AT 9 A.M. ON A SATURDAY in February, some 60 teenagers and twentysomethings — all males except for one 15-year-old girl — stand in a line that snakes down Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Huddled in parkas or dark hoodies, they slap their arms and shuffle their feet, attempting to ward off the bitter cold. Most have been waiting since 6 a.m. Some slept in their cars after arriving the night before from Boston and beyond, desperate to acquire one of the approximately 60 numbered plastic bracelets the sneaker boutique Concepts will hand out. When the store opens at 10, only those customers with a bracelet will be allowed to purchase the coveted Nike shoe dropping that day: Dunk High Premium SB Diamond, better known (because of their aqua color) as Tiffany SBs. The shoes cost $125 a pair, and Concepts is limiting sales to one pair per customer.
For some sneakerheads, as the collectors are called, buying the shoe is feeding a passion. For others it’s a day’s work, as the resell value on these limited-release sneakers will escalate by the afternoon. But for everyone involved, from the shoe manufacturer to the retailer to the freezing kid in line ready to give up a wad of cash for a new pair of kicks, it’s just part of the sneaker game — a phenomenon of buying, collecting, selling, swapping, and competing for this sought-after street-fashion accessory.
“I love collecting shoes,” says Jonathan Tran, a 21-year-old pharmacy student in Boston who has been a sneakerhead since high school and owns about 40 pairs, which he says are worth $15,000. Tran estimates he’s bought, sold, or traded 200 pairs of sneakers in the past six years and has done almost 50 camp-outs at footwear stores in the Boston area, one lasting 36 hours. “My friend and I went to Concepts a week before a special Air Jordan release, and there were kids from New York already camping,” Tran says. “Then we found out Champs in Burlington was getting them, so we went there.” This was July 2011. While police evicted kids from the Burlington Mall property, Tran slept in a folding chair across the street and eventually scored a pair of green and white Ray Allen 13s for $160. The next day he sold them for $900. “That was my first come-up, in terms of making money,” Tran says. “It was crazy.”
Like most enterprising sneakerheads, Tran is well aware of the intersection of passion and profit. He estimates he’s made $18,000 to $20,000 by reselling shoes, mostly through online forums or Facebook. Sneakerheads often close deals on eBay or through sneaker consignment stores such as Flight Club in New York. A blurry line now distinguishes a true sneakerhead, in it mostly for the love of shoes, from the scorned “hypebeast” — a person who will line up for every new shoe just to turn a profit or impress his peers. “I don’t get hyped for everything,” Tran says. “I usually get shoes that I want to wear.”
“The hype drives the prices up,” says Jason Crane, the 38-year-old store manager of Expressions at South Shore Plaza in Braintree and longtime sneakerhead. He says resellers like Flight Club are hurting the retail vendors. “If Flight Club is getting $500 for a shoe, and the retail is $130, the next year it comes out, it’s $180, and then $200.”
Over the years Crane has seen a lot of changes in the footwear industry. “I was pre-Jordan” — mad about sneakers even as a boy — “and now I’m post-Jordan,” he says. He’s referring to the year 1984, when Nike signed an endorsement deal with NBA newcomer Michael Jordan and turned the sneaker game on its head. As the story goes, the NBA and the Chicago Bulls banned the rookie from wearing his black, white, and red Air Jordans during games, insisting he don the team colors of red and white. In response, Nike built an ad campaign around Air Jordans that capitalized on the controversy and, with the help of the burgeoning sub-brand, resuscitated the Oregon company.
“Back then Jordans were a luxury item, and that started people being robbed for them,” says Crane. “Then they became more mainstream, and parents moved away from this idea of $59 for a sneaker that would last kids a whole year. They started spending $100, $150 on a shoe. Parents have been conditioned.” And so have kids. Now Crane sees youngsters of 9, 10, and 11 who have saved all summer to buy their dream shoes. Different cities have distinct sneaker flavors, and in Boston, that would be old-school Adidas. “It’s a fashionable shoe at a good price point,” Crane says. “They’re still not over a hundred dollars, and you can get them in a variety of colors to match with your outfits.” Out in the suburbs, he adds, they’re more into Nike and Jordan.
According to Matt Powell, an analyst with retail research firm SportsOneSource in Boulder, Colorado, retail sales of athletic shoes in the United States reached $22 billion last year. Greater Portland, Oregon, is home to the three top selling brands—Nike, Jordan (owned by Nike), and Adidas. But Greater Boston is an industry hub as well, with major offices for more brands than any other US city: Converse (owned by Nike), Puma, Reebok (owned by Adidas), Saucony, and New Balance. (Adidas and Puma are German companies.)
While no one knows how much of the retail store market can be attributed to sneakerheads, Josh Luber, founder of Philadelphia-based Campless.com, a resell-tracking data company, estimates that in terms of secondary sales on eBay, sneakerheads accounted for approximately $200 million in 2013.
“In dollars and cents, sneakerheads make up a tiny portion of the industry,” Powell says, “but their fervor certainly creates heightened interest in shoes.”
THE VILLA VICTORIA CENTER FOR THE ARTS in the South End is packed. It’s a Saturday afternoon in January, and skinny 12-year-old boys carry orange Nike boxes stacked higher than their heads. A crowd made up largely of guys in their teens and 20s jostles shoulder to shoulder, most hawking pairs of colorful kicks. Hoping to do a deal, they mill around, holding up a sneaker, calling out the shoes’ style names, and sometimes the size or price.
“New Year’s Eve Question.”
“Ugly Christmas Sweater, size 10.”
“Oregon Duck Foams, $700.”
