Sneakerhead

Patrick Cheung has dropped up to $15,000 on athletic shoes, most of which he'll never wear. There are tens of thousands of people just like him.

It’s dark out as 21-year-old Patrick Cheung and his eighteen-year-old friend Corey Bowling speed toward San Francisco. Their destination: Niketown, a multistory all-Nike department store, where the company is releasing its latest Air Jordan Retro sneakers.

Patrick drives fast, but more than the Bay Bridge stands between the friends and a pair of some of the hottest shoes released this year. “Damn,” he yells as he pulls up in front of the store. A line of people stretches from the front door out of sight up Stockton Street. “Dammit!”

It’s 8:30 p.m., and Niketown won’t open until midnight.

Corey hops out to grab a place in line. Patrick drives around the corner and swerves into a parking spot. His cell phone rings. It’s Corey calling to say Niketown is already handing out wristbands for would-be shoe buyers to hold their places in line. Patrick starts running. A moment later, breathing hard, he joins Corey at the end of the line. In front of them, a group of girls is stretched out on blankets. Beats are pumping out of somebody’s backpack and the smell of pot smoke drifts nearby.

There are maybe eighty people now waiting to buy the shoes, which are destined to sell out. Most are in their teens or early twenties. The guys are in baggy jeans with sweatshirts; the girls wear tight jeans with puffy jackets. A majority wear red and white, a nod both to the colors of the shoes being released tonight and the team colors of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Passersby — mostly white, mostly older — stop periodically to ask what all the fuss is about. The two young men and their neighbors in line joke about telling the next clueless person that it’s the line for American Idol tryouts.

At about five foot four, Patrick is smaller than Corey, but he is clearly the leader of the two, at least when it comes to this particular scene. Patrick dresses and talks like a gangsta, idolizes Tupac and Michael Jordan, likes music-video girls, and believes sincerely that his heroes are good people. He is decked out in baggy jeans with an oversize Bulls jacket and matching hat covering up his black buzzcut. But the most important thing about his outfit is the sneakers. He’s rocking a pair of Jordan XIVs. The uninitiated might not know that’s a rare shoe, but tonight’s crowd is not the uninitiated.

The guy behind us knows the XIVs. He and Patrick fall into conversation about the shoes, their history as a gang icon, and the chances that Nike will ever rerelease them. He is Lawrence Backus, a tall, attractive black guy from Hayward who says the only sneakers he wears are Jordans. Lawrence, like Corey, is here because he wants to wear the freshest new kicks.

That’s not why Patrick is here. Patrick doesn’t plan on wearing the shoes he buys tonight. Instead, they’ll sit in their box, preserved by silica packs like those that come in new briefcases or vitamin bottles, on the left side of his closet with the rest of his Jordans.

The silica packs are a telltale sign of a sneakerhead.


Sneakerheads are collectors. They preserve sneakers the way others keep stamps or baseball cards. They store them out of the light in clean, dry places. They buy them and sell them, spend incredible amounts of money on them, hoard them, talk about them, make friends over them. Sometimes they even wear them.

Shoe collecting is typically associated with women — think Sarah Jessica Parker’s character from Sex and the City. Most sneaker fiends, however, are young and male. Their scene is all about hip-hop culture, street chic and, above all else, hoops. In its modern form, the sneakerhead scene could be traced back to one man: former Bulls guard Michael Jordan.

The cult of the tennis shoe has existed, in one form or another, for decades, but hardcore collecting has only really exploded over the past several years. Niketalk.com, the most popular of the online sneaker forums that began to crop up in the late 1990s, boasts 4.7 million posts and nearly 35,000 registered members. A documentary called Sneakerheads is due out this spring. And Sole Collector magazine, which debuted in 2003, claims a readership of 40,000.

