Soles for Sale: How sneakerhead culture evolved into a thriving market

How a small community based around sneakers has driven the evolution of a thriving market


Sneakerhead: A Sneaker Enthusiast

I own over 30 pairs of sneakers. I fell in love with the athletic footwear at a young age, originally through my enthusiasm for basketball. Every year, my mom would take me to get a pair of shoes that would have to last me an entire year, making it one of the most anticipated and exciting days of the year for me. For months I would flip through the latest editions of SLAM at the grocery store and pay close attention to the footwear worn by NBA players I watched on TV, evaluating my options and eventually settling on a pair. I can still remember the East Coast Air Jordan 20s I owned in Grade 6 and the VC Shox 4s that I got the year after in Grade 7.

If this sounds crazy, it may be – but I’m not alone. There’s a massive culture that has developed around sneakers. While footwear has always been at the focal point of fashion and sneakers have been around for decades, there’s one moment, or one man, that many point to as the turning point for the industry – Michael Jordan. A mixture of forward-thinking design and genius marketing from Nike and the unmatched impact Jordan had both on and off the court saw a line of signature basketball shoes jumpstart an entire culture.

Ever since the iconic Jordan 1 Silhouette launched in 1985, sneakers have grown far beyond their original purpose. And although sneakers have become incredibly coveted items since then, the culture around them has seen an interesting shift over the past decade or so, going from a niche collectable to a mainstream phenomenon. Artists like Kanye West have now become just as well known for their footwear and fashion collaborations as they are for their music. Meanwhile companies like Nike and Adidas have been figuring out how to best cash in on the phenomenon.

With the sporting goods giants seeing their market expand, there has been a surge in a different market as well – the resell market. Sneaker culture was originally fostered in a small community of those who simply appreciated the footwear, it has grown into a behemoth movement with people from all walks of life wanting to get their hands on the latest “hype release”, forcing the demand for shoes to skyrocket. However, rather than meeting the demand, shoe companies have figured out how to keep the supply of certain styles and colorways — a certain color iteration of a sneaker style — low enough that the demand stays high, resulting in boosted resell prices and the growth and creation of thriving communities surrounding the culture.

The Community

“I didn’t seriously start collecting until [the] early 2000s,” explained Jaycy Jaminal, one of the founders of the Vancouver-based Facebook group Vancouver Sneakerheads Group (VSG). “My older brother and Dad were really into basketball in the 90s, so most of the time on TV, we’d be watching a game with Jordan in it. ‘It’s gotta be the shoes,’ was always what I heard, and I guess it just became a part of who I was,” he said.

Since the internet entered mainstream use, there have been online forums and discussion boards surrounding sneakers, but they were generally smaller, much like the culture before the emergence of the web. Forums like NikeTalk, which was started in 1999, saw sneaker enthusiasts coming together and discussing all things shoe, from the latest releases to where to get certain styles and anything else they thought important. And while sneakers were sold on the forums, it was more so enthusiasts helping fellow enthusiasts get hold of pairs they wanted, rather than individuals trying to make a profit.

In the same spirit, Jaminal and a few local friends started VSG a few years back. “We really just wanted a hub for all connoisseurs to come in and discuss. It was never really about how much a pair of shoes were worth,” he said. After a few months, the group had grown to 500 people. Fast-forward to today and the group now has nearly 35,000 members. And while many are in the group to participate in the same kind of discussions that were found on the forums of the past, the majority are there for a different reason – to resell and buy shoes.

The Market

Although there’s always been a resell market for sneakers, it has blown up over the past decade or so. A combination of advancements in online marketplaces and high-profile collaborations have lead to sneakers breaking out of the small community they were once in and into the masses.

Illustration by Cristian Fowlie

While many believe Jordan sparked the rise of sneaker culture, Kanye West is another one of the figures that popularized it. His original Nike collaborations and current Adidas ones have become the must-have shoe for many sneakerheads, often fetching hundreds or thousands of dollars a pair.

