One of my friends recently confided in me that he has a problem. Though he was a perfectly normal college student when I had spoken to him a few months ago, he confessed that in the interval he had spiraled into addiction. My friend is addicted to limited edition Nike Super Dunks.
“It’s a terrible, terrible disease,” he lamented. He described the symptoms: long hours spent poring over Internet forums, an empty bank account, days devoted to searching for elusive, elite sneaker boutiques whose locations are known only to true connoisseurs. I told him to get help. I told him that collecting anything with such fervor is the stuff of mid-life crises. But he insisted that he is not alone, that there exists an entire subculture of shoe fiends whose zeal far exceeds his own.
I laughed at first. Surely no self-respecting college student would devote his life to the pursuit of obscure footwear.
It was then that I first saw them. The Dunks. They were absurd, a swirl of yellow and green, loud and aggressive and fantastically stylish and certainly way, way too expensive. I could never imagine owning anything like them and when I looked down at my own sensible footwear I couldn’t help but feel that my friend was from another planet. These shoes, I soon learned, are the Nike Dunk Highs in Brazil colors, a retro style that has recently been re-released. I looked back at my friend, stunned. What happened to him? When did sneakers rise above all other accessories to achieve such a deified status? Just what is it about sneakers that could have driven him to such excess?
I begin my search for the answers to these questions with the Alife Rivington Club. Or rather, I begin my search by searching for the Alife Rivington Club. My friend has given me an address, but the exclusive Manhattan sneaker Mecca is shrouded in mystery. I make several trips up and down Rivington Street before locating the boutique. Its unmarked storefront is camouflaged with graffiti to blend in with the surrounding tattoo parlors and delis.
The only noteworthy feature of the store’s blank granite facade is a large security camera trained directly at my head. I eye it nervously as I ring a buzzer next to the door. Before long, a man in an orange sweater appears and silently holds the door open for me.
I find myself in a small, red-carpeted room whose walls are lined with softly-lit cases of shoes. Aside from me and the man who opened the door, the room’s only other occupant is a blase employee standing at a podium, talking softly on a cordless phone. Next to him, on the counter, is another phone, old-fashioned and bright red. It looks exactly like the direct-line-to-Moscow phones you see in the Oval Office in shoddy B-movies.
I make a slow circle of the room until a flash of light catches my eye and I stop. I lean in close to a glass case and look around. Sitting in the center of the case, draped around the neck of a display form, glimmering and gold, was a tiny pendant in the shape of a sneaker. I pull my head away, slowly, not wanting to excite the employee, who, judging from the absurdity of his wares, must surely be insane.
A twenty-something man slinks in, fastidiously groomed and decked in hipster finery, trying to look unhurried. He’s unconvincing, and he nearly salivates as he asks the employee if anything new has come in. The employee eyes him wearily; he must get people like this all the time. He looks at the hipster — who appears surprisingly at home among the rows of silver Nikes and faux-snakeskin Pumas that line the wall — and shakes his head.
“All right, I’ll hit you up next week,” the disappointed customer says, heading out the door.
As the day wears on, two other employees enter the room, along with a visitor who says he is an ex-employee and a friend. I ask them if many of the store’s customers come in on a weekly basis. Kunle Martins, the manager, says some come as often as every couple of days.
“People are really scared a shoe’s going to come out without them knowing about it,” says Tim Badalucco, the ex-employee. I laugh. He doesn’t.
Martins says when the store first opened in 2001, sneaker fanaticism was an underground phenomenon. But in recent years it has become a part of popular culture in a big way, spanning all demographic groups.
“Right now, it’s spinning out into the mainstream,” he tells me.
Soon I’m on my way out, but not before asking to see the most expensive pair of sneakers in the store. Martins brings the Swarovski crystal-covered Adidas from the back.
The cost: $800.
I walk away quickly.
The next stop on my exploration of the sneaker underworld is Nom de Guerre, a Lower West Side boutique which is even more difficult to locate than Alife. Nom de Guerre is located at the bottom of a dark flight of stairs under a sign that reads “Print Mor Copy Shop,” completely inaccessible to anyone lacking insider tips. Even if I had made it down the stairs, I probably wouldn’t have followed the narrow cement corridor — lined with bare pipes and lit by red light bulbs — all the way to the tiny box of a room at the end. As I walk in, I am rewarded for my perseverance with shelf after shelf of sneakers and, inexplicably, posters of naked women.
