Thursday, April 21, 2005

Sole of the Sneakerhead

We Want Your Retro, Hard-to-Find Shoe Styles, The Fanatics Said. So the Companies Ran With It.

By Stephen A. Crockett Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page C01

Ian Callender's parents are upstairs in their charming Mitchellville home; mother in her office, father in the kitchen. Callender is in the basement, which, for today, has been completely pimped out. Jill Scott's lovely falsetto plays in the background, the lights are dimmed to a soft glow. Barry White would be proud.

The wine-colored, crescent-shaped couch is crowded with eight sultry models, all in undergarments that, if woven together, could make a shirt for an 18-month-old. Nestled in the middle is Callender, who isn't smiling. For one, he can't because he's supposed to be giving off a Don Corleone-meets-Don Juan vibe, and two, it's hard to be smiley when your girlfriend is watching from a few feet away.

The model in the yellow two-piece thingy asks, "So how much are all of these worth?"

"The ones that y'all are holding are about $2,000," Callender says.

Now he smiles.

The models gasp. Callender has posed them holding part of his collection of rare Nike Dunk SBs -- cool sneakers, to you there in wingtips -- as a photographer friend clicks away. Eight pairs of shoes worth $2,000.

Callender is a regular guy, Drexel University grad, good job. But he has a habit. He has amassed a dazzling collection of hard-to-find sneakers, mostly limited-edition Nikes that, if they can be found, might cost $300 to $500 a pair, retail. If he sold them on eBay, he could rake in several thousand dollars, easy.

And he is not alone in his habit. Legions of collectors are standing, zombielike, in the wee hours outside shoe stores, waiting for them to open, mumbling words like "deadstock" and "F.O.T.B." These people, mostly young men, are called sneakerheads. Sneakerheads want one thing: the coolest, rarest sneaker on the market, whether it be Adidas, Bape or Reebok. And right now, that sneaker is the Nike Dunk SB.

In February, a mini riot broke out at a store on New York's Lower East Side as sneakerheads camped out in freezing temperatures for days to get the new SB release, the Pigeon Dunk, for $300 a pair. When the store opened, according to the New York Post, 70 people were in line. Twenty got the shoes, the other 50 got attitudes.

In the age of sneakers with pumps, straps, lights, air bubbles and silver briefcases (the 2002 XVII Air Jordans came in a metallic attache for $200), Nike Dunk SBs are the anti-New Age Nikes. They are what Nike used to be: simple leather sneakers. They are the last Nikes your dad bought when basketball shorts were shorts, not knickerbockers. They are not attached to or endorsed by super athletes, unless you consider Jude Law shelling out $600 for a vintage pair an athletic endorsement. This time around, designs include stars, tie-dye, camouflage, plaid, zebra stripes.

Callender, 23, has been a sneakerhead since 1999, when he bought Nike Air Jordans for $100 while he was in college "trying to find myself." He found himself deep inside his soles. Now he has 60 pairs, half of which are Dunk SBs. Callender loves them all equally. They are his babies.

But what is the attraction? What is it that has sneakerheads standing in lines for hours to get old-looking Nikes with funky zebra stripes?

"To be honest with you, I have no idea," says Callender, a systems engineer. "They're just different."

Non-collectors sometimes look at collectors as odd people, obsessives who hoard oddness. For the collector, they are unabashedly fascinated with the object of desire. They purchase and protect it, even if it means only being able to say they are among the few who possess it.

Sneaker collecting is the hip-hop generation's stamp book.

"I have no idea why people collect stamps, but I don't knock them for it," says Alex Wang of San Jose, creative director for Sole Collector, a bimonthly guide to sneakerhead culture founded in 2003. (Callender was featured in Issue 4, and he hopes that the pics taken in his parents' basement make their way into an upcoming issue. To arrange the shoot, he called a friend, who called a friend, and before he knew it his basement looked like the Playboy Mansion.)

Wang, aka Retrokid, 28, has 600 pairs of sneakers. He is also administrator for an online message board called NikeTalk. Message boards are how sneakerheads find out the most important aspect of their collecting: the drop date.

On a local sneaker release day, it goes like this: Callender gets up around 6 a.m. and treks out to Pitcrew, a skate store in Frederick, 55 miles from his parents' house. "Out there you don't have to stand in line; you can sit in your car," he says. "People know who is first and who is second."

When the store opens, the sneakerheads line up and buy the shoes.

"The only problem is if you want two pairs you have to wait until the line has gone through one complete time," Callender says.

Is Nike brilliant or what?

Here is how they did it:

The original Dunk debuted in 1985 to coincide with Nike's "Be True to Your School" promotion. The company picked eight NCAA Division I college teams -- Iowa, Michigan, Duke, University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Syracuse, Villanova, St. John's and Georgetown -- and made Dunks to match their uniforms. (The Georgetown Dunks had "Hoyas" written in block letters.) Over the next two decades Nike morphed sneakers into everything short of astronaut boots.

