Inside the World of Extreme Sneaker Collectors

Sneakerheads in the Harajuku section of Tokyo.
Sneakerheads in the Harajuku section of Tokyo.

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By his count, producer and director David Friendly has 85 pairs of sneakers in his closet. He doesn’t find that number extreme. “I’m not even on the spectrum!” he says. “I’m just at the tip of the iceberg.” His new documentary, Sneakerheadz — set to hit theaters in New York and L.A. this August — profiles far more avid collectors. The film, which marks his directorial debut (he’s best known as the producer behind Little Miss Sunshine), dives deep into the world of extreme sneaker collectors — die-hard junkies with anywhere from 200 to 5,000 boxes of kicks in their closets. It’s a fascinating look inside an insular subculture, and a nuanced exploration of the relationship between masculinity and fashion. The Cut spoke with Friendly about the evolution of sneaker hype and the motivations behind sneaker collectors.

What drew you to the world of extreme sneaker collectors?
I love subcultures, and I love jargon. I like worlds that I don’t know that much about. I also liked that this was a world where you don’t get to people quickly. It took a lot of work to get the people in the film to cooperate. They’re in this insular world, and they’re a little bit paranoid about the outside world. I still don’t totally understand it, but they’re not very trusting. Everyone wanted to know who else we were talking to. The first people were very difficult to get to cooperate, because they didn’t want to do it unless they knew it was going to be authentic. We promised to make a film that was truly about insiders. There aren’t really a lot of celebrities in the film, which was intentional. This is a film about a subculture. Once we got Jeff Staple — who created the Pigeon Dunk and is sort of the star of the film — and people like Frank the Butcher and Futura, then everybody else said, Okay, we’ll do it.

How do you explain the motivation to collect sneakers in such huge quantities?
Let me say right off the bat that there’s a misconception about sneaker collectors that they’re hoarders. By and large, that’s not the rule. They have fairly extensive collections — anywhere from 200 to 5,000 pairs — but in their defense, I think these people look at sneakers as art. You wouldn’t think it was crazy if someone bought 500 different paintings by different artists because they wanted to own them — but 500 pairs of sneakers seems insane. The truth is, to a passionate sneakerhead, sneakers are art. It’s a passion. When you learn about it, you get sucked in and you want to learn more and be knowledgeable.

And a lot of times, they’re buying this stuff as an investment. Hence the expression, “one to rock, one to stock” — meaning, buy one pair to wear and one to put away as an investment. There are a lot of people who buy sneakers and turn them over and make pretty good money, based on increases of price when things are no longer available. You see that a lot with young kids who are turning sneakers over to enhance their collection. I don’t think they’re doing it just to bank money — they’re able to buy more sneakers by picking models that have more resale value. Sure, there are some people who collect with the notion that one day they’re going to cash out, but I think that’s a very difficult game to play. After about ten years, the shoes start to erode. It’s not like a painting where, if you keep it out of sunlight, you can display it forever. These things have a shelf life.

Watching the film I got the sense that there was a stigma around reselling sneakers.
Yeah. There are bumper stickers on the Bloc in L.A. — where a lot of the cool sneaker shops are — that say “Resellers Go Home.” There are mixed feelings about resellers. There are some purists in the game who feel that you should buy sneakers for yourself, not necessarily to profit from them.

How do you explain the insane demand for these shoes?
I was reading a statistic that the Jordan 10 sold out in one second. It was gone in one second! So there are bots and computerized programs designed to help people get to the front of the line, digitally. I’m not really sure how to explain it, except to say that we’re in the world now where people prefer sneakers over shoes. When you go into Barneys in L.A., the men’s shoe department is 70 percent sneakers. Mostly it’s because attitudes have relaxed a bit. Growing up, if I tried to wear sneakers to a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding, I would have been sent right back upstairs to my room. Now, kids are going to prom in sneakers. People often wonder if it’s peaked. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the peak, because new categories are still exploding. Women’s sneakers, for example, are something I would keep an eye on.

Historically, when did “sneaker culture” first start to emerge?
For the longest time, you basically just had Converse sneakers in white and black canvas. In the early ‘70s, Adidas introduced leather basketball shoes, and then the ground zero moment was in 1984, when Michael Jordan signed with Nike. Michael Jordan changed the face of sneakers, and started an entire history of athletes being incredible marketing instruments to get kids to wear shoes.

What was it about Michael Jordan that really made this phenomenon take off?
Well, he’s arguably the greatest basketball player in the history of the game, and he’s a very charismatic, great-looking guy who had great style. Take those things together, and he’s millions and millions of kids’ idol. He was able to transform the business because he’s Michael Jordan. The next player to do that was Kobe Bryant, and after that, Lebron James. But what’s really interesting to me is that the most important guy in terms of influence in the sneaker game right now is probably Kanye West. You can’t even get his shoes. And it’s really not about the design of the shoe — the kids aren’t buying it because they love the shoe, they’re buying it because Kanye wears it. That’s not an athlete, that’s an entertainer — it’s a big difference. If 20 years ago you said the next giant figure in sneakers was going to be a hip-hop artist, people would have looked at you sideways. It was just athletes for the longest time.

How did the sneakerheads you talked to describe the appeal of wearing sneakers?
The thing that people came back to most often is that putting on a tightly laced pair of kicks made them feel young again. It reminds them of their youth. It’s a return to the most carefree time of your life, when you came home from school and put on a pair of kicks and went out to play.

How has the internet changed things in terms of collecting?
The biggest change is that you don’t actually have to go look for stuff anymore. In the old days, you would go up to Yonkers to try to find a cool sneaker store, and dig around in the basement for something that nobody else had. The internet has made it quite a bit easier to find this stuff. It’s all very scientific, and the prices are very clear. I still like going to little boutiques. I’m nostalgic for that.

Inside the World of Extreme Sneaker Collectors