The revived passion for shoe collecting has spawned scores of events, from Harry Potter-style midnight releases by stores to informal sneaker summits to “battles” in which collectors compete over who has accumulated the rarest pairs. Last fall, more than five hundred footwear fans packed San Francisco’s Niketown for a Sole Collector-sponsored competition. In December, SF’s Mezzanine club hosted a b-boy night called Soled Out, featuring a “sneaker bar.” Simultaneously, the lowly sneaker has risen to the status of art object. SF MOMA held a sneaker show in 2000, and numerous exhibits and art projects — many of them sponsored by the shoe makers — have toured urban hotspots including the Bay Area.

Patrick and fellow enthusiasts conduct much of their business via specialized Web sites such as Niketalk, or on eBay, where a search for “sneakers” yields upward of six thousand auctions. They also scour boutiques — such as Huf shoe store in San Francisco or 510 Skateboarding in Berkeley — and haunt releases like tonight’s Niketown event, where sneakerheads camp out like concert fans waiting for tickets.

This fervent post-retail commerce in popular sneakers, combined with the marketing genius of limited releases, has led to a greater demand than supply of many hot shoes, driving prices far above the original price — perhaps as high as $25,000 for some hard-to-find gems, according to Steve Mullholand, Sole Collector‘s head of advertising and public relations. Manufacturers don’t see these markups, of course, but it’s all part of building cachet for their brands, which ultimately results in higher profit margins. Who in the developed world, after all, is not familiar with the Nike swoosh?

The industry’s marketing masterminds haven’t overlooked the value of the collectors and connoisseurs who help build the hype — and street cred — of their products. Nike often sponsors or cohosts sneaker events, sometimes giving out free goodies to fans. In January, SF Niketown held a Sole Collector-sponsored limited-edition release open only to “VIPs” who had signed up early. A well-known sneakerhead was on hand to show off part of his collection, and a Nike product designer showed up to speak to the aficionados.

As the cult of the sneaker has grown, bolstered by Nike’s billion-dollar-plus marketing budget, even athletic-shoe designers have become celebrities. Gentry Humphrey, footwear and apparel product director for Nike’s Jordan Brand, says he has had admirers spot him in public and take his picture to post online later. On Patrick’s bedroom wall, a poster signed by a graffiti artist turned Nike guest designer is displayed prominently near his sports posters.

For a few savvy sneakerheads, collecting can pay off too. At $150 a pop, the Jordans purchased by Patrick, Corey, Lawrence, and hundreds of others at Niketown are already the Cadillacs of sneakers — the industry average was $36.48 in 2003. Within two days, though, they will fetch more than $250 on eBay. Some shoe stores, noticing this trend, have begun to cash in on selected sneaker releases, sometimes selling shoes for twice the suggested retail price.

Patrick figures he has spent ten to fifteen thousand dollars to amass his collection of 160 pairs and counting. He has paid hundreds of dollars for single pairs that are now worth twice to three times that on eBay.

The young man nurses his footwear habit by checking Niketalk.com daily between classes at Cal State Hayward, after school in his father’s Castro Valley home, and at night when he gets back from his job as a sales associate at Office Max. Niketalk is a sneaker geek’s clubhouse, where collectors go to find out which stores have which shoes and to keep tabs on upcoming releases, but mainly they log on to trade stories, boast, bicker, and discuss sneaker esoterica in the jargon of what they call the “shoe game.”

On the Jordan Brand forum, for instance, a poster called ballalegend8 recently solicited advice on whether he should “Un-DS” his XIII black/reds. That’s sneakerspeak for “dead stock,” i.e. mint condition, in the box, never worn Jordan XIIIs in black and red. Mr. ballalegend was, in fact, inquiring as to whether he should — gasp! — wear the shoes.

The consensus: Just do it.

“But stuff them so they don’t get no ugly creases,” a fellow sneakerhead advised.

“Decide for yourself,” another posted. “Just make sure you won’t regret, cause it will get creases, it will get dirty, and you have to think about what do you want: Do you want to show off your cool Js? Or do you want to stare at a CLEAN pair of Js after I don’t know, a year or two? … I really regret balling the hell out of my OG XIVs. Can’t wait to see them retroed.”