In 2001, the Nike brain trust created a skateboard division but decided that instead of coming up with a new skateboard shoe straight out of the gate, it would first re-release the classic Dunks, which had been popular with skateboarders in the '80s.

To get skate cred and underground love for the re-release, Nike got major skate companies including Supreme, Zoo York and London DJ Unkle to create patterns for the Dunk. This new breed was christened the Nike Dunk SB (as in skateboard), then offered only at skate shops and boutiques in limited quantities. The suggested retail price was $65, but specialty shops found they could sell them for up to $500.

Most stores get only 20 to 30 pairs, and that's what has fueled the sneakerhead rage.

Kevin Imamura, communications manager for Nike's skateboarding division, says he's not certain how many SB versions have been created, but the Web site shows about 65. "We release stuff all the time," Imamura says. "That's a part of the surprise."

"The Pigeon Dunk was only sold in New York," Wang says, "and if you live in L.A., you couldn't get them unless you knew someone that was going to stand outside for hours. If you wanted them, you had to pay markup."

In the big bowl of soup that is all things wanted and sought, there is eBay, which is where real sneaker freaks go to pay markup.

A pair of Pigeon Dunks sold there for $1,000. The shoes, named in tribute to the New York street pigeon, are cement gray with a white swoosh and a pigeon on the heel. Yellow-and-black Wu-Tang Dunks hover around $750. Pro Zoo York Dunks can fetch as much $1,200, and Paris Dunks can range from $700 to $1,700 a pair.

"It makes me mad," says Callender. "I mean the way that sneaker collecting should be done is like, you buy two pairs, one to wear and one to keep in the box. But because people know that they can sell them on eBay for crazy prices, most boutiques only let you get one pair."

"We have all been suckered into this craze in one way or another," says Christina Coleman, 25, Callender's girlfriend, standing in his kitchen. She was late for the photo shoot after going to the Adidas store in Georgetown to get the new Roc-a-fella shell toes for Ian. Arriving an hour before the store opened, she was 10th in line.

"Everybody there was talking about shoes in this sneaker lingo," Coleman says. "It was like living in a foreign country." (Deadstock, by the way, means a foot has never been inside the shoe. F.O.T.B. means fresh out of the box.)

Coleman puts the box on the table. Ian's mom, Desiree, leans over her shoulder.

"How much were those?" she asks.

"$159 with tax," Coleman answers.

"Oh, those are cheap," Mom says. "I used to get real angry with him because that is a lot of money to spend on shoes. . . . My focus has always been academics, and at first I thought it was just a hobby. Then he started calling from school, 'Mom, is there a package there for me?' Then I knew it was serious."

Says Dad, Lennox Callender: "Every time the UPS truck pulls up, I know that the neighbors wonder, 'What kind of business are they into?' "

But Callender's folks can't be that mad -- his shoe addiction has brought them some shine. During Ian's senior year, his parents played the role of restaurant customers in a sneaker skit for the Drexel fashion show. "We were at a table and the waiter comes over carrying a tray with sneakers on it," Lennox says.

The whole craze amazes him. "I am 50 years old and I have never seen anything like this," he says.

Last year his son went to Manhattan to get the N.E.R.D artist-series Dunks. The plan was simple: Go up, hang out for New Year's, do an early-eve drive-by at Niketown on Jan. 2 to scope out a good location up front, then creep back down later that night when most normal folks would be sleeping, secure the good spot, and, when the store opened Jan. 3, get the shoes and roll out.

"When we drove by that night, there were 50 people in line," Ian says. "So we just parked and got in line."

With a friend, he stood in line for 15 hours.

Callender's mom remembers that day. "His godparents got a call that he was standing in line in Manhattan, so they went down there and brought him some blankets and hot chocolate."

"We weren't prepared," he says. "When the store opened, people just rushed the line."

Callender got the Dunks in a size 12 for $120. He wears an 11.

He sold the 12s on eBay for $370, got a pair of 11s for the same price. This is how a sneakerhead survives.

"I swore after that, that I would never stand in line to get another pair of shoes," he says. "Then I did it for the Hunters and the Hufs.

"I think about how crazy it is sometimes. I think, man, I just sold a pair of shoes to buy another pair."

No, crazy is selling your sneaker collection to fix your parents' car after you wrecked it. Which is what Callender did a couple of years ago.

"My parents went away to Hawaii and they told me not to take the car," he says, voice trailing off. He took the car and crashed it, something about a puddle on a highway. Instead of letting insurance cover it, he sold his sneakers on eBay for $3,500 and fixed the car.

But "when they got back the car was still in the shop, so I had to break it to them," he says. "But it could have worked."

"I am still really mad about that," he says. As most kids would be after crashing their parents' car.

"I was heartbroken because a lot of them were Holy Grails," he says.

Holy Grails?

"That is the shoe you would do anything for."

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