Sneakerheads: A Brief History of Sneaker Collecting

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For many of us, buying a pair of sneakers is a chore. But for a sneaker collector, there's no greater joy than a fresh pair of kicks. Here's a look at this growing subculture, whose members are proud to call themselves “sneakerheads.”

From B-Boys to Sneakerheads

Sneaker collecting got its start in the late 1970s as part of the burgeoning b-boy and hip-hop movement of New York City. Unique clothes were a hallmark of early hip-hop, and sneakers were easily customized, either by color coordinating laces to an outfit or by filling in the triple stripes on a pair of Adidas with a magic marker. Once a b-boy found a shoe he liked, it wasn’t unusual for him to buy more than one pair so he could have them on hand when the old ones wore out.

1985 Air Jordans

The sneaker craze hit mainstream America when Nike and Michael Jordan introduced Air Jordans in 1985.

Even at a retail price back then of $125, stores couldn’t keep the shoes on the shelf, and Jordans quickly became a sought-after status symbol. In a shrewd marketing move, Nike continued to produce a new style of Jordans every year. The shoes proved so popular that, by the early 1990s, some estimates say that 1 in every 12 Americans had a pair of Air Jordans.

However, the popularity of Jordans created a backlash among sneaker fans who, like their b-boy forefathers, always wanted their kicks to stand out. These sneakerheads began digging through the back rooms of mom and pop shoe shops to find out-of-production styles, often “copping” them for a fraction of their original price. Of course these vintage shoes were in short supply, so sneakerheads sometimes traveled hundreds of miles, and then bought more than one pair, keeping some “on ice” so they'd always have a fresh supply for years to come. Today, it's not unusual for a committed sneakerhead to have 50 or more pairs of shoes, most of which are “deadstock," meaning they've never been worn (and probably never will be).

From the Street to the Boutique

When shoe companies discovered the lengths sneakerheads would go to for a pair of unique kicks, they started producing limited edition “colorways," a term used to describe the different color schemes and types of materials available across a shoe line. Today, just about every major shoe maker offers limited edition colorways, but Nike has really embraced the concept with lines like the Dunk and the Air Force 1 that are produced almost exclusively as limited editions.


Colorways

Normally, these special colorways are produced in very limited runs—often fewer than 500 pairs worldwide—and are only available at handpicked stores and specialty boutiques where they sell for well over Nike's suggested retail price. But if you miss your chance to buy an exclusive colorway, the secondary market is thriving on eBay and at sneaker consignment shops like Sole Control in Philadelphia, and Flight Club in L.A. and New York. If you have to go this route, be prepared to pay two or three times the already-inflated boutique price.

On top of exclusive retail colorways, there are even rarer collectible shoes that make sneakerheads go crazy. One type are “Friends and Family” editions, colorways created for a celebrity or a company, who give them away as gifts or promotional items. These designs are usually limited to less than 100 pairs, so they fetch top dollar on the collector's market. There are also “Samples," prototype colorways that were never put into production, making these extremely rare; maybe even elevated to “1 of 1” status. Perhaps the most unusual are “Player’s Edition” colorways made for a high-profile celebrity's personal collection. The exclusivity and the provenance of these kicks make them true Holy Grail designs.

10 Kicks to Cop

There are far too many collectible colorways to list, but here are 10 styles that fetch top dollar on eBay and at sneaker consignment shops.

1. Nike Dunk Low “Black & Tans”

Nike Black & Tans were created this year as a toast to the popular drink of the same name, and then released just in time for everyone's favorite drinking holiday, St. Patrick's Day. However, Nike didn't know that “Black and Tan” is a name that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many on the Emerald Isle. The Black and Tans were a group of World War I veterans assigned by the British government in 1920 to root out IRA members in Ireland. Unfortunately, they used their power to commit indiscriminate acts of violence against non-IRA affiliated citizens, without any legal ramifications. Nike has since apologized for the misstep, but a little controversy can go a long way with collectors.

2. Nike Dunk Low “Heineken”

The Heinekens dropped in 2003, featuring color cues taken from the logo for Heineken Beer (even the brand’s signature red star). The beer company never agreed to this collaboration, though, and has since asked eBay to pull any auctions that use their name to describe the shoes. Of course that only makes them harder for sneakerheads to find, which increases their value considerably.

3. Nike Dunk Low “Freddy”

In 2007, Nike took inspiration from a most unusual place: Freddy Krueger, the star of the popular horror film franchise A Nightmare on Elm Street. Sporting stripes like Freddy’s sweater, a shiny swoosh like his knife-laden glove, blood-splatter highlights, and melted flesh insoles, these shoes are not for the collector who is faint of heart (or fashion).

