This past July, Sotheby’s sold 100 pairs of old sneakers at auction for $1.29 million, including 1972 Nike track cleats that more than doubled the previous record for a pair of athletic shoes. The buyer, a Canadian investor named Miles Nadal, said he planned to display the shoes in his private museum in Toronto. He told Sotheby’s, “I think sneaker culture and collecting is on the verge of a breakout moment.”

Virgil Abloh, the designer-artist-DJ and creative director of Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s collections, argues that sneakers are a new art form that speaks to his generation. Abloh was born in 1980 and started collecting as kid. He now estimates the size of his sneaker collection at 1,500 pairs, or maybe 2,000—he hasn’t kept count. “My philosophy as an artist is that there’s a line in the sand,” Abloh says. “This generation may value sneakers more than a Matisse because [the Matisse] is not attainable.”

Accordingly, sneakers played a starring role in “Figures of Speech,” an exhibition of Abloh’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this past summer. The show delved into broad aspects of Abloh’s work, from his interest in and inspiration from Caravaggio to the deconstructed Air Jordans he created for Nike. “I consider them a body of work,” he says of the shoes. “They have a visual language across them all. I hold sneakers as art—to hold on to and be close to.”

It’s recently, but widely, held that “sneakerheads” represent a promising new group of collectors—young, eager and, for the most part, as yet uninitiated as art clients. Abloh’s own sneaker designs for Off-White and Nike are consistently valuable collector pieces. His “Off-White x Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG” design sold for $190 at retail when it was produced in 2017, but recently sold for $3,035 at online sneaker reseller StockX. That’s a lot of money for a basketball shoe, but not for an art object. “Sneakers are an access point for a lot of young people to own and collect an item that isn’t prohibitively expensive,” says Jesse Einhorn, StockX’s data content director.

Now, as sneaker resales have moved into the auction houses, Caitlin Donovan, Christie’s head of sales of handbags and accessories, has added sneakers to her responsibilities and is actively seeking consigners. “It’s an educated customer base even though they’re young and new,” she says. And Sotheby’s has forged a partnership with the online sneaker reseller Stadium Goods to authenticate sneakers as an art historian might authenticate a Van Gogh (fakes are an industry headache). Noah Wunsch, Sotheby’s head of ecommerce and in-house head of sneakers, is seeking collectors who are looking to sell athletic shoes that are “the zenith of the category.”

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Virgil Abloh’s 2019 exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta.
Mike Jensen

That seems a far cry from the Dutch Old Masters and early American furniture Wunsch’s grandfather, Eric Martin Wunsch, collected, much of which has been loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But he doesn’t see it that way.

“You can’t look at that as down market. . . . Sneakers is a category now and it’s going to grow,” Wunsch said in September over a cup of coffee at a cafe in Paris. He had just attended the Thom Browne fashion show at Paris Fashion Week, where runways brimmed with collectible sneakers presented by designers and artists in collaboration with athletic companies.

As Wunsch spoke, an American couple at the next table leaned over to say they couldn’t help listening in. “I’ve got, like, 40 pairs of Jordans,” the man said, introducing himself as Marc Lifshin, a real estate investor from Chicago. “I’ve been obsessed with Jordans since I was eight.”

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A Sotheby’s exhibition showing Nike’s “Moon Shoe.”
Courtesy Sotheby’s

Sneakers as collectibles date back to 1985, when Nike issued the first Air Jordans with then young basketball star Michael Jordan. Nike kept a lid on production quantities and promoted the shoes heavily to basketball fans. Teenagers scraped together cash to pay more for shoes than their parents could ever have imagined. There were news stories about kids being mugged for their shoes.

“Some people found the arbitrage in that, sold sneakers, and made some money,” says Josh Luber, a sneaker collector and cofounder, in 2015, of StockX. “It was very local and very underground.”

“The Jordan 1, that was a childhood dream,” says Abloh, who grew up in Chicago when Michael Jordan played for the Bulls. “In that golden era of the ’90s when the sneaker brands made sneakers seem bigger than life. They were making these shoes seem like Superman! Like capes!”

Abloh saved up and bought his first pair of Air Jordans at Marshall’s. “The most tragic story of any sneaker collector is, ‘my mom threw them away,’” he says. Abloh’s mom threw his away.

Craig’s List, eBay, and the booming internet created the broad market that exists today. StockX surpassed $1 billion in resales last summer, Luber says. He estimates the global sneaker resale market—a measure of the trade value of sneaker collecting—at as much as $7 billion per year.