Niketalk and other sneaker forums are also essential in helping collectors protect their Achilles’ heel: fakes. Always hungry for the rarest pair at the best price, sneaker fiends are highly vulnerable to counterfeits that pour in from China and elsewhere — likely made by the same types of people employed to make the real thing.

For this reason, sneakerheads will spend hours poring over online photos to corroborate the authenticity of their finds. Sometimes they get had anyway. Patrick has bought fakes, as have most of his shoehead friends. The only surefire way to avoid getting burned is to get your kicks pure from the source.


Niketown, 10:30 p.m.

Nike, hoping to spread the love and keep its sneaks out of the hands of unauthorized resellers, limits sales at its store to two pairs per person. Even so, not everyone in this line will get what he or she came for. One anxious sneaker fan walks by, taking an informal poll to see what sizes everyone wears — he’s trying to assess his chances. Meanwhile, a Niketown employee is working the line much more slowly, taking down sizes to reserve pairs of shoes. By the time he makes it to Patrick and Corey, some sizes are already gone.

Up and down the line, which has swelled to more than two hundred increasingly impatient footwear fans — Niketown will cut it off at five hundred — deals are being made for swaps that will happen afterward. Cell phones flash as people try to hook up with friends or arrange deals long distance. Near the end, where people have been waiting only fifteen minutes or so, one guy seems out of place. He demands to know if this is really the line to see Paris Hilton.

As the night rolls on, Union Square shoppers fade from the streets, and downtown feels seedier. The crowd, meanwhile, is getting more rowdy. Several cars cruise slowly past, stereos pumping. Patrick leans in and murmurs that he’ll be bringing the car around to the front door after they make their purchases. “Some people might be looking to get free shoes,” he warns.

His fears of foul play prove groundless this time, but elsewhere tonight and tomorrow, some Nike fans and stores won’t be so lucky. At nearly this exact moment in Cincinnati, a seventeen-year-old boy is being shot in the shoulder as his friend is robbed of his Jordans. Tomorrow, fights will break out at a handful of malls around the country. In Citrus Park, Florida, a crowd will break down a mall door to get to the shoes.

Since the early 1980s, violence has marked the rise of the sneaker from function to high fashion, a sort of unfortunate market indicator of its increasing importance. A sneakerhead has to watch his back.


Now the Adidas I possess for one man is rare/myself homeboy got fifty pair/got blue and black ’cause I likes to chill/and yellow and green when it’s time to get ill/got a pair that I wear when I’m playin ball/with the heel inside make me ten feet tall

— Run-DMC, “My Adidas,” 1986

The ascent of the sneaker began in the Baby Booming 1950s as part of the new youth uniform of jeans and tennis shoes, according to Tom Vanderbilt, author of The Sneaker Book. The shoes continued their climb through the ’60s and into the ’70s, when a kind of underground sneaker culture arose on the streets.

Bobbito Garcia, a self-proclaimed “reformed sneaker fiend,” hip-hop icon and general sneakerhead guru, writes that the sneaker fiend was born in 1970s New York. “Like the worst heroin addicts in the city,” he writes, “cats walked around fiending for a sneaker fix.”

But it was in the 1980s that sneakers really hit it big — and gained the violent track record to prove it. The turning point was 1984, when Michael Jordan hit the courts in the first pair of Air Jordans under a then-incredible $2.5 million sponsorship deal with Nike. Jordan’s stardom and Nike’s aggressive marketing set off sneaker mania. Feuding Crips and Bloods were reportedly shod in color-coordinated sneakers and, by decade’s end, stories of young men killed or beaten for their shoes were commonplace.

Within ten years of the Nike-Jordan deal, the number of shoes sold had doubled, according to Vanderbilt. The rise of the sneaker, both in number and price, coincided with a massive marketing blitz that had sneaker companies spending vastly more on advertising than other shoe manufacturers. Nike CEO Philip Knight aptly summed up his industry when he said, according to Vanderbilt, that Nike was a marketing-oriented company for which the products were simply “the most important marketing tool.”

