The Mayor of Sneakerdom

A cautionary tale laced with obsession

Farese has outright scorn for the younger guys, the ones who wait days in line so they can be the first to post a new pair onto eBay to turn a quick profit. "Maybe you sell that $150 shoe for $500," he says. "But do the math. You're waiting in line for days. You smell like asshole casserole. Divide the time, and that nigger is waiting on line for $3.75 an hour. I'm not knocking their passion. I'm not knocking their hustle. But to me, that's hustling backwards."

And the hustlers, he says, are actually ruining things for the true lovers of sneakers—the kids who, today, are like his younger self and just want to get their hands on some footwear that inspires them. "Now, because you bought it for $150 and flipped it," he says, "there's a kid who has to spend $400 to $500 just to get a shoe that he really wants. And that really bothers me."

So Farese does what he can to wield the power of his "mayoralty" to set things right in the sneaker universe, where he sits somewhere above the largely teenage capitalists and somewhere below the Nike gods themselves. It's a power relationship that is always in flux and mixes connoisseurship, obsession, gamesmanship, and the commercial desires of a Fortune 500 company.

The sole of a politician: Mark "the Mayor" Farese
The sole of a politician: Mark "the Mayor" Farese

And lots of footwear.

THREE WEEKS AGO, Farese received a note on an Internet message board from Jake Bronner, a fan who said he was traveling from Chicago to New York on vacation and wanted to meet his sneaker hero. Farese supplied his phone number, and Jake called when he got to town.

And that's when Farese realized that his admirer was only 14 years old.

"I don't mess with 14-year-olds," he says. Fortunately, the boy had brought along his mother, Stacey, who assured him that meeting him would be the highlight of her son's trip. Farese relented, driving his white Mercedes to the Nike store in Soho, 21 Mercer, where everyone knows the Mayor.

"It was his dream to meet me, and I made his dream come true," Farese says. No exaggeration: Jake describes his meeting with the Mayor as "amazing." "He's, like, the king of all sneakerheads," Jake tells the Voice. "I expected him to be a little cocky, but he blew me away 'cause of how respectful he was of everyone else's shoes. And he told me not to just focus on sneakers, but to focus on, like, college and stuff, too."

Jake's mom was also thrilled: "Mayor was such a gentleman, such a gentleman. And for Jake, it was like meeting a rock star. 'Cause he is a rock star in their little world."

And the reality is this: As much as the Mayor privately disdains the young capitalists, without them, he wouldn't be famous for having one of the most extensive Air Force 1 collections around.

21 Mercer is a shrine to Air Force 1. A timeline on the wall memorializes Nike's best-known footwear designer, Tinker Hatfield. Bruce Kilgore is credited with the original design of the Air Force 1—a shoe with an ankle strap and an air-packed insole—while Hatfield is celebrated for turning that air-packed insole into the see-through bubble recognizable in many Nike shoes. That idea came from a visit Hatfield took to the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris in the early eighties. (He was inspired by the way the skeleton of the museum is visible from the outside.)

Farese hangs out a lot at 21 Mercer, spending much of his time in a private room in the back that has an automated skylight. Sometimes, he comes with a friend, DJ Clark Kent, who has produced songs for Mariah Carey, Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim, and Jay-Z. The two men have known each other since the early '90s, when Farese was running a club in midtown. After too many shootings, the club was shut down, and Farese started a business installing high-end car stereos for the likes of Alicia Keys. He closed his business last year, due to the economic downturn.

Kent's own collection—the 2,800 pairs he has left after giving 3,000 to charity—is one of the largest in the country, Nike says. Nike pays him to design his own limited releases, and though Farese won't admit it, it's obvious the Mayor envies his friend.

The room in the back of the store is called the "bespoke" room—a 17th-century term describing custom-made clothing, but one that is now a Nike buzzword. Part design studio and part gentlemen's club, the room is filled with reams of designer leather and suede (think: leopard prints, polka dots, ribs), shoelaces of every hue, rubber shoe parts, and model rubber feet in various sizes (all for men). To obtain a bespoke shoe, a customer pays $820 for a two-hour session with a "design consultant," who records the customer's specifications in a canvas logbook given to the customer as a keepsake. A customer can choose just about anything, from the inner lining to the color of the rubber sole. The choices are simulated on a computer screen, and then the specifications are sent to a factory in China for manufacturing. Since November, when Nike launched the bespoke program, Farese, Kent, and four others regularly use the back room at the store. They create bespoke shoes competitively, arguing in a collegial fashion about who thought of which design first. (Farese begrudgingly admits that it was Kent who first thought of a look he's now very fond of: flipping the leather fabric so that the backside is on the outside of the shoe.)

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