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Mark Farese is a man with two feet and 1,400 pairs of sneakers. In his New Jersey basement, plastic shoeboxes line the floor in rows and stack up in six-foot-high walls. The boxes, custom-made for him in Japan, bear his nickname: "The Mayor."
There's a similar consistency inside the boxes. Almost every one contains a variation on the same product: Nike's Air Force 1, the basketball shoe that the company introduced in 1982.
"My friends call me the Imelda Marcos of the 'hood," Farese says.
At age 10, living in the tough Michelangelo housing project in the Bronx, Farese stole $150 from his grandfather to buy his first pair. Today, at 36, he lives with his girlfriend and stepson in a duplex in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, and drives a white 2008 Mercedes SUV with a tan-and-pink Air Force 1 pendant fastened to the dashboard. "People are put in this world for one thing," he says. "I was put in this world for sneakers." His shoe collection, he estimates, is worth about $300,000.
On a recent evening, wearing an 18-karat white-gold Air Force 1 chain necklace over his usual XXXL white T-shirt, Farese pulls out some of his most treasured possessions. There are the two white pairs on which Chinese characters are stitched in red thread that were manufactured for athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but never sold commercially. (He won't say how he obtained them.) There are handmade pairs covered in real crocodile and anaconda skin and dyed in rich shades of red, orange, and black, that include lace tags with gold trim (Nike's price: $2,000). Protests by animal rights' activists are rumored to have persuaded Nike to pull the special-edition varieties before they reached store shelves, but Farese says he still managed to get his hands on nine sample pairs. Again, he won't say how.
Farese has Air Force 1s that are (purposely) covered in colorful graffiti. Some are made of suede or fake fur; others glow in the dark. He had one pair encrusted with real diamonds. Others have his name engraved in gold. Some have an image of his face that he commissioned an artist to design.
And although he's not an Adidas man, Farese does have one pair of Roc-a-Fella sneakers with the record label's logo on the sole. (He made an exception in this case, he says, because the shoe was associated with Jay-Z.) That pair was Bloomingdale's last in Farese's size (9 1/2), and he says he grabbed a Japanese collector by the neck to pry them out of his hands. (Farese can display a very sincere air of menace: His nickname comes from his reputation for handling disputes in the projects, and he once spent a year in Rikers for possession of a firearm.)
Farese's shoes are the sort manufactured in small batches by companies like Nike and Adidas for sneaker fanatics, who fight like hell to get them at stores and then go on to sell them on the Internet for two to four times their original price. It's a craze that began around 2003, a few years after the companies started making "collaborations"—shoes designed for celebrities or musicians. The collectors' market exploded on the Internet, and lines outside of stores have been known to spark mini-riots. Some collectors have many more shoes than Farese, and some have many different brands. But Farese is noted for having such a complete collection of one type of shoe—and for having an uncanny knack of getting his hands on the most coveted models. Younger men in the game of buying and selling (and nearly all of them are men) envy the depth of his catalog.
In a world where shoes on the Internet go through NASDAQ-style price swings, Farese has never sold a pair of shoes. In fact, fully aware that it will actually diminish the value of his collection, he says he intends to wear every single pair eventually—which would take almost four years, at this point, if he wore a different pair every day—and he keeps adding more to his inventory.
"People call me a collector," he says, "But I'm a sneaker wearer. I wear my sneakers. It takes me a long time, 'cause I have an abundance, but I wear them."
After Farese began posting pictures of his Air Force 1s online, sneaker websites began to write about him, and Nike itself took notice. The company started sending him shoes directly. The company has sent him about 50 pairs—usually weeks before others can get them—and has also crafted him a special pair, he says, with his name engraved on the lace locks in honor of his 1,000th purchase. (The tan leather Air Force 1 had 1,000 golden 1s printed on it.)
Farese won't allow himself to be seen with a new shoe until the date that it's going to be released to the general public. "I respect the embargo date," he says, to drive home his special relationship with Nike.
When that date comes, he enjoys showing up at a store where a line of buyers is waiting to get the new release. "Hey, look, I already got on what you want!" he smirks.