Sneaker Con 2017: Blood, Sweat, and Clout

New York City’s Sneaker Con didn’t officially kick off until noon this past Saturday, but by 11:00 a.m., Danny, a 16-year-old boy sporting a gel-flip hair-do, had already made $225 dollars. He’d started with $150 in his pocket and three pairs of shoes, but sold two while waiting in line with hundreds of other boys also looking to buy, sell, and trade. Conveniently, Danny sold one of these pairs to Joel, the 18-year-old standing next to him. They were fast friends.

“This is the one place where us sneaker fanatics can actually be ourselves,” said Joel, who spoke as though he were running for mayor of Sneaker Con. “A lot of people are like, Why would you freak over sneakers? They’re just shoes. They don’t understand our passion.”

Passion! This is what made being in a room with 19,000 teenage boys (plus a small fraction of girls and adults) a tolerable, almost enjoyable experience. Inside the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, some 500 official vendors were a mere backdrop to the wheeling and dealing happening in the designated “trading pit,” where independent sellers and swappers set up shop like a pop-up on Canal Street. You could power the entire 160,000 square-foot space with the combined energy in this corner, which was fueled by a potent cocktail of masculine pageantry, capitalism, and what the kids are calling “clout.”

“Having clout is different from being a hypebeast,” said Giancarlo Purchia, a 17-year-old whose voice hasn’t dropped yet, but who currently boasts 750,000 subscribers on YouTube under the username Blazendary. “I don’t want to not be humble, but I have clout,” he explained. “A lot of people look up to me and respect me.”

He said this while wearing $3,300 Nike Air Mags on his feet, a Supreme x Louis Vuitton puffer coat draped over his slender frame, and three gold chains around his neck. Both his parents were by his side, each in their own “Blazenmom” and “Blazendad” merch.

Blazendary was one of a handful of clout personalities paid to sign autographs and participate at Sneaker Con this weekend. Others included Rashed Belhasa, or MoneyKicks; Mohamed Beiraghdary, who goes by Mo Vlogs; and Qias Omar of QrewTV, who proposed to his girlfriend at Sneaker Con Los Angeles in July. (The resulting video has over 750,000 views, and is tagged with the trigger warning: *EMOTIONAL*.)

As for the vendors, among them was Benjamin Kapelushnik — also known as Benjamin Kickz — an 18-year-old sneaker dealer to the stars, and now Soundcloud rappers. When New York profiled Ben last year, he was already making millions. As his catchphrase confirms: “Business is boomin’.”

Benjamin Kickz

How’s this year been for you?
It’s been boomin’, honestly.
What’s the craziest pair of shoes that you acquired in 2017?
The Chanel x Pharrell x adidas Hu NMD. [Retail price approximately $1,160.]
Any new clients?
Smoke Purp and Lil Pump. The new generation.
What shoes did Lil Pump want?
I got him Yeezys.
Any surprises?
I sold a bunch of Nike SB’s. I guess they’re coming back.

Ben makes buying and selling sneakers look easy. He barely broke a sweat as he sat behind his enormous booth on Saturday. Meanwhile, his peers out in the trading pit were putting everything on the line, walking around with shoe boxes raised high over their heads and duffel bags stuffed with more on their backs.

“Supreme is my Bitcoin,” one boy named Jake told me, comparing the sneaker market to the stock market. He claims to have made over $1,000 selling Supreme stickers at his middle school in Long Island. That is, before the principal got wind of it.

As far as I could tell, most sneaker deals went down something like this:

“Yo, how much?”
“What size?”
“Wanna trade?”
“Okay. Follow me on Instagram.”

After spending about five hours at Sneaker Con, I got the sense that while an unconscionable amount of money was moving through the hands of these (many privileged, white) teenagers, a large number of transactions were initiated simply as a way to introduce oneself without looking like a dork. When words failed, a lot of yearning stares were exchanged, as well as friendly daps, high-fives, and, of course, Instagram handles. For teenagers, buying and selling sneakers is a social sport and a way to triple their allowance. For adults, it can be an act of redemption.

“The reason I fell in love with sneakers is because was when I was a kid, my mother bought me a pair of sneakers called the Mark 5’s,” recalls Mayor, a 45-year-old who says he has one of the world’s largest sneaker collections. “I thought I was cool, because my name is Mark,” he explains. “But I got laughed off the block for wearing a cheap pair of sneakers. I vowed that would never happen again. Here I am, 35 years later, with 3,600-plus pairs of sneakers.”