The key to the market is the basic principles of supply and demand. The more limited a shoe, the more coveted it is and the more people are willing to pay for it. An example of this is the quintessential sneaker that kicked it all off, the Air Jordan 1 in the black and red – or Bred – colorway. When the sneaker re-released in 2016 it retailed for around $200, but now sells for closer to $650. Although the price seems steep, it’s actually relatively low. West’s latest Adidas shoes retail for around $300 and fetch anywhere from $500 to $1,500, and some of his past Nike collaborations go for around $5,000. Some of the rarest sneakers available, like Eminem’s past collaborations with Jordan Brand on the Air Jordan 4 sell for more than $60,000 online.

Although the business of sneakers is booming worldwide, Vancouver’s scene in particular is thriving. It’s no secret that the city has a lot of residents with expendable incomes who are looking to spend it. Something that VSG member and long-time sneaker collector Gabriel Lee has noticed.

Lee has been passionate about shoes for a long time and has seen Vancouver’s sneaker scene evolve. “It’s changed because of the influx of expendable income which is now much higher, especially in the Lower Mainland, that’s what’s driven the market,” he said. “In the past you’d just buy something because you love it, but now it’s become more of a pre-requisite and more of a social status symbol.”

With such exorbitant prices, it was hard to tell if you were getting a ‘good’ deal or not in the past. Although those buying could try to follow prices in online groups, or rely on consignment stores to give them a fair price, there was no reliable index of what a shoe’s aftermarket values was. That was until the website StockX, which is essentially a stock market for shoes, launched in 2016. Since then, the site has acted as a reference for many when purchasing sneakers.

So, how does one go about acquiring the coveted footwear they crave? In the past, stores would simply allow customers to line up outside and sell the shoes on a first come first served basis. However, with the hype came longer lines. People would camp outside for days, occasionally weeks, and violence became a common occurrence as the demand for certain pairs grew. Most stores started to do raffles, or strictly sell these shoes online. And while this system has aimed to make purchasing more fair, it seems to have almost done the opposite.

The Backdoor

As I sat in my friend’s basement, surrounded by multiple pairs of Adidas Yeezys and Ultra Boosts and Nike and Supreme’s latest collaborative Air Force 1, he explained to me how he gets the shoes he resells.

Liam Chang*, a coding student in Vancouver, got into reselling shoes about two years ago. After looking for a new pair of running shoes, he came across Adidas’ Ultra Boost sneakers online and realized that there was a market for them. “I saw how limited they were and I saw that there’s resell money in it,” he explained. “It kind of made me feel that I could do this kind of culture, as in buy the limited stuff and sell it for more money.” He started trying to get as many pairs of valuable sneakers as he could, entering in raffles and waiting on websites when he knew certain pairs would be released.

As he got more involved in the sneaker community through Twitter and eventually private group chats, he made connections and learned how to bypass certain systems put in place to make releases fair. Using his tech background, he’s been able to essentially hack into the websites of local stores like Livestock and even the sites of Nike and Adidas, securing himself pairs of sought after shoes that he then flips on Facebook groups like VSG.

Chang has what are referred to as “monitors” on certain sites. A monitor tracks the back end of a website, essentially its code, so he gets notifications when a website adds a new item. Additionally, he has set his system up so that when a site adds a new item he receives a link which when he opens it, automatically adds the item to his cart, allowing him to checkout faster than anyone trying to buy the item the designed way.

Furthermore, he and his friends utilize a technique called “cookie injecting”. Websites use cookies, we all know this, but if you’re like me you don’t really know what they are. Chang explained that each cookie holds a piece of information. So, himself or one of his friends will identify the cookie that represents a certain pair of shoes being added to their cart and share it with their group. “You can find that cookie that is the cart of that shoe and I can copy that cookie and inject it into the console of my Google Chrome,” he explained. “Then I’ll have that shoe in my cart and I can check out.”