Booths around the room’s periphery hold pyramids of shoes, one table featuring a pair of Red Dons — a Kanye West and Louis Vuitton collaboration — displayed like a museum piece under plexiglass. Asking price $2,500.
This is Boston Got Sole 2, a convention for buying, selling, and trading sneakers, and 14-year-old Jonathan DiModica, a Weymouth High School freshman, is running the show. When DiModica’s family house burned to the ground in 2012, his mother bought him a pair of low-end Jordans to replace his old sneakers that “smelled like barbecue” after the fire. His shoe obsession was born.
To earn money for more pairs, DiModica and his best friend launched a business cleaning up old shoes and taking out creases. In the collecting world, a shoe’s value is directly related to its condition, with the most desirable shoes for resell being “deadstock” — sneaker slang for never worn. DiModica also charged $60 to camp out for shoes for other sneakerheads.
When the South Shore Plaza put an end to camp-outs for security reasons, DiModica and his brother, Joseph, now 17, organized Boston Got Sole. The success of that first event, held in September at the Villa Victoria, led the brothers to hold this second convention four months later. Their mom and dad are on hand, working the door and selling pizza. The five-hour event draws some thousand sneakerheads, at $10 or $15 a ticket, roughly double the attendance of the brothers’ first show.
“What I’m doing right now is bringing the sneaker culture of Boston together,” Jonathan shouts over the din of the crowd and hip-hop music spun by DJ Papadon. “I’ve met thousands of people, doing what I do, and I know I’ll meet thousands more. It’s a great vibe, a lot of great people.”
The mob is mostly male, with maybe a dozen female sneakerheads in the entire room. One of them, 18-year-old Ali Enaire, wanders around trying to sell her men’s size 6 Jordan Raptors 7s. (Most female sneakerheads wear smaller men’s sizes.) She isn’t feeling hopeful about it — the resell culture does its greatest volume in the male-friendly sizes of 10 and 11.
Eventually, Enaire does manage to sell her Raptors — to another female. She also buys a pair of South Beach Lebrons from a younger boy.
“The sneaker game is different for women. It’s bittersweet, in a way,” says Asia Mai, an assistant manager at the Allston sneaker consignment store At the Buzzer. “Guys come in thinking I’m a female that has no knowledge or opinions about sneakers. They’ll point to a shoe instead of asking for it by name because they don’t want to embarrass me. I end up surprising them when I know it.”
Mai says it’s devastating when shoes don’t come in small sizes. “Luckily, some brands make shoes exclusively in women’s sizes,” she says, “so that females can have a pair of dope kicks that guys break their necks at.”
As the organizer of the New England Sneaker Social, to be held April 6 at Gillette Stadium, the largest venue ever for a sneaker event in New England, 20-year-old Tyler Blake says he’s eager to include female sneakerheads. “We have actively worked to make the show have a wide appeal and not be so male-dominated. From brand presence with women’s sizing to special collaborations, women will be able to partake in the event to the fullest extent.” Blake is expecting around 1,500 sneaker lovers.
For now, though, it’s largely a young man’s game. “I think sneakers have become more of a status symbol than any other consumer product for urban males in a certain age group,” says 21-year-old Ben Adams-Keane, whose sneaker drawing won Nike’s Future Sole design contest in 2008 when he was a sophomore at Arlington High School. As a result of his win, Adams-Keane, now a liberal arts student at Bard College in New York state, spent the next three years doing freelance footwear design for Nike. “Sneakers are a cultural icon wrapped up in exclusivity,” he says. “There’s an urge to have something rare.”
As for the so-called hypebeast ruining the game, Adams-Keane says the game itself is infused with hype, and shoe companies feed the culture of desire through limited releases. “I don’t think there has ever been a sneaker game that was genuine in the way that people want to pretend,” he says. “What is real is that these shoes are amazing examples of art and design. We fill them with stories and convene around them.”
Michael Jordan “is the father of the sneakerhead culture,” according to DJ Clark Kent, an Emerson College graduate, sneaker fan, and hip-hop producer based in Brooklyn. “He’s the reason there’s super hype about sneakers, because of the stories that were told about him,” says Kent (real name Rodolfo Franklin). “It was him. It wasn’t the shoe. You believed you could play like Michael Jordan. He was so far ahead of everybody that the shoes became magical.”
The 47-year-old Kent hosts an online sneaker talk show called Quickstrike and wears only virgin shoes (some “seeded” by sneaker companies — supplied to him for free). His “once and done” approach is “about looking fresh,” he says. (The used shoes go to individual kids or to charities.) Although Kent has designed shoes for Nike, he says he’s not beholden to any brand. “I wear what I want to wear. I don’t wear anything because of hype.” His personal favorites are Nike’s classic white Air Force 1s. “They’re so perfect, so clean, so simple.”
Kent says the online hype preceding every new shoe release has killed the sense of discovery he felt as a kid when he fell in love with sneakers. “There’s no more walking into the store and getting excited about a shoe and thinking to yourself, I don’t think anybody knows about that. Everybody knows about everything now.”
But that hasn’t stopped kids from lining up to buy. At 10:20 a.m. outside Concepts, the first three customers walk out with their Tiffany-blue and black boxes. They pause for a moment to peek under the lids and admire their hard-won purchases. “I’m keeping mine and wearing them,” one says. His friends agree. But they won’t break them out until spring, when the snow and salt are gone. They pack up their boxes and head to IHOP around the corner for breakfast. By the afternoon, Tiffany SBs are going for $375 on eBay.
Sandra A. Miller is a writer in Arlington. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE To read about Sandra A. Miller’s encounter with counterfeit sneakers, click here.