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#SneakerHeads: How a new generation of sneaker fans are taking over the Internet

sneakercon sneaker culture matures parent looking after son s sneakers
Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends
“We didn’t even realize we had a sneaker culture before the Internet. Just had a bunch of people that like buying sneakers.”

Dallas Penn is a 45-year-old husband, a hip-hop aficionado, and the co-creator and co-host of a popular podcast (The Combat Jack Show). But before he was any of those things, he was a sneakerhead who has been collecting, admiring, and even inhaling sneakers for more than 30 years.

It’s not uncommon to see Penn with more sneakers than his arms can hold — dressed in Native American-inspired clothing to color-coordinate with a fresh pair of Jordans — or hear him lovingly describe “sneakerhead” as a tribe he identifies with. “Once you get to your third pair, now you have more sneakers than you can wear at one time, now you’re a sneakerhead,” he told Digital Trends. Penn was just like hundreds of other people packed into the 144,000-square-foot exhibit hall of Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, along with millions of dollars in sneakers in mid-September.

You guessed it, it’s SneakerCon time.

“You see a shoe that’s about to be released. You have to get geared up. You have to get ready for that release date.”

SneakerCon is a regularly occurring convention series founded in 2009 by brothers Alan and Barris Vinogradov along with partner Yu-Ming Wu, which travels across America to unite sneakerheads from across the world to share, sell, admire, and even validate their collections. Organized chaos is the only way to describe the scene as hundreds of people bustle through an exhibition hall surrounded by tables full of sneakers and negotiations that could be heard over the event’s hip-hop heavy soundtrack.

Even with all the money trading hands, there was no violence, a positive sign in a world where murder is directly linked to the rise of sneaker hype. Nike’s Jordan Brand recently canceled the in-store release of its first collaboration with legendary streetwear company, Supreme. While the company did not say explicitly whether it was to avoid violent crowds waiting for the store to open, Nike did cancel the in-store release of the Foamposite last April for that very reason. Sneaker releases are often events that rival iPhone launches. Now, they’re migrating from stores to online newsletters.

SneakerCon is almost completely reliant on the Internet; every one of the dozens of fans I spoke with at the event heard about it through either social media or the official website. In place of nationwide billboard or television ads are Instagrams, tweets, and blog posts that snake around the globe. But the convention’s salient dependency on the Internet to draw its diverse crowd is emblematic of the sneaker culture it is based in. The attendees ranged from novices just beginning their collections to veterans like Dallas, and most would never have met each other or their sneaker collections if not for the Internet.

Spreading the culture

When asked what makes someone a sneakerhead, SneakerCon goers had varying answers with one common element: knowledge. A sneakerhead has knowledge of releases, material, history, and availability that runs deeper than the box they come in. A regular person may compliment you on your blue and white Nikes; a sneakerhead will stop you in your tracks to learn how you acquired the Nike Air Jordan 1 High “North Carolina” like a dying man asking for an antidote.

But the Internet, like a walk-in closet of astonishing depth, can distort as well as inform. Who’s buying sneakers for the hype and who’s buying for the love?

Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends
Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends

Mike, a 25-year-old with a collection that already goes back a decade, traveled over 280 miles from his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina to SneakerCon. He limped the show floor with one foot in a surgical boot and the other in a dark blue and silver Air Max Plus. Why? “It all starts with the shoes,” he told me. That passion was everywhere: I saw people carrying children so they could fit sneakers in strollers. Others walked around with Supreme Foamposites in a glass case that looked like the Pope Mobile.

The Internet helped create shows like SneakerCon, but it’s also exacerbating hype in the sneaker culture and artificially inflating prices. Grails, a play on the term “Holy Grail,” refer to rare shoes that are highly sought after. “Sometimes people talk Grail to try and force the market on the shoe,” Dallas Penn says. If the numerous death hoaxes and the multi-colored dress that took over the nation proves anything, it’s that if enough people on the Internet agree on an idea, it’ll at the very least have the appearance of being truthful.

The Internet helped created shows like SneakerCon, but it’s also exacerbating hype in the sneaker culture and artificially inflating prices.

It’s this type of hype that sent the price of Kanye West’s final Nike collaboration, the “Red Octobers,” from a $245 retail price to an astounding $16 million on eBay in less than a week. The Internet is also largely responsible for ballooning the sneaker resale market to over $1 billion. The U.S. retail market alone is valued at about $28 billion, according to NPD Data.

Before the Internet, to find out about the release of the Reebok Shaq Attaq II Low in 1993, you had to stumble across a TV advertisement or a window flier. And you could save up your allowance for the entire month to buy those cherished sneakers without fear of them selling out. “The Internet and hype no longer allows us to do that,” says Dallas Penn. Today a fan plans his approach like a military strategist.

“You see a shoe that’s about to be released. You have to get geared up. You have to get ready for that release date. You have to think ‘okay, how am I going to acquire this shoe? Is it going to be limited? Is it going to be limited release? What store will be my best option to pick up this shoe?'”

