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The sneaker game

'Sneakerheads' collect rare 'kicks' in the search for the perfect pair.

By Steven EllisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2006

If Imelda Marcos's much-publicized love affair with shoes set the bar for footwear obsession, then Brian Spar's sneaker love is just a notch below it.

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Like the former Philippine first lady, who reportedly owned some 3,000 pairs of shoes, Mr. Spar could go months without wearing the same pair of sneakers twice. He has more than 300 pairs of them – from off-the-shelf Nike Dunks SB (a skateboarding shoe that retails for about $70) to rare Nike Air Force One low-tops that could fetch more than $1,000 in some sneaker-collecting circles.

Spar is a bona fide "sneakerhead" – one of a growing number of enthusiasts who collect, critique, discuss, analyze, obsess about, display, sell, and sometimes even wear the sneakers, or "kicks," they buy. His living room – and bedroom, closets, and just about anywhere else he can find space in his New Haven, Conn., home – is a sneaker shrine.

He's part of the "sneaker game," a small but increasingly visible subculture that holds "chariots of the feet" in the same high esteem that a stockbroker might hold a portfolio of blue-chip investments. Spar, like most avid sneaker collectors, would rather have the shoes.

"You can tell a lot about a person by their shoes," Spar says. "People will skimp on a shirt or make do with a pair of jeans, but if there's an opportunity to start fresh, we start at the feet. It's the one thing we spend the most money on."

Sneaker love isn't a new phenomenon, says Jeff Carvalho, cohost of Weekly Drop, an audio podcast on sneakers with an estimated 35,000 listeners. It's been around for decades, he says, "but it really took off around 1996 and '97."

He, like many sneaker enthusiasts, points to three drivers of the trend: "retro" shoes (remakes of previously released models); 20-somethings who are looking for (and now have the means to buy) that pair of kicks that eluded them in their adolescence; and blogs, which allow sneakerheads to post pictures, build hype, and connect with one another.

But the sneaker craze isn't limited to the Internet. Traveling sneaker shows (the Sneaker Pimps tour and the International Sneaker Battle competition, for example) and magazines (Laced, Sneaker Freaker, and Sole Collector) help sneaker fanatics stay current on the latest trends.

That has to be good news for footwearmakers, particularly Nike: Their "swoosh" logo adorns more than half of all kicks sold each year in the $26 billion global sneaker market. Some $13 billion worth of sneakers are sold in the US. (When contacted for comment on this article, a Nike spokeswoman would only say that the company does not keep track of what happens to their shoes after they're sold. Neither Reebok nor Adidas responded to requests for interviews.)

Nike's most sought-after models include Air Jordan, Air Max, Air Force One, and Dunks. But Adidas, Puma, Reebok, Vans, and Bathing Ape (a Japanese sneaker company) feed the phenomenon, too, with limited quantity, limited editions, and regionally released kicks.

"It's all about having that pair that no one else has," says Rob Heppler, Mr. Carvalho's cohost on the weekly sneaker podcast. "You want it to be hard to get."

How hard? In some cities, sneakerheads camp outside sneaker stores before the arrival of a new "colorway" (color combination) or limited-release shoe.

Last year at a New York City sneaker store, police were called in to control a crowd waiting to buy Nike Pigeon (NYC) Dunks, named for the bird stitched on its side. Only 150 pairs were made, making it a prized catch for collectors. Although Nike's suggested retail price was $69, the store sold its small cache for $300 a pair.

Within days, the shoe was selling on eBay for up to $750.

It was a similar scene earlier this year at Concepts, a sneaker store in Cambridge, Mass. The much-anticipated Air Jordan Defining Moments Package was about to be released: a two-pair bundle in which Nike "retroed" the Jordan 6 and Jordan 11 models for $300. The night before, customers slept on the sidewalk outside.

There was a problem: "We didn't have enough shoes," manager Deon Point recalls. "So we had to bring those that had gotten a pair out the back door [of the store] because we wanted to avoid any violence over the sneakers."