The Mayor of Sneakerdom

A cautionary tale laced with obsession

"Bespoke" is only one of many special terms that Nike uses and that its followers have religiously adopted. Another is "dubre" (doo-BRAY), which describes a small metal badge at the bottom of the laces—called a lace lock by the uninitiated. (Farese has had his name engraved on many dubres—on one pair, with diamonds.)

The reverence for Nike is palpable. "Nike is like the cartel," one sneaker collector says, asking not to be identified for fear of damaging his relationship with the company. "Something that we, in the sneaker community, tend to forget," says Farese, "is that Nike is not a sneaker company. It's a Fortune 500 company that makes sneakers."

Nike earns an estimated $10 billion annually on footwear. Although the crazy collectors' market accounts for only about 10 percent of that revenue, every line in front of a store provides the company with an inestimable amount of free advertising, explains Jean-Philippe Lalonde, a marketing and anthropology student at HEC Montréal, who is writing a master's thesis on sneakers.

Farese is an unusual collector: He actually wears his shoes.
Gray Hamner
Farese is an unusual collector: He actually wears his shoes.
At the Crash Mansion, even the sneaker exchange has felt the effects of a recession.
At the Crash Mansion, even the sneaker exchange has felt the effects of a recession.

Farese calls himself a Nike "influencer," which sounds like an actual position with the company. But Nike spokeswoman Demetria White says that, though the term is freely used by the company to describe the handful of people like the Mayor, it's not an official title. "Who is or is not an 'influencer' is not something that we determine," she says. "An 'influencer' is someone who people aspire to be, someone they wish to emulate, someone they want to be around. . . . It is not that we label Mayor an 'influencer,' but it is the community who gives him the honor."

SURAJ KAUFMAN, a 36-year-old sneaker-store owner in New Jersey, who cleans his own shoes with baby wipes every night, says there's a huge distinction between collectors and sneakerheads. "A lot of these kids in high school who camp outside the stores for two nights just so they can flip them online the next day—yeah, they're collectors, but I don't consider them true sneakerheads," he says. " 'Cause the whole point is: You buy them, you love them, you wear them." Kaufman estimates that he has spent around $70,000 on shoes. (His favorite is a Jordan Bordeaux that he bought in 1992. His most expensive is a $2,000 pair of Entourage Air Force 1s, which the company made after a character on the HBO show attempted to buy a pair of limited sneakers, but was shut out after waiting on a long line.)

Paul Rosenberg, president of Shady Records and manager of Eminem, admits to owning 400 pairs of Air Force 1s, and says, "It's totally ridiculous. I have more sneakers than I can wear every day for a year. Who needs that?" Why only Air Force 1s? "It's an iconic silhouette," explains Rosenberg. (To the Mayor, it's the "perfect shoe.")

Rosenberg is that rare sneakerhead who says he doesn't like the term because it's "pejorative." Like a number of high-end collectors, and unlike the Mayor, Rosenberg is pretty hush-hush about his collector's habit. But it's safe to consider him a sneakerhead, and here's how the three generations of sneakerheads break down: First, there are the old cats—guys like Rosenberg and Farese, in their late twenties and thirties and even forties—who were old enough to buy their first pair of Nike Air Force 1s in 1982.

The second group is typically those between the ages of 19 and 25. They're the real hustlers, manning tables at live trading events. Most sneaker-exchanging happens online, but in recent years, trading events have sprung up to try to combat the huge counterfeit problem that occurs in online sales. More mature collectors, they've come to realize they have more shoes than they can use, and, at live events, they deal to the younger kids, who make up the third tier: 14-year-olds just trying to hustle up enough allowance money for shoes they really can't afford.

All three cohorts are in full force one afternoon in June, as the Mayor strolls through Crash Mansion, a basement nightclub on the Bowery. He's sporting a pair of rare 2003 limited-edition "Mr. Cartoon" Livestrong Air Force 1s, designed for the Lance Armstrong Foundation by Mr. Cartoon, a well-known character in the sneaker community. The yellow-and-black shoes have cobweb designs at the toe and renderings of New York City skyscrapers on the sides. (On release day, they were priced at $150, but you can't find them on the Internet now for less than $500.)

Crash Mansion is packed with about 1,000 boys, who all look to be between 14 and 17, milling about while hip-hop thumps in the background. Everyone is in uniform: crisp T-shirts, baseball caps with prominent logo stickers, super-slouchy jeans, eyeglasses with fashionable rims.

And sneakers everywhere. Dunks (another Nike model), Adidas, Nike Jordans, Air Maxes, and Air Force 1s are displayed on card tables and cushy VIP lounge chairs. They're stuffed into backpacks. Boys carry them around with their hands full.

They've paid either $100 to rent a table or the $11 at the door that allows them to bring in just three pairs of shoes to sell or trade. The sneakerheads walk around carrying pairs of shoes on their heads, calling out shoe sizes seemingly at random. The room is filled with shouts of "Nine! Nine and a half!"—if you can hear them above the blasting hip-hop.

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