Kicking and connecting online

Every person I spoke with at SneakerCon heard about the event through social media channels such as Instagram and Twitter, avenues that didn’t exist a decade ago. Retailers are aware of the changing nature of collecting too. “It helps you advertise a lot easier. A lot better for free,” explained Wade Housen, Store Manager at CMB Kicks.

In only three years, CMB Kicks now makes most of its sneaker sales online.
In only three years, CMB Kicks now makes most of its sneaker sales online. Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends

“We’re in New Jersey and people out here [in Atlanta] already know us. We get to advertise to everyone across the country, the world, so it actually brings your brand into everybody’s living room,” he told Digital Trends. CMB Kicks started selling sneakers at a store in South Orange, New Jersey, in 2012, “out of the trunk and back of cars, the normal hustle.” Now the company receives most of its revenue from online sales and customers that stretch far from Atlantic City and the Northeast, thanks to Instagram posts.

Devin Williams, 18 years old and “Hypebeastspiffy” on Instagram, drove 10 hours from Virgina to Atlanta for SneakerCon. He admitted he’s only been collecting for a year and “likes to have what other people can’t.” I came across Devin gleefully exiting the exhibit hall with his tan Yeezy 1 shoes cradled in his arms like a proud father leaving the delivery room. Sneakerheads in the know spotted Devin and their eyes nearly parachuted out of their face. Devin was surrounded, not by thugs trying to intimidate him into giving up those grails but by fans who wanted to know how he acquired them, to examine the shoe for authenticity — and to get his contact information.

He was a hero simply for owning them.

Devin Williams, 18, hacked the Adidas Confirmed app from Washington, D.C. in order to buy Yeezy Boost 350 in New York City
Devin Williams, 18, hacked the Adidas Confirmed app from Washington, D.C. in order to buy Yeezy Boost 350 in New York City Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends

What was the most impressive part of Devin’s story to them? He traded for the illustrious tan Yeezy’s with a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 that he purchased from his sneaker store job for $200. The price of the tan Yeezy 1s on the resale market? Roughly $2,000.

Monetizing the sole

For a physical manifestation of the average sneakerhead’s mentality, go no further than SneakerCon’s Trading Pit, a special area for attendees to sell their sneakers. Imagine the blisteringly chaotic scene of the stock market — but instead of traders in suits waving buy or sell tickets there are endless teenagers waving multi-colored footwear and yelling shoe names, sizes, and “deadstock,” meaning a particular shoe is no longer sold in retail stores.

Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends
Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends

The communal aspect of the sneaker culture is a marketing tool In the Pit: Sellers stop anyone whose glance they catch to praise their wears, their sneakers, before trying to sell them on goods. They quickly move along to the next the person if they find an uninterested buyer.

When a culture becomes overrun with monetization options by its most dedicated participants, people mix their personal passion with their desire for profit. The modern decade of sneaker resale opulence coincides with the end of the American recession, a period in which college went from an expensive necessity to an expensive black hole of high-interest-rate loans and the job market shrank. At SneakerCon’s first event in 2009, in the midst of the greatest American recession in decades, the founders estimated $40,000-$50,000 worth of sneakers were exchanged.

The Internet helped provide a much-needed alternative to future college students, college grads, and anyone struggling to find work or the funds to pay bills.

Running too fast?

If you spent anytime at SneakerCon in Atlanta then you ran into Karon Smith. The 20-year-old entrepreneur has collected sneakers since 2012 and sells them at his urban clothing boutique in Chicago, Raggs. While holding a collection of sneakers worth a year’s rent, Smith explained how the Internet has reduced the value of sneakers outside of the resale market.

Karon Smith, owner of Raggs Boutique, holding $10,000 worth of sneakers
Karon Smith, owner of Raggs Boutique, holding $10,000 worth of sneakers Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends

“The economy has kind of messed things up,” he said. “Now the culture as a whole has been watered down. You don’t see Jordans selling out like they used to. You don’t get a lot of kids who buy sneakers because they like it. They buy it to say, ‘ooh I’m going to sell it to someone else.'”

When asked if he buys sneakers for the love of the culture, 20-year-old sneaker seller Hayden from Virginia seemed a perfect example of Smith’s concerns. “I buy and resell. It’s just part of the game,” he told me. Hayden was joined by his father who watched over his son’s sneakers while Hayden scoured SneakerCon for deals. With so many in attendance claiming collections that began as teenagers, it makes sense that those too young to drink were chaperoned by the financial backers for their sneaker passion. For mom and dad, it’s investing in the future: Shoe collectors are start-up businesses, with parents the investors — and SneakerCon is a way to monitor their ROI.

