The sneaker game

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

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.

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."

Some sneakerheads will fly around the globe for a day, just to get their hands – or feet – on the latest model or special colorway.

"That's part of the lifestyle," says Weekly Drop's Carvalho, who flew to the Netherlands for kicks. "I walked into Nike's [European] headquarters, saw what they had out, and asked the clerk, 'What do you got in the basement?'

"The guy smiled and came back with six limited Air Force Ones. I got the three that were in my size," he adds.

Collecting sneakers today is what collecting baseball cards was like in the '90s, says Heppler. You stand in line for a limited-release sneaker for $100, then sell it for twice that. On any given day, eBay has up to 12,000 sneaker auctions. Dozens of other websites and online consignment shops could say the same.

But some experts note that, unfortunately, the money spent by status-seeking individuals on high-priced shoes is often a significant portion of their income.

"People who have the least to start with are willing to spend the most to acquire status," says Joseph Heath, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and coauthor of the book, "Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture" (2004).

"We worry about sneakers because it's a form of low-status, status competition," he says. "High-status people don't view Air Jordans as high status. The problem is a lot of people who can't afford it, do."

Indeed, many sneakerheads would jump at the chance to own a pair of original, 1985 Air Jordan 1 sneakers – the Holy Grail for many a collector – valued at $5,000 or more if the original box, shoelaces, and packaging paper are intact. It's also true that many sneaker fans don't balk at spending $175 on a new pair of Jordan 21s (released in February) or $135 on retro Jordan 5s (released two weeks ago) as the most recent editions to the Jordan sneaker franchise.

Not everyone agrees that wearing a fresh pair of shoes is all about status. With more than 350 million shoes sold annually around the world, "everyone's got to wear them," says Lori Lobenstine of the Boston-based Female Sneaker Fiend, an online community of more than 3,400 female sneaker fans. She says kicks connect people of different cultures, races, ages, genders, and localities.

Ms. Lobenstine and company are a minority in the male-dominated sneaker game, but like many shoe enthusiasts – male and female – she got her sneaker schooling playing basketball as a kid.

"I was always into high-tops because that's what I wore on the court," she says.

Today her collection of about 50 shoes is a mix of both high- and low-top sneakers, including her favorite, a pair of blue and orange Puma Californias – "not because they're worth a lot," she says, "but because I just love the colors."

To be a true sneakerhead, however, you need more than a flashy pair of shoes or a big collection, says Dee Wells, marketing director at Sole Collector magazine. You have to embrace the culture, one of music and movies.

An early trendsetter in the sneaker culture was James Dean, says Mr. Wells. The 1950s movie actor's departure from slacks and boots to blue jeans and all-white Converse Jack Purcell tennis shoes took sneakers – which have been around since the late 1800s – from functional to fashionable.

Today, hip-hop artists from Rev. Run of Run-DMC fame to Kanye West and Nelly, as well as professional skateboarders and basketball players keep sneakers in front of fashion-hungry teens, who do much of the spending on high-priced kicks.

Many collectors are moving beyond hard-to-find straight-off-the-shelf sneakers – and away from early Air Jordans and other hard-to-get varieties – into much more customized shoes painted by artists.

Spar, who quit his job as a mortgage banker to paint and customize kicks full time out of his living room, is one of a growing number of artists using sneakers as their canvases. The finished products can cost more than $500. While they're functional, most of those willing to dole out that kind of cash for a pair of sneakers prefer to keep them stashed in the box, much the way Spar keeps most of his 300 kicks at his home.

Just because he doesn't wear them doesn't mean Spar doesn't feel connected to them, however. There is a connection, he says of his sneakers – "a connection of the sole."

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