While owning a collection of 3,600 pairs of shoes certainly earns you clout points at Sneaker Con, the younger generation of fans seem to be more interested in spending all their money on the most-hyped items, taking pictures with them, and then flipping them for even more money. And the two hottest tickets were Kanye West’s Adidas Yeezy Boosts and anything Supreme.

Holden McGowan

What shoes do you want more than anything?
How can you tell if a Yeezy is fake?
The boost; the stuff on the bottom is harder. Also, if you get a blacklight and shine it on the threading, there should be little reflective dots.
What do you like about Kith?
It’s just simple.

“Traditionally, because of Michael Jordan, the Air Jordan line has always been the number one brand for sneaker-heads,” says Yu-Ming Wu, who co-founded Sneaker Con in 2009 at a comedy club in Times Square. But “in the last three years, Adidas has definitely taken over the landscape of Sneaker Con.” This is mostly thanks to Kanye West’s contract with the brand. “It used to be that you walked in here and you barely saw a pair of Adidas. Today, it’s probably 60 percent Adidas.”

Not only is there a culture around buying Yeezys, there are also now entire enterprises devoted to authenticating Yeezy fakes. YouTube stars like “Yeezy Busta” have made careers out of it. The sneaker resale store Stadium Goods set up a booth within Sneaker Con where visitors could have their shoes inspected. When I asked one Yeezy vendor how he could tell real from fake, he recited a litany of DIY steps including smelling the glue.

At the end of the day, the biggest obstacle for Yeezy fans might actually be finding them in their size. “I’m going to start a protest to make adult shoes start at size six,” said one tween on the prowl in the trading pit. (Adult male shoes often start at size seven.)

Another boasted that he’d traded for a pair that were clearly too big. When I suggested they might not fit, he glared at me and shrieked, “Yes they do!”

Young people will inevitably grow out of their sneakers, but will sneaker culture ever slow down? Yu-Ming Wu thinks the hype will only continue to expand, and he plans to bring his convention to China and Dubai — two already-huge markets — in the future. The supply and demand formula is as simple as it gets. “As long as people are having kids,” he says, “they are going to need sneakers.”

Below, meet the kids of Sneaker Con 2017.

Ryan Leach

How hard was it to get those?
It was hard to save up for them. I paid $6,000.
Do you have a job?
No. I re-sell.
Are they comfortable?
No, but a lot of people like them.
Do you think you’ll ever get tired of them?
I want to be buried in them.

Daliah Friedland

What do you like about sneakers?
It’s not just something you put on your feet; it’s a passion that many people have. It shows who they are and their personality.
How do they express your personality?
It depends on my mood. I wear these when I’m in New York. At school [in New Jersey], I wear something that’s a little more low-key. If I’m going to a special event, I wear my Jordan 8 Confetti’s.
Are there not many girls in the sneaker community?
No. I don’t think there are any girls in my school who like sneakers as much.
Do guys give you shit for liking sneakers?
In the beginning, they’d say, ‘Oh she doesn’t actually like them.’ But then I got more shoes, and they were like, ‘How many pairs do you have?’ I have 31 pairs now, so I’m getting some respect.

Elijah Travis

Did you customize these?
They come with different swooshes, so I have the flames, which are holographic, and then the sparkly and shiny ones.
How did you get them?
I got them at 21 Mercer because I won the raffle.
If your shoes could talk, what would they say?
Bling, bling!

Liam Henderson

Is this your first Sneakercon?
Michelle Henderson (Liam’s mom): Yes! We flew here from Dallas. We decided yesterday morning before school and flew up last night.
As a parent, do you have any boundaries?
Definitely financial boundaries, because things can get a little out control. From that perspective, you have to teach them that it’s okay to spend money, but it has to be their money, and they have to save for it.
Have you educated yourself about sneakers as well?
Yeah, I went on YouTube and watched that there were going to be lines here, so we got here a little early. I got cash early, too. I don’t like surprises!

Richard Forrestal

How much money have you made today?
I think like $600.
And how much have you spent?
Why do you like Supreme?
The hype.
Do people comment on your shoes at school?
Is that also why you like them?
I don’t really care.
Do you have the best clothes in school?
I think so, but that’s my opinion.

Sneaker Con 2017: Blood, Sweat, and Clout