In the 1990s sneaker collectors emerged in place of Garcia’s “sneaker fiends” — vintage shoes began fetching big sums in Japan early in the decade, Garcia writes, and by the mid-’90s, the craze had spread Stateside. Nike was quick to catch on — in 1995 it released the first Air Jordan Retro, a lookalike of the popular old-school sneaker. It was another smart move from a company that has come to be known for smart moves, leaving its competitors in the dust: With more than $3 billion in 2003 sales, Nike captured more than a third of the US athletic shoe market, dwarfing second-place Reebok, which had revenues around $1 billion and a 12.6 percent market share.

The Retros were smashingly successful and were soon followed by other rereleased shoes, such as Adidas Originals. Within a few years, a new collecting scene had exploded. “It was underground for years and years,” Sole Collector ad man Mullholand says. “Until we started the magazine, a lot of people didn’t know other people were like them out there. … But when we put stories about these people in the magazine who had more shoes in the bathroom than Q-tips, people look at that and say, ‘I’m just like that.'”


Patrick is just like that. His bedroom is lined with posters, organized in segments aligned with his interests. When you walk in, the first thing you see to the right is a series of sexy actresses and singers: Jessica Alba, Meagan Good, Ashanti. There are also sports posters: Michael Jordan jumping and dunking; Jerry Rice; Terrell Owens; Vince Carter. Over the bed looms a giant BMW M3. To the left of the entrance are pictures of Tupac Shakur and a concert poster touting Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent. On desks and tables are Patrick’s high school wrestling and football pictures, prom pictures, and photos of friends. Scattered throughout it all are pictures of shoes.

Then there are the shoes themselves — stacked four to five high in their boxes atop a low cabinet, under the bed, and piled in Patrick’s spacious closet, where most of his collection is organized by style below neat rows of sports jerseys. His feet bare to protect his father’s carpets, Patrick slides open the door to reveal the right side of this footwear vault. This is where he keeps his Nike Dunk SBs — skateboarding shoes. The Dunks are one of the hottest lines in the shoe game right now, Patrick explains. They’re all basically the same design, but they come in different colors, and many of them are collaborations between Nike and graffiti artists, shoe shops, or celebrities. All have nicknames based on who designed them or what they look like, like the Shanghais (with a Chinese character on the tongue) or the Heinekens (green, with a Heineken star).

Patrick starts pulling out shoes. Here’s the pair he paid the most for: the Hemp Bonsais, $420. They’re woven in green and white hemp and were limited to 420 pairs worldwide. (Not-so-subtle drug references sell, too.) Patrick camped out almost two days for these. The overnight campouts aren’t easy, either — it’s cold and you can’t really sleep, he says, out of fear you’ll lose your spot in line.

Here are spray-painted Dunks, now worth more than twice what he paid for them. Patrick had a T-shirt custom-spray-painted to match. And here are the Vandals, Dunks you can rip open to reveal a hidden pattern underneath. Patrick’s are still intact. “I didn’t want to cut the shoe,” he says with a slight laugh, as if to acknowledge the irony of owning untouched Vandals. “I kinda wanted to save it for a while.”

Next, Patrick slides opens the other side: the Jordan side. Air Jordans, endorsed by the basketball superstar, have proved so popular and have made so much money for the company that Nike spun off the Jordan Brand as a separate division. Jordans come in twenty basic styles — the twentieth is due out this spring — and many of those have been rereleased as Retros. Each original and retro line comes in a variety of colors.

Patrick wants them all.

“What makes the Jordans so special is each shoe he wore has a special meaning to it,” he says, pulling original and retro Jordans from their boxes. “Like this one was the shoe he wore when he won his first championship against the Lakers. This one right here Michael Jordan wore when he was really sick playing basketball and he helped the Bulls win the game.”

Patrick says his love for shoes began when he was a kid. Back then, of course, he couldn’t afford to indulge. But about five years ago, he started collecting for real. Patrick has other hobbies, too: He reads studiously about cars, and collects other fashions — like his forty or so baseball caps in different colors, which he keeps in a drawer, one nested inside the other. In his closet, there are rows of sports jerseys, including several collectors’ editions — this one here cost him about $200. But the hats and jerseys are there to complement the shoes — not the other way around.

