The Mayor of Sneakerdom

A cautionary tale laced with obsession

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.

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

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.

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.

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.)

"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 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.

A typical limited-edition pair is going for about $250—but pairs are selling for more than $800. Traders have come from as far away as Canada to schmooze and sell shoes.

The Mayor, as he later recalls, wasn't really looking for shoes this particular day—what could a 14-year-old offer him that he doesn't have already? But then he saw something he wanted: a rare pair of PlayStation Air Force 1s—shoes that were given out only to Sony and Nike employees and never appeared in stores. Farese says he couldn't believe the kid's $1,800 asking price, so he countered with $1,400. When the kid turned him down, Farese recalls, he found himself muttering, "I hope they lose their fingers."

Unlike at the previous Dunk Exchange, which was in March, a lot of boys seem to be having trouble selling their shoes. Alfredo Moses, a skinny ninth-grader from Bronx Science, and his friend, whom he met in elementary school, have a rare pair of OG Concords; original black-patent-leather-and-white Air Jordans from 1995; and neon-green Lucha Libres—an Air Force 1 pair designed by a Mexican graffiti crew and covered with images of wrestlers. But that rich loot was finding no takers. "I'm broke. He's broke," Moses says. A few hours later, they're still milling about and having no luck.

In another dark corner, five boys, led by 12-year-old Noah Drysdale, are trying to get their capitalist hustle on. The six middle-schoolers—some of them had met on a sneaker group on Facebook—had pooled together about 70 pairs of shoes.

A potential buyer approaches their table and holds up a shoe. He gives a nod, indicating that he's ready to hear a price. All eyes turn to Drysdale: "I'd do $120," he says confidently.

The customer makes another barely perceptible nod with his head. The sneakerheads understand that this means no, and the boy moves on to another table. "These freakin' people," Drysdale exclaims a little while later. "They come, and they don't buy shit." Drysdale's pals nod in agreement. A minute later, another boy approaches the booth and holds up a 2001 Cement Jordan—a "retro" shoe with an asphalt-like design on the rubber lining that Nike has been releasing every year since 1994.

"$250," Drysdale says.

"$225," the boy snaps back.

"$225. Fine," Drysdale replies. He takes the money without counting it.

Drysdale knows what he's doing. His business strategy? "Basically, we just want money." He spends hours online shopping for sneakers every week, but he proudly claims that he has never borrowed money from his parents to buy shoes. "I'm 12—I started when I was 10," he says. "Lately, I've been getting out of sneakers. But I'm starting to get back in."

Equally excited are Cheryl and her son, David, standing side by side with big grins on their faces after a long day. They had driven down from Connecticut and were celebrating David's big score.

"You should see him on YouTube—he talks about his collection," says the beaming mom. David's sneaker passion is teaching him valuable business skills, she says, and they now have the evidence. David, she explains, had been trying to buy Heineken Dunks: Nikes emblazoned with the beer brand's logo. "He tried three different times online," she says, shaking her head, "but they were fakes." The trip to the city has been worth it. The particular pair normally cost from $600 and $900. "But today, he got them for $450," she says. And that wasn't his only score. David is also carrying another treasure: the 2005 Tiffany's dunks, powder-blue shoes inlaid with fake diamonds. "You wanna see them?" asks David. He holds up the pair. "Everyone wants these, 'cause they come in a pink box."

Far less starry-eyed than David's mom, Amira Gobrial of Queens is leaning against a wall, a respectful but vigilant five feet away from her 14-year-old son. "It's a craze with these kids," Gobrial exclaims in a forceful whisper. "These kids live and breathe sneakers. They are always on the Internet searching for sneakers." And she's concerned: "The manufacturers hype these kids up to buy them. I don't understand. It wasn't like this when I was growing up. There are other things you can get involved in."

Like dealing crack and spending time in Rikers. That was once the life of 26-year-old Pedro Genao, a marketing exec at Shady Records and one of the organizers of the Dunk Exchange. He says he isn't concerned that an obsession with collecting an $800 pair of Dunks might not be healthy for kids as young as 12. "This whole thing got me off the street," says Genao.

THESE T-SHIRT WEARING young capitalists haven't escaped the recession. The Mayor says that some longtime sneakerheads have been forced to liquidate their collections in Internet fire sales. Still strictly a buyer, not a seller, the Mayor doesn't fault them for it: "If I gotta pay my rent, I'm gonna let a shoe go," he says. "If I gotta feed my family, I'm gonna sell a shoe."

But it's not easy for him to like those who re-sell shoes. Of his friends in the business, he says, "I have to separate the fact that I associate with them from the fact that they are re-sellers."

A few days before a big shoe release, he pulls into his driveway in the white SUV, the floor of the car full of designs on paper for 12 multicolored bespoke sneakers he has ordered at $820 a pair.

In the kitchen, his girlfriend is helping her middle-school-aged son with his homework. The Mayor goes to the basement to check on his collection. Sitting on a top shelf are a pair of Live High "For the Love of Money" Air Force 1s, which were designed for the Lance Armstrong Foundation by the graffiti artist Futura. On the day of the release, he would drive from New Jersey to House of Hoops, a store on 125th Street, to smirk at the kids waiting in line. "I'm going to put these on and cause a frenzy in the city all day," he says. He's already preparing himself to be frustrated by the teenage capitalists he will encounter at the door: "I say, Take that entrepreneurial passion and go put it toward something else."

Before going upstairs, he pulls a 1991 Air Force 1 from among the stacks. The shoe is black with a wine-colored swoosh. He lost his original pair from 1982, so this is the oldest pair he has got. "Tinker made these," he says, gazing admiringly. "I'm afraid to wear them."

Correction: the article originally stated that Tinker Hatfield designed the Air Force 1. While Tinker Hatfield is Nike’s most well-known shoe designer, it was Bruce Kilgore who designed the Air Force 1.
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