Of course, retailers are aware of this and are constantly battling these techniques. Recently Chang was attempting to get into Livestock’s system, and although he checked out with the pair he wanted, the store identified what he had done and cancelled his order. That being said, Chang believes that while companies are trying to combat the issue, they’ll never win. “Nike splits their stock into two backends, so they’re trying to change,” he said. “But what they don’t understand is that people will adapt to their code.”

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Illustration by Cristian Fowlie

The Storefront

Of course, not everyone is as tech savvy as Chang. If they don’t win a raffle or secure a pair of shoes they want online, they have to turn to the resell market. Many people use online buy and sell groups like VSG to hunt down pairs they want, but for another group of purchasers, this method is too uncertain or time consuming. An alternative to hunting a pair down online is a sneaker consignment store. Flight Club evolved from an online marketplace and opened two stores in 2005, one in Los Angeles and one in New York. Since then, it has become the most prominent sneaker consignment store. However, with the rise in sneaker popularity, more stores opened, and now Vancouver has many of its own.

The most recent is Gastown’s Plus. Founded by Andy Zhu, Plus consigns sneakers from anyone who has a pair that they want sold, in addition to sought after clothing and accessories. Zhu, who grew up in Ontario and got into sneakers when he saw other kids in his high school wearing Jordans and fashionable wardrobes is not new to the resell game. He originally funded his sneaker habits through a clothing line he started called Tamed Toronto and opened a consignment store with friends. He then decided to open a store in Vancouver after doing some research and realizing that Vancouver was a hot spot for luxury spending. “Nordstrom in Vancouver does the most sales out of all Nordstroms in North America,” he said, while we chatted in the store that replaced Livestock’s old Abbott Street location. “The supercar market here is crazy, there’s more supercars here than any other city in North America – that’s crazy. There’s more than New York which has 10 million people, this [Vancouver] is 1.2 million.”

In terms of pricing, Zhu also refers to StockX when selling items. “I try to just base it off StockX, which is the lowest marketplace prices probably,” he said. “I gauge it in between StockX price and StockX plus customs, so it will be cheaper than if you were ordering it from StockX, but it’s not as cheap as StockX if you live in the states,” he continued.

Although Zhu attempts to offer fair prices, he says that some customers are still loyal to Flight Club, even though they’re known to overcharge. “One of my customers, his dad bought the Jordan 1 Off-White from Flight Club, he still buys from Flight Club because he trusts them,” he said. “He spent like $4,000 Canadian after customs. I would have sold him that exact same shoe for $2,800.”

After opening in November, Zhu is now developing a steady stream of regular customers. He told me about one man who buys any Bape products in a XXL size. “He doesn’t care about the price, he just swipes,” he said. Zhu is even looking at potentially opening another store in Calgary at some point in the future.

What’s Next?

The sneaker market is only expanding and doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. Although, the culture is changing. Many of those who have been collecting for years are starting to distance themselves from the culture’s current state. “I feel as though the passion for history was a big reason as to why people were sneakerheads. Nowadays, it really has either become a fashion statement, and even more so, I feel like opinions are really lost,” Jaminal said. Lee shares a similar sentiment. “I definitely enjoy the storytelling around the shoes, especially with Jordan Brand and how each one of the Jordans that are retroed has a story,” he said. It seems though that much of today’s market is driven by hype and exclusivity. “Everyone wants the community to be equal so everyone can get the same shoe, but then it gets rid of how limited the shoe is so it’s not exclusive,” Chang explained.

The question now is what does the future hold for the market? Will sneakers be the modern equivalent of tulip bulbs in the Dutch Golden age or will they see a long term market much like that of artwork or other collectable items? With the hypebeast culture that has pushed the market into the mainstream still being relatively young itself, only time will tell. For many collectors like Lee though, it’s not about a future investment, it’s about collecting things that have meaning to you. “I always come from the perspective of, in this world, you should be both spending money on and accumulating experiences that have meaning to you,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to be self-aware,” he added. “How many sneakers is enough sneakers?”

Join the Vancouver Sneakerheads Group (VSG) community on Facebook to continue the discussion and stay up to date with Plus consignment store in Gastown on Instagram.

*Name has been changed

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