New sneaker issues, much like art exhibitions, are tracked religiously by digital publications such as HypeBeast—a virtual bible of new sneaker releases, which are generally referred to as “drops.” The limited quantities often sell out within seconds. This has boosted the robust secondary market where they may sell for many times their retail value. A pair of Nike Air Back to the Future editions sold for about $35,000, says StockX’s Einhorn (basketball fans may know Jesse Einhorn as a cofounder of the FreeDarko basketball-related blog).

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Nike’s MAG Back To the Future 2016 are estimated to sell $70,000.
Courtesy Sotheby’s

This has created the same tension between manufacturers and secondary sellers that exists between artists and auction houses. The original makers don’t profit from reselling. “Unfortunately, it’s inevitable,” says Andrés Paz Micheo, an Adidas spokesman. “The resale market is a natural evolution for sneakers, for cars, for watches, for jewelry.”

Sneaker collecting shares risks with lithographs, cars, and other objects whose value depends on their quantities and condition. Woe to the person who paid about $1,800 for a pair of Adidas’s Yeezy Zebra 350s in early 2017. The shoes were one of the first Yeezy 350s to be reissued by Adidas. When on June 2, 2017, Sneaker News confirmed that the shoes would be available new in stores the following month, the average resale price plummeted to $567, according to data provided by StockX, which tracks sneaker prices much the way the stock exchanges track equities. After a second Adidas reissue in November 2018, the price of the shoes on the secondary market dropped to a low of $280.

As with fine art, there are few rules but many opinions and approaches to collecting. Some collect piecemeal while others seek to build full verticals of a model, akin to assembling a vertical of Château d’Yquem. Some wear their sneakers, scuffs be damned, despite the fact that worn sneakers devalue on the secondary market much like cars. Others keep them pristine in their original wrappings and boxes.

There are many approaches to storage and display. Abloh keeps much of his collection in storage units, but says he keeps 30 pairs on a rack in his living room. When the San Antonio Spurs basketball forward Rudy Gay recently listed his six-bedroom home in Florida for sale, the listing noted the property’s room-size closet for his sneaker collection.

Matty Friedman, a merchandiser at Dover Street Market, keeps his collection in his parents’ garage and his old bedroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Friedman, who is 27 and lives in New York, says he grew up collecting sneakers from a Boston store called Concepts and spent a great deal of time and energy ferreting out rare shoes. “It’s the chase. It’s the special feeling you have something that others don’t,” Friedman says.

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VEJA x Rick Owens at Paris Fashion Week, September 2019.
Shenan Hanwellage

These days, fashion designers and artists are shifting their attention to the collector market as a source of new inventory. For artists, that looks a bit like doing in reverse the career of KAWS, who made limited-edition figurines before moving on to giant sculptures and gallery representation. Alex Israel has a side business making eyewear that references the Los Angeles freeways that also inspire his art—and he recently created a limited-edition group of Rimowa suitcases that riff on his California sunshine art. From Spain, Javier Calleja makes figurines that are small 3D representations of his paintings of cartoonish characters with orb-like eyes, printed with words or messages.

This past September, Paris fashion week was rife with sneaker collaborations that will be produced in limited quantities—an artificial scarcity that drives up prices and fertilizes the secondary market.

At a Friday evening cocktail party in the fifth arrondissement, Kerby Jean-Raymond, designer of the fast-rising fashion label Pyer Moss, noted that his “Sculpt 1” shoe—named in anticipation of future models—began as a 3D-printed sculpture in his office. “I wanted something that was really polarizing,” Jean-Raymond said of the shoe, which looks a little like
a spaceship.

The following evening on the rue des Poissonniers in the 18th arrondissement, as a DJ set up on a dance floor improvised on a loading dock, a crowd milled reverently around eleven black oil drums, each of which supported a single pair of sneakers designed by Rick Owens for Veja, a Portugal-based sneaker brand. The shoes’ soles were pocked with small indentations that mimicked the surface of the moon.

Earlier in the week, French footwear designer Pierre Hardy noted that designing sneakers has become 70 percent of his men’s business in just a few years. Brilliantly colored chunky sneaker soles dominated much of his men’s collection. “In the beginning, I wasn’t crazy about the designer sneakers. I wore New Balance, Stan Smiths,” Hardy said. Now he regrets that he failed to buy a pair of the Tom Sachs x Nike sneakers that are currently selling on several sites for more than $4,000.

“I should have worn the Tom Sachs ones,” Hardy said of the Nikes produced in collaboration with the artist. “I love his work.”

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of ARTnews under the title “For Kicks.”

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