4. Nike Air Yeezy

The first time a non-athlete got a shoe contract was the $1.6 million deal between Adidas and Run-D.M.C. in 1986. There have been others since, but the first for Nike, with Kanye West, has proven to be a big hit. Kanye's Air Yeezys were released in 2009 in three colorways, at a retail price of $225. Depending on where you look, the first and third colorways go for about $1700, but the second one—black and neon pink—can reach upwards of $2300.

5. Nike Dunk Low “Paris”

The Dunk Paris was released in 2004 as part of Nike’s "White Dunk: Evolution of an Icon" art installation in Paris, France. Exactly 202 pairs were made, all featuring different samples of artwork from painter Bernard Buffet.

6. Air Jordan Retro IV “Eminems”

Another Friends and Family release, 50 pairs of blue and black Air Jordans were made for rap artist Eminem in 2004 to celebrate the release of his fourth album, Encore. Aside from the unusual colorway, the rapper’s name is stitched onto the inside of the tongue and the album title on the heel pull.

7. Nike Air MAG “The McFlys”

You probably remember the 1500 pairs of special Back to the Future shoes released last year. Sadly, they didn't have automatic laces, as the shoes in the movie did, but they did raise $5.7 million for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. British DJ Tinie Tempah paid $37,500 for the very first pair. If you missed your chance to own a piece of sneaker and Hollywood history, and you have some cash to burn, they're available on eBay and at consignment shops for about $3600.

8. Nike Dunk Hi FLOM (For Love Or Money)

Designed by graffiti artist Futura 2000, and limited to only 24 pairs, this Friends and Family colorway featuring different currencies from around the world is considered one of the Holy Grails of shoe collecting.

9. Air Jordan Retro XI “Blackout Samples”

A buyer tried to sell a sample pair of all-black Air Jordan Retro XI’s on eBay for $15,000. This colorway never made it out of the prototype phase, so it’s hard telling how many exist; these could be a rare “1 of 1” shoe.

10. The eBay Charity Dunks

Nike and eBay held a charity auction in 2003 for a pair of shoes based on the eBay logo. The anonymous winning bidder paid $30,000 for a pair that was made-to-fit. To ensure no other eBay Dunks were ever produced, Nike publicly cut up the prototype pair used for the auction, and sent the pieces to the winner for safekeeping.

Sneaker Riots

Whether it's sneakerheads looking for limited edition kicks or just “hypebeasts” chasing the latest fashion trend, there have been times when the demand for popular shoes has gotten ugly. Here are three such shoes.

1. Nike Dunk Low Pigeons

In 2005, Nike introduced the Dunk Low “Pigeons," a colorway limited to 150 pairs and available only at five boutiques in New York City. Although Nike’s suggested price of $69 was inflated to $300, over 100 people eager to score a pair showed up at the boutique, Reed Space, on the morning of release. Unfortunately, the shop only had 20 pairs, so most people went home sans sneakers—and they weren’t happy about it. Although it was tense, the NYPD was able to disperse the crowd before things got out of hand. That night, the shoes were going for $750 on eBay, but today you’ll be lucky to find a pair for less than $2000. Unfortunately, this first “sneaker riot” was not the last.

2. Air Jordan Retro XI

Just after midnight on December 23, 2011, hundreds of people gathered outside shopping malls in order to be one of the first to drop $180 on the Air Jordan Retro XI, a re-release of the 1996 design, now available in two colorways, the “Concord” and the “Cool Grey." Before the night was over, many crowds had gotten out of control. Indianapolis police were called to three different malls, 20 Atlanta police cars responded to a mall in the suburbs, Seattle cops deployed pepper spray, and a man was stabbed in Jersey City, just to name a few of the many incidents reported across the country. For those who wanted the shoes, it was a small price to pay. But for those who didn't get a pair, the price on eBay the next day was $500, which is what they're still valued at today many months later.

3. Nike Air Foamposite One

A similar scene occurred just before the NBA All-Star Game in February, with the release of the $220 glow-in-the-dark Nike Air Foamposite One. Smaller instances occurred in other markets, but Orlando required more than 100 officers in full riot gear, a handful of police dogs, and two choppers to control an anxious crowd of hundreds of shoe shoppers. To prevent a repeat of the Jordan riots, Nike had to cancel the release at that time. In the meantime, the few Galaxies that were purchased in other parts of the country are going for anywhere between $1800 and $2300 online.

October 5, 2012 - 12:30pm
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