New York's Sneaker Boom

As rare shoes soar in price, seventh-graders make like Wall Street traders.

"Look at 'em," says the young man in a blue polo shirt. "Dirty, scuffed, wrinkled—nobody's gonna buy them here. Not used like that."

The negotiation has taken a dark turn. In some circles, you're better off dissing a man's girl than his sneakers.

Just five minutes ago, on this July 13 afternoon, Gabe Cordero and Andrew Ramos, 17-year-olds from Piscataway, New Jersey, had entered the Lower East Side's Basketball City for Sneaker Con 2013—perhaps the sneaker scene's largest buy/sell/trade event in history—each carrying shoeboxes displaying the products they hoped to hawk. They'd only marched a few paces into the venue before the guy in the blue polo tapped Cordero on the shoulder, pointed at the blue-and-white Air Jordan IIIs he carried, and posed the two ubiquitous questions: "What size?" and "How much?"

"Nine-and-a-half," Cordero replied, "$110."

Blue polo scoffed, furrowed his brow, and let loose a condescending chuckle. Sure, the shoe was hard to find, but that was a high price for a ratty pair of old sneakers purchased 13 years ago.

"How much you want for 'em?" asked Cordero, a lean kid in a backward Toronto Raptors hat.

"I'll give you $50"—and before Cordero could respond, here's the guy justifying his lowball offer with a torrent of insults: dirty, scuffed, wrinkled—nobody's gonna buy them . . .

Cordero keeps his cool. "Why are you?" he counters.

This rattles the guy. He stutters, then explains, "I wanna play ball in them." Cordero looks at the shoes for a few seconds, silent. "Never mind," the guy says. He turns and walks away.

But not 20 seconds later, he returns. "You take $60 right now?"

Cordero purses his lips and, after a moment of contemplation, shakes his head. The guy shakes his head right back. "You know, no one's gonna buy that," he seethes, gesturing toward the convention floor.

Here, after all, sit the freshest, cleanest, hardest-to-find sneakers in the world. Air Jordan XI Concords, Foamposite ParaNormans, Yeezy IIs, and LeBron IX South Beaches—many "deadstocked" (never been worn) or barely used.

When sneaker blog mogul Yu-Ming Wu and his partners, Alan and Barris Vinogradov, launched the first Sneaker Con in 2009, their intent was to give sneakerheads a venue, connecting those looking for their dream shoes with those selling them. But Wu is the first to admit that the trio did not anticipate the madness to come. In the subsequent years, a sneaker boom has rocked the free market. Since the early 1980s, a few sought-after, collectors-edition sneakers have fetched three-, sometimes four-figure prices. But now, scores of shoes cost that much. The top of the market has expanded, driving up prices for middle- and low-range kicks.

At the inaugural Sneaker Con, Wu remembers selling a pair of Lightnings, the yellow version of the Jordan IVs. It took all his salesmanship skills to get somebody to pay $300. Just four years later, go to Flight Club NY, the famous sneaker consignment store, and you'll have to drop $1,000 for a pair.

Which explains why, around 10 minutes after turning down the $60 offer, Gabe finds a buyer willing to pay $85.

The 5,000 or so people who have made the pilgrimage to Sneaker Con know that there might not be a more efficient investment. Wu estimates that $100,000 to $200,000 will trade hands over the course of seven hours. At the front of this rush are the youngest of hustlers, high-schoolers with summer-job paychecks and middle-schoolers investing their parents' money.

Seven of those middle-schoolers, friends from Long Island, sit at a booth two weeks after pooling their collections and launching NetKicks.com, a buying-and-selling website. They're new to the game; Ethan Hanovick just got his first pair in March, for his birthday. His mother, Christine Elliott, planned to surprise him with a pair of Electro Purple Foamposites. The surprise was on her.

Foamposites are emblematic of the sneaker boom. When Nike first unveiled the line in 1997, the company marketed it as an innovation in shoe design: a sturdy hightop coated with a hardened, lightweight foam that formed sleek ridges around the laces. But people thought they were ugly and overpriced, and the shoes flopped.

Now, more than a decade later, Foamposites have inexplicably emerged as the hottest shoes on the market.

So Elliott was surprised when she learned that a pair cost $220, more than Air Jordans. She got another surprise when she tried to buy the shoes online the moment stores released them in the early morning hours of March 2: They'd sold out within seconds. Her final surprise came hours later, when she discovered that her only option was to buy a pair on eBay for more than $300.

"Those right over there," Elliott says, nodding toward the NetKicks table, where the shiny purple beauties are on sale for a negotiable price somewhere above $400. She's not offended that the gift is now on the open market, she says with a grin, "as long as he gets the money for it."

Trading sneakers is elevated to an art at Sneaker Con, where savvy investors seek to build their portfolios through an intimate knowledge of the market. About 10 yards away, 19-year-old college students Reggie and Taylor have laid out more than a dozen shoes. Each says that his goal for the day is to earn $500 or $600 in sales. Reggie hopes to turn $400 of those profits into more sneakers. "The key is spotting what's undervalued," he says with the swagger of a Wall Street trader.

The strategy is harder than it looks. This is Sneaker Con and this is New York City—not a lot of rubes here. People prowl between the rows of vendors, holding a sneaker over their heads with one hand and, in the other, a shoebox serving as a display rack. Flea-market banter fills the air over the hip-hop pouring through the sound system. For every 20 negotiations, there might be one sale.

Ramos has been striking out. His two prize items, silver Lebron Xs and green Durant Vs, haven't drawn much interest, even though he's offering them together for just $5 over retail. The value of certain shoes often seems arbitrary, and Ramos has found himself on the wrong side of the market.

In the sneaker world, Air Jordans are still king, continuing to draw the most dependable demand. So Cordero's Toro Bravos, the red version of the Jordan IVs, easily find a home. The Toros were released just this morning, and Cordero scored a pair at the mall. He hoped to sell them for $300, but settles for $220. In fewer than 12 hours, the value of his purchase increased by 37 percent.

The sneaker boom is partly fueled by the difficulty of actually buying certain pairs at retailers. Demand consistently outpaces supply. Stores like Foot Locker and Champs provide raffle tickets to prospective buyers a few days in advance, and only a select few win the chance to cop the shoes at face value.

After that, the secondary market takes over, where value is formed more by cultural aesthetics than utility. "The sneaker has become the ultimate signifier of one's identity," says Dylan Miner, a Michigan State University professor who has studied modern sneaker culture. And because values are so subjective, it's natural to wonder whether the boom is actually a bubble.

In a few hours, when the vendors begin to pack their unsold goods and the ATM has run out of cash, the laws of economics take hold. Prices drop as sellers hope to clear their stocks before calling it a day.

One young man holds white Foamposites over his head, circling the venue shouting, "Ten-and-a-half on the cheap! Don't sleep, on the cheap!"

A pair of twice-worn Jordan XIs—which had been marked at $450 at the start of the day—go for $280. NetKicks seventh-grader Jake Regino leans back in a folding chair counting out $930 in cash.

As Cordero and Ramos roam the floor, Ramos notes that the kid who bought Cordero's Jordan IIIs is now trying to sell them himself. Ramos jokes that they should try to buy the pair back for $50. Cordero smiles. "The worst thing is if you sell it and then they go out and sell it for more," he says. "But he's not gonna get more than $100. No one's gonna get beat shoes for $100."

asamaha@villagevoice.com

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