“Collecting Just for Kicks,” by Maxine Carter-Lome

My isolation and downtime during the early months of COVID gave me the perfect opportunity to catch up on my Netflix binge-watching.  I watched all seasons of Designated Survivor and The Crown, and an interesting documentary called “Sneakerheadz,” an in-depth look into the exploding subculture of sneaker collecting and the widespread influence it has had on popular culture around the world. For anyone who questions the future of the collectibles market, and if there will be a next generation of “great collectors,” this documentary would suggest the answer to both is “yes.”

“Sneakerheads” is a sub-culture term used to define the most ‘elite’ of sneaker collectors. To be a legitimate recognized Sneakerhead you need to be knowledgeable, opinionated, and a hooked-up (connected) collector, says the film’s Director and Producer David T. Friendly. “[Sneakerheads] know a great deal about the various manufacturers they collect, the people that design the shoes, and the difference between one model versus another. It’s almost like somebody who’s really deeply immersed in a sport. They have to know the players, stats; in this case, they have to know how much the shoe sells for and you have to know what makes the shoe special.”

The Documentary interviews a number of Sneakerheads, who let the cameras into their closets, spare bedrooms, safes, display rooms, and storage units to show off their collection of boxed (original boxes are important) “kicks,” some displayed but most stashed in what would seem every available nook and cranny.  Even Sneakerheads acknowledge there is a fine line between collecting and hoarding.

What is obvious from watching this documentary is that the interest in and market for sneaker collecting is hot, international, and brand dominated. And, collectors cut across all age and income brackets.

Kick-starting a Movement

For most people of a certain age, options for sneakers, purchased primarily for the gym or athletic activities, were limited in terms of brands, models, and colors. We wore them when we needed to, and purchased a new pair only when we outgrew our current pair or wear and tear justified the expense. All that changed in 1985 when Nike teamed up with Michael Jordan and introduced the Air Jordan 1, placing sneakers on the vanguard of popular culture.

With the Air Jordan 1, a sneakerhead subculture and collectors movement was launched to the hip-hop soundtrack and streetwear vibe of the late 1980s. Originally popular among urban black youth and white skateboarders, by the 21st century, wearing sneakers was trendy and fashionable for every age group, and collecting sneakers had become the next hot 401K investment. Like the designer jean trend of the 80s, whose kicks you wore and how you wore them made a personal statement.

Sneakers soon became part of the urban streetwear fashion trend for athletes, skateboarders, and musicians. Early hip-hop artists frequently rapped about their shoes – Run DMC’s song “My Adidas” even won them a sponsorship by the brand. Run DMC became known for wearing their white and black Adidas Superstar shell-toe shoes without laces, seen by some as a glorification of prison culture (inmates are not allowed to own shoelaces lest they turn them into weapons), rather than a fashion statement, giving hip-hop with its sneaker culture a bad rap in these early years.

Even amidst controversy, the cultural presence of sneakers flourished. As MJ’s electric performance on the Chicago Bulls made the first Air Jordans practically sell themselves, Nike tried to transition the shoe from the basketball court to the world of high fashion and popular culture. The Air Jordan II, which featured a tag that said “Made in Italy” and an unprecedented $100 price tag when it was released in 1986, ushered in a new era for sneakers—they became embedded in the “streetwear” trend that merged hip-hop, athletic gear, designer clothes, and contemporary artists.

Addidas quickly followed suit, adopting a marketing approach that focuses more on streetwear sneakers through ‘cooler’ collaborations with music and celebrity influencers such as Kanye West and Beyonce as compared to Nike’s more sports-focused approach. Clearly, with the athleisure trend moving sportswear from the gym to the office, Adidas is betting that they can take even more of the market with this approach.

Collaboration between trending sneaker brands and artists, athletes, and designers create a ready market for new releases among sneakerheads, the fashion-forward, and the collaborator’s followers. The fact that many of these are limited-edition releases also fuels an active collector’s market and resale market.  Customers famously camped outside a Manhattan shoe boutique in 2005 for days during a snowstorm to get their hands on the “Pigeon Dunk,” a limited edition produced by Nike and designer Jeff Staple that featured a pigeon on the heel in homage to New York City. Only 150 Pigeon Dunks were made—the kicks are listed online today for as much as $10,000. A limited-edition sneaker that sells for $375 the day of release can often be resold that same day on the Internet for thousands of dollars.

What is different about the sneaker collectible market from other collectible categories is the dominant role sneaker manufacturers, branding, pop culture, and marketing play in defining and driving both the collector and resale market. The controlled release of limited editions (Nike calls them “Quickstrikes”) — from anniversary reboots to special design collaborations with graphic artists, style icons, musicians, athletes, cultural trendsetters, and clothing brands — and the marketing hype around release dates and availability, create a buyer’s frenzy that sees collectors camping out at a store days before a release is scheduled, and searching the internet to get what they want and that so few have.

Although Sneakerheads may seem like a breed unto themselves by virtue of what they collect, they share the traits and experiences of most self-professed collectors. They enjoy learning about and sharing the history of what they collect; love the hunt as much as the acquisition; form online communities; attend events, and have had their marketplace disrupted by the Internet.

“Unquestionably, the internet changed everything,” says Sneakerheadz Producer & Director Friendly. “In the old days, people actually had to go out and find the stuff. Sneakerheads pre-Internet were treasure hunters. I have a lot of respect for the old-schoolers. The new-schoolers, they are also hunting, but they are hunting with a lot more arrows in the quiver. They’re getting information much faster and they’re able to find their targets more easily.”

Online retailing and auction sites have allowed sneaker collectors to seek out and buy even the rarest examples if they are able to meet the asking price. While an active resale trade has been taking place over the internet for years, what is new is who else has entered the game.

In September, Sotheby’s kicked off an online auction of sneakers, titled “Cult Canvas,” featuring eight pairs of ultra-rare, artist-created sneakers. The sneakers, all made by Nike, celebrate the cross-section between art and fashion, illustration and design, and sport and culture. The majority of the selection are test samples or one-off editions, including “Pigeon Nike Dunk Low,” the shoe considered to mark the birth of “sneakerhead” culture, Sotheby’s said.

While the Internet has helped make it easier for collectors to find what they are looking for from the broadest market possible, it has also taken the ‘thrill of the hunt’ out of the acquisition experience. As those of us long-time collectors and antique enthusiasts know, the experience is just as important as the acquisition but a lot more fun and personal. And you’ll most probably need to wear sneakers on your hunt to go the distance.