No one exemplified this relationship more at SneakerCon than Tina, a 47-year-old mother from Chicago. Flanked by her lovely assistants, Tina could be seen with as many as six different types of sneakers on her hands, waving them as voraciously as any day trader or Wall Street tycoon. All because the sneaker culture has matured to the point where she can use it to impart financial literacy lessons on her sneakerhead son.

“I told him, ‘you grow out of ’em like a weed. Might as well get some money off of them.'” Times have changed, she reminisced: The economic opportunity from an old pair of sneakers wasn’t even fathomable before the Internet. “Back then, they weren’t doing much trading, buying, and selling. It was just, if you were with your friends and y’all wanted to swap out some stuff.”

Ending the violence

With the same jovial smile he greeted me with, Karon Smith explained how he was once robbed at gunpoint in Atlanta.

Since then Smith still meets buyers in person, but now at locations he designates. That change is in the interest of his business as much as it is his life. SneakerCon had relatively light security, only a few guards at the entrance and exit and no police patrols inside the exhibit hall. “All sneakers are so expensive that no one is trying to take them off people’s feet,” Penn said at one point. This was no security flaw but a testament to the legitimacy of a resale industry largely operated by millennials.

The economic opportunity from an old pair of sneakers wasn’t even fathomable before the Internet.

Violence isn’t acceptable but it is a lingering fear for sneaker enthusiasts. In December 2011, a 20-year-old was stabbed in a Jersey City mall while on line waiting for the release of the Air Jordan XI Concord. Wade of CMB Kicks said he “pushed kids and parents” to get those same sneakers, yet later revealed, “I personally don’t know what it is” that made the shoes so desired. He says he witnessed someone getting shot for those Concords, claiming “those were the sneakers that made the game go crazy.”

People were killed for their sneakers as early as 1985, when 13-year-old Shawn Jones was murdered for his $112 pair of FILA tennis shoes — after he handed them over to his killer. A May 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated ran a cover story focusing on the growing violence around sneaker apparel, entitled “Your Sneakers or Your Life.” Society has become so conditioned to such violence that a fake report of an 18-year-old being trampled is not only believed but causes mayhem on social media.

But you wouldn’t be able to tell this was the case walking around SneakerCon.

Penn felt the crushing influence of sneaker fandom at the midnight release of the Nike Air Foamposite One “Metallic Red” in February 2012. “I nearly got crushed to death at the Foot Locker flagship store in Manhattan to pick these shoes up,” Penn says. “It was a near riot. As soon as they opened the door, people basically rushed the door. So I was pressed up against a crowd of like hundreds.”

This may have inspired Nike to stop the midnight release of the Air Foamposite One Galaxy in Florida weeks later. The situation was so out of control that hundreds of shoppers rushed an Orlando Mall even after they were told the release was canceled.

Austin from South Carolina holding a limited edition Back to the Future
Austin from South Carolina holding a limited edition Back to the Future Keith Nelson Jr./Digital Trends

To save itself, Nike turned to the Internet. Since April 2012, has allowed prospective buyers to reserve sneakers before they launch, through Twitter. Three years later, Adidas prepared for the immense demand of the Yeezy Boost 350, the company’s first collaboration with Kanye West, by creating the Adidas Confirmed app. With it buyers in a specified geographic location receive notifications of availability at participating stores, at which point the buyer simply selects their size and the sneakers are held for them at the store.

Tech savvy individuals soon discovered how to circumvent Nike’s Twitter RSVP system, creating bots to snatch up the RSVP code and reserve a pair of sneakers for someone. The bots posed no harm to human life and actually made the reservation process more convenient, but Nike soon began denying sneaker purchases using bots. Around the same time, multiple brawls erupted at retail locations nationwide over the Nike Air Jordan Gamma Blue 11’s. The New York Daily News asked Nike if it would ever sell Jordans online to avoid such violence.

Besides stating that “consumer safety is of paramount important to us,” there was no direct answer.

The tech-rich future of sneakers

Technology is as embedded in sneakers today as the Nike swoosh. Merchants at SneakerCon sold sneakers face-to-face using the Square mobile payment system. People rode around the exhibition hall on motorized scooters yelling “What are those?” the viral social media trend that even made Floyd Mayweather Jr stop his last fight ever to answer.

The Internet may have unified this disparate community, but SneakerCon feels like a gathering of a special group with its own language — a group that has no problem bringing you along.

“What I love about sneakers is when you take out a new pair,” said Dallas Penn, a self-professed sneakerhead for 30 years and now organizer at the Atlanta event. “Whatever that shoe is made out of, you take out the paper or the cardboard in the shoe and you put that shoe up to your nose and smell inside — that’s an endorphin rush for me, to this day.”

SneakerCon’s co-founder Yu-Ming Wu recently opened Stadium Goods, a sneaker retail shop in New York City. SneakerCon touches down in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., in November.

Keith Nelson Jr.
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Keith Nelson Jr is a music/tech journalist making big pictures by connecting dots. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY he…
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