Or at least, to complement the shoes he actually wears. That’s maybe half of his collection. The rest he saves, untouched.


What would motivate a person to hoard hundreds of pairs of expensive sneakers? For most sneakerheads, it’s not about money — on the contrary, the average collector probably spends more on his hobby than he’ll make from it. Ask sneakerheads directly why they do it, and they’ll offer all sorts of rationales. The fact is, most don’t really know the answer. In sneakerhead circles, there’s a word you’ll hear often: addiction. That’s what Patrick calls it.

Academics have their theories on what drives collecting behavior in general. Some say it creates a sense of control that’s lacking in the chaos of everyday life, while others hold forth on collecting as a means of battling mortality by preserving items that will live on after the collector dies. Freud called collecting a compensation for loss. Many theorists simply characterize it as a minor obsessive-compulsive drive combined with a natural desire for ownership.

Some academics evoke the stereotype of the strange, antisocial collector, the person who forms relationships with objects rather than humans because he or she fears rejection or loss. “It can be a way of escaping from social interaction,” notes Dr. Graeme Hanson, a UCSF psychiatrist. Yet for the most part, he and others say, collecting is actually quite normal.

“It’s been estimated that maybe as much as a third of people in this country collect something,” says Russell Belk, a professor of marketing at the University of Utah business school who has written a book about collectors. “Collecting is, in general, a fairly healthy thing to do.” It only becomes a problem in extreme cases when collectors siphon money from necessities to build their collections, Belk says.

Contrary to the image of the collector-hermit, Belk and Hanson say collecting is often a social hobby that allows interaction with kindred spirits. “There’s a sense that because you share my passion, you’re my friend; it doesn’t matter about social class, gender, age,” Belk says. “That common interest seems to be a bonding thing, even if it’s online and you don’t meet in person.”

Then there’s that other, simplest, of motivations: bragging rights, or what Hanson calls the “exhibitionistic” element. If a Picasso on the wall garners respect for the would-be posh, Patrick gets at least as many props on the street for his XIVs and the other status shoes he wears.

Jonathan Zucker of Berkeley also describes his hobby in drug terms. Four years ago, he kicked off his binge with a pair of Jordans he found for sale on the Niketown site. “I remember talking to a friend and saying, ‘Should I buy these?'” recalls the 31-year-old, who has side-parted brown hair and square wire-rim glasses to Patrick’s hip-hop style. “I could just sense that I was on the verge of what could be a major addiction for me.”

He went for it anyway, and his fears were soon realized. Jonathan now has about 120 pairs of mint-condition shoes, which have cost him perhaps twenty grand, he estimates. His most valuable pair — original Jordan VIs in the color carmine — is worth about $800 (he got them for $275). “It mushroomed out of control,” he says. “More and more pairs came in and now a ton of my income goes to shoes.”

Jonathan keeps his shoes locked in a closet in an icy cold storage room permeated by the musty smell of an old garage. In anticipation of an interview, he has taken out four pairs and arranged them on top of a baby grand piano: Bucks — Dunks in green and white; Infrareds — Air Max 90s in white, cement grey, “infrared” red, and black; Shanghais; and Air Jordan Retro 2s from 1995.

Jonathan is a different kind of collector than Patrick. He’s older; he’s white; he lives with his girlfriend, not his parents; he doesn’t have a crew of collector friends. Where Patrick is immersed in the hip-hop youth culture that sees even noncollectors buying two pairs of the freshest shoes or rocking sneakers worth more than their weekly incomes, Jonathan is a lone collector who prefers finding deals online or working connections in shoe shops to camping out at store releases.

Still, the two sneakerheads have a surprising amount in common. Both say their love of shoes began long before they started collecting — Jonathan remembers being juiced about a new pair of Nikes at age eight. Both love sports, especially basketball, especially Michael Jordan. Both talk about the sense of meaning that certain shoes hold for them. Both display the collector personality in other sub-passions: Jonathan collected baseball cards as a kid and still has a collection of A’s jerseys and hats.