I ask the sales clerk, Mitsu Lowe, why a store that presumably must turn a profit like any other business makes itself so difficult to find. He scoffs.
“I don’t want to see regular customers in here,” he says with disdain. As he goes on to list some of Nom de Guerre’s more prominent customers (Busta Rhymes and Nas, for example), I begin to understand why this place doesn’t need to advertise.
At Nom de Guerre I talk with some of my first true addicts. I meet Beau Wollens, 15, who works at the store and says that at any given time he owns about 100 pairs of sneakers. Sneakers are an investment for him, commodities to be bought and sold for profit.
“If you actually take the time to get into it, it can be like a job,” Wollens tells me. “You can make a lot of money.”
Next I talk to Brando Rispo, 13, who has come to Nom de Guerre with a gaggle of friends in search of a pair of $350 Nike Dunk Low Splatters. Rispo, who is sporting not one, but two popped collars and a salon-mussed coiffure, says he owns 13 pairs of sneakers “that I wear.”
Rispo says he has been collecting for about two years. Assuming that each pair of sneakers costs around $350, one can estimate conservatively that Rispo’s yearly financial investment in sneakers is roughly on par with the GDP per capita of many developing countries. But Rispo’s monetary outlay may be outstripped by his fierce emotional commitment.
“I made a kid cry yesterday,” he drawls nonchalantly. Rispo and one of his friends saw a new pair of sneakers at roughly the same time, leading, naturally, to a heated dispute over who would be allowed to actually purchase the coveted footwear. Rispo won, and the loser wept in agony. The friends haven’t spoken since. One of Rispo’s female friends shakes her head. “These boys kill each other if one of them gets the shoe first,” she says, rolling her eyes. “The friendship is seriously over.”
I sit down with my friend Sam Cutler, the sneaker devotee who was the impetus for my investigation, to break down the cycle of abuse. Cutler, a Fordham University sophomore with only four pairs of sneakers to his name, is still a neophyte, but he provides me with a window into the beginning stages of the disease.
For Cutler, the roots of his addiction lie in childhood deprivation.
“I remember when Reebok Pumps first came out,” he says wistfully. “I wanted them so badly and my mom absolutely wouldn’t let me have them.”
I had a pair of Pumps. They were purple and white. I guess that explains why I don’t spend my days combing the racks for the latest A Bathing Ape sneakers imported from Japan. Cutler, on the other hand, revels in the hunt for obscure designs.
“It’s kind of exhilarating,” he admits. He recounts his first visit to Alife with pleasure.
“Right when I walked in they were playing ‘Genius of Love’ by Tom Tom Club,” he says. A vision appears to me briefly of a gleeful boy bathed in the warm glow of display cases as strains of “I’m in heaven … there’s no beginning and there is no end” float through the air.
That day, Cutler walked home with a pair of Nike Dunk High Brazil sneakers and a new obsession. Day after day thoughts of shoes consumed him. Even when he wasn’t in the stores gazing adoringly at the coveted footwear, he was feeding his addiction on Internet forums like Niketalk.com, which, he says, are “updated minutely by hordes of sneaker fetishists” eager to find reviews and release dates.
I try to hide my laughter under a polite cough.
“Don’t judge me,” he pleads. “Everyone has their vices.”
It’s Wednesday night and Nom de Guerre is filled with smoke and the painfully hip. All of young, artsy New York is there to celebrate the release of a 944-page encyclopedia detailing the use of camouflage by the fashion industry throughout the ages, released by the publishing arm of the clothing brand Maharishi. More importantly, though, Maharishi is also releasing a special edition of the classic Nike Terminators.
I walk in just as Boy George (yes, that Boy George) is leaving. There’s standing room only in the red lightbulb-lined corridors. Scenesters in plaid commando hats, many of whom are drinking bottles of Red Stripe beer, gyrate to hip-hop blaring from two massive speakers. But I’m looking for a member of this bizarre world’s elite, and I know just how to find him. I look down.
One gentleman is already wearing a pair of the Terminators, and I realize I’ve found my mark. He is Hardy Blechman, the founder of Maharishi.
He tells me that the sneakers are currently just as big in his native London as they are here in the States. In fact, he says, sneakers are big all over the world. He attributes the trend to the fashion industry’s increased interaction with sneaker companies in the past five years.
