactions in the $3000 USD range.
R1: Sneaker “crazes” seem to come and go. Do you think there are now enough hardcore sneaker-heads to sustain these events during such in-between times?
YM: This comes up a lot but I think sneakers are here to stay. There just aren’t many options to cover ones foot. I’m doubtful of a mass transition of teens moving to normal shoes. People will always want something cool on their feet so as long as sneaker companies cater to that I think we have long bright future ahead.
I think sneaker companies are smarter now and they all in one way or another try to cater to the collector/buyer. At one point there was only one brand that matters to this buyer/collector, today there are several. This is actually great as there are more styles to see. Having seen so many people pass through Sneaker Con and having shot thousands of “on-feet” photos for Sneaker News, there are currently a lot of brands being worn.
Sneaker Con has a really exciting year up ahead. We are looking into doing our first two-day event in New York City this summer. With the extra time and extra space we will be able to bring out special guests from the sneaker world for meet and greet, photo opportunities or autographs. We’re also looking into international markets so we are excited about 2014.
Later that afternoon I bumped into Aaron, the kid from Connecticut, to see if his quest for Yeezy IIs had been a fruitful one. Looking disappointed, Aaron explained that although he had made approximately $1000 for his five pairs, the black Yeezys were still out of reach considering the lowest price on the floor was coming in at $2,000. When I asked what his next move was he simply shrugged his shoulders and casually said “just buy more shoes and sell ‘em for profit, I’ll get my Yeezys soon enough”.
Upon leaving the event came the biggest surprise: the line of non-ticket holders was stretching all the way down the FDR for about 8 blocks! There were people arriving in cabs, having camped overnight outside Nike’s Soho and Midtown locations for the latest Doernbecher collection released that morning, just to flip them straight away at Sneaker Con.
Leaving NYC I was looking forward to that weekend’s Crepe City event in East London. Friends Ron Raichura and Morgan Weekes started Crepe City just under five years ago and have steadily increased venue size and reputation with each event since.
I was keen to see how the London sneaker community differed from the serious business of what I just witnessed in New York. The basement of Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery was the venue and this was to be their largest event to date. Although I’d never attended a Crepe City event I’d heard the lines were long so I wasn’t disappointed to see the UK’s sneaker community brave the cold and turn out in force early on this late November morning.
Once inside, the venue was well laid out with tables snaking round each of the two rooms in a way to create a natural walkway around the show. On first observations the crowd was a stark difference to that of a few days earlier, with the manic must-sell mentality of the stallholders and constant wheeler-dealer trading of the attendees definitely a lot mellower than their New York counterparts.
At Sneaker Con everyone appeared to know their s**t and most people there were walking sneaker-encyclopedias, whereas Crepe City seemed to attract a more varied crowd of people who didn’t seem too bothered on the sneakers history, story or limited edition value, they just wanted to pick up a nice looking pair of trainers. Sure there were a bunch of die-hard sneaker nerds in the mix but the majority of punters seemed pretty unfazed over “rare air” or vintage kicks, preferring to enquire over recent general release Huaraches, AM87s and Asics. With the final Crepe City of 2013 a huge success I caught up with promoters Ron and Morgan to find out what drove them to take the initiative to start their own sneaker event.
Morgan: I’ve been collecting trainers since I was at school, like 16 years old. So I have been collecting now for over six years.
Ron: I’m also a long time sneaker head. My passion for kicks probably started properly around 2001 and I have been collecting and buying ever since.
We founded the event to bring the UK sneaker scene together and to open things up for new people who were into kicks but didn’t know like-minded people. We wanted to give people a platform to sell of bits from their collections, find rare gems and meet people who share the same passion, so we held the first event at Notting Hill Arts Club in 2009 and about 200 people attended.
I think at first we had to gain people’s trust. We’re not industry people, just a group of guys who love kicks and wanted to do something positive.
It was initially very hard to convince sellers of our vision and of what we wanted to do but once more sellers came on board and the reputation grew the event grew in stature.
M: It was really in 2012 when the event really blew up for us. The two events at Bar Music Hall that year were massive with people queuing most of the day and the collaboration event we did at 1948 with Nike was also crazy busy.
We always try to find venues big enough for our crowd and take on the feedback we have after events then try to act on it. For instance Bar Music Hall wasn’t big enough so we moved to Village Underground. After that event we realised that space also wasn’t big enough so then moved to Truman Brewery.
R: We also are really keen to use iconic locations that share our vision and our passion for kicks. Dom at Notting Hill Arts Club is a big sneaker head, and the venue manager at Truman is also really into kicks and streetwear. It’s nice to work with likeminded people who are more understanding to the needs of the event and its attendees.
Looking at the crowd there are so many people still coming who I recognise from our previous events at Notting Hill or from the early days at Bar Music Hall. We do like to attract everyone rather than just one niche of people; sneakers are there for everyone to enjoy.
M: This year we want to host more events which are even better and even bigger. We are trying to put on some cool exhibitions at the events and to work with more brands and retailers.
R: November 2014 will be our 5th birthday so we want to end the year with something big!
With the dust settled and time to reflect it feels like the culture of sneakers is thriving again right now. Since the 2012 Olympics we’ve seen brightly coloured running shoes on the catwalk, skate shoes on the high street and more reissues than you can imagine. Does the current sneaker trend make for a healthy industry, or are people just getting ripped off by paying double the price for a pair of shoes simply because they weren’t quick enough on the “add to cart” button. One thing for sure is that the more people want the latest hot release (whether it be for wearing, selling for profit or for online bragging rights) the more it ups the game of the sneaker brands themselves, which can only be a good thing for all of us.
Story: Ross Wilson
Photography: Peter Pabon & Thomas Lindie