And, like Patrick, Jonathan’s reluctance to wear certain shoes seems to betray an almost obsessive desire to preserve them. At the time he started collecting, he already had a pair of Jordans that he’d kept on ice — unworn, that is — for fourteen years. He was a teenager when he got them, with no plan to collect sneakers, and no inkling they might eventually rise in value. But the shoes had a clear sole and side panels that were especially susceptible to yellowing when exposed to sunlight, and the boy found he couldn’t bear to mess them up. Even as a child, Jonathan confesses, he felt a desire to preserve his favorite possessions: “With shoes and clothes, I’d buy something and I’d have a hard time wearing it for the first time. They’d sit in my closet for months before I wore them. It becomes really hard for me to see them taken out of that pristine condition and put them on.”

Jonathan finally sold that pair for twice its original value — but only so he could buy more shoes. The obsessive drive to accumulate is, of course, another common sneakerhead trait. The thrill of the chase is such that Jonathan will sometimes go a year at a time without looking at the shoes buried deepest in his collection. “It’s like, now, here’s the next thing that I’m lusting after — you kind of forget about the shoes you already have,” he says. He recently spent a year going after one especially rare shoe, only to move on the moment he finally acquired it.

His enthusiasm is palpable as he shows off his Bucks and his Jordan Retro 2s. But his face gets serious when he talks about new sneakerheads just getting into the game. “I love my shoes, but if I had to start all over, I wonder if I’d do it,” he muses. “There’s aspects of the collecting mentality I don’t like. I don’t want my happiness to hinge on material things. … There’s the side of me that says it would be nice to have this kind of passion for something people-related.”


Niketown, 11:30 p.m.

No shortage of people here, despite the late-night chill. The line now snakes around from Stockton Street and deep into a narrow alley, where coffee lids roll along the ground in the wind. The smell of urine is omnipresent, and behind a row of trashcans and recycling bins, a guy is taking a leak.

Our part of the line on Stockton is now close to the front, relatively speaking. Friends stop by periodically to chat with Patrick and Corey on their way to the end. But by now, the two have become tight with their neighbors in line. They end up ordering pizza with Lawrence, who shows Patrick pictures on his cell phone that he took of some girls at a club.

Suddenly, Patrick wants me to turn on my tape recorder. He has something important he needs to say: “A lot of people consider it like a really worthless hobby, you know, to waste yo’ money on shoes,” he declares. “But I think it benefits the kids because you look at today’s environment, like a lot of kids caught up in drugs, gangs, violence, things like that, getting in a lot of trouble. I mean, look at the environment that we’re in right here; we have a lot of people getting along, instead of spending the money on drugs or things like that, going out gangbanging. Everyone’s here having a good time, spending the money on something that doesn’t hurt them.”

He surveys the line of people chatting, laughing, stomping their feet to stir up the circulation. “We have black people here, Asian people, white people; everyone’s here just having a good time.”

Good time or not, everyone is relieved when Niketown at last begins calling people into the store: five in, five out, five in. Slowly, the line inches forward. It’s 1:25 a.m. by the time our group finally steps into the bright, warm store and rides the escalator past a wall of TV screens and blown-up photos of athletes to the cash register. Within six minutes, Patrick and Corey are back in the car with their loot. Patrick needs to call a girlfriend for whom he bought the second of the allotted pairs, just to let her know it all worked out. But first, there’s a ritual to attend to. He pulls out his new sneakers. “I got to do this to every pair of shoes I buy,” he says.

Corey knows exactly what his pal is up to: “Smell them!” he exclaims.

Patrick nods. He pulls back the tongue of the red-and-black high-top, lowers his nose into the cavity of the shoe, and breathes deeply. The potent smell of plastic fills the car’s interior. “It brings good luck to the shoes,” the sneakerhead explains, lowering his new acquisition. “It’s tradition.”

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