“Before then, only sports stars were allowed to have their names on sneakers,” Blechman confides in crisp tones of the Queen’s English. “Then a couple of companies started doing collaborations with guest artists who would take a standard style and design a new surface pattern. Before long, Nike began a guest artist program.”
Bringing in guest artists from the fashion industry, Blechman tells me, both appeals to the fan base of the artist and attracts media attention, widening the market of sneaker-buyers to include new demographic groups.
As other party-goers wander by and overhear bits of our conversation, they eagerly step up to give me their own opinions.
For Damian Bulluck, a self-proclaimed “sneakerhead” and marketing director for the music magazine The Fader, the apotheosis of sneakers is nothing new or remarkable. The sneaker has always been about something far greater than shoes. He looks down on the collectors, for whom sneakers are just “trophies.” He holds that people who buy sneakers and keep them in boxes don’t understand the fundamental nature of sneakers as the keystone of the male sartorial image.
“I could wear the same pair of jeans for six months, but I always had to have new sneakers,” Bulluck says. “That’s how our generation came up. Sneakers were what you looked at first.”
Bulluck has been collecting sneakers for decades. By now he has built up a network of shoe stores around the country that call him the moment a new design is released. In general, he says, he is pleased that new groups like women have joined the sneaker community. But he still has to wince at the gaffes of novices every now and then.
“Some people never know how to rock their kicks with the right polo,” he laments.
Shawn Mortensen, a photographer who has shot for Vibe and Vogue, also attributes sneaker fandom to the shoes’ status as cultural icons. He is personally rocking a pair of duck shoes (fortified rubber and leather footwear that I never thought I’d see outside of a deer stand, much less in the trendier areas of Manhattan), but he sounds convincing as he tells me about sneakers’ history as a symbol of the hip-hop nation. Basketball and break-dancing, both pillars of hip-hop, rely on footwork and have lent the shoe a position of the utmost importance, he says.
“The shoes make the man,” he asserts with assurance. “They set an attitude.”
And what does he want his shoes to say about him?
His answer is instantaneous. “That I have discerning tastes.”
Several people talk extensively about the simple aesthetic joy of a sneaker. Markus “Wysism” Mazza, an art director, goes on for some length about the importance of color and the necessity of a tongue that’s “fat and thick.” He visibly savors each attribute as he describes it, the way a chef would talk about the ingredients of the perfect creme brulee. My friend Sam also talked about the physical appearance of sneakers extensively, expatiating on bright colors and “clean, elegant lines.”
The more they talk, the more I look at sneakers differently. My years on the cross-country team had taught me only the importance of arch support and cushioning. But now I’m looking at those Terminators tantalizingly displayed in nearby glass cases as if they were classic cars, chrome and fins sparkling.
And then there’s the nostalgia. Everyone I talk to can remember with precise detail the first pair of sneakers they ever purchased. For Bulluck, it was a pair of Adidas Foams he bought in seventh grade, a size too big so they would last the whole year. Mazza told me about a pair of Bobos his grandmother bought him that he painted three stripes on so they would look like Adidas. Even Wollens, supposedly in the “sneaker game” purely for the profit motive, holds a special place in his heart for an old pair of Shawn Kemp Reeboks he found in an attic. A smile played across his face as he told me about the first time he walked down the street wearing those sneakers, when complete strangers approached him to praise his shoes. I find myself nodding as he tells his story, lost in my own recollections of the satisfaction I derived from the admiration of my playground peers as they cooed over my new Nikes, blinding white and fresh out of the box.
I am on my way out the door when I run into actor, screenwriter, columnist and hip-hop legend Bonz Malone. He offers me the simplest explanation I have heard yet.
“The women look at the footwear first,” he declares loudly, I suspect not only for my benefit, but for everyone within a twenty-foot radius.
I wait for more. He is silent.
“So you’re saying the entire history of sneaker culture is about women?” I ask incredulously. He laughs at my naivete.
“Everything is for the women.”
I’m tempted to argue with him, being a woman myself, and one who has never until this night noticed a pair of sneakers on a male, but then he goes on to brag about how he has enough sneakers for “every time I got arrested times two.” I decide to keep my mouth shut.
But then he says something that, after all of my research and exploration, I can agree with. Dropping the bluster and posturing, he levels with me when I ask him what he thinks of the sneaker movement.
“It’s not a movement. It’s a lifestyle.” n
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