People like sneakers for obvious reasons. They are comfortable. They work with jeans. And they make you look athletic--even if you aren't. But one reason that originally made sneakers popular was that they were cheap.
Not any more.
That's because it's been discovered that the right sneaker can make you look something else: rich. Luxury sneakers--plush designer shoes handmade from Italian leather, or elusive collector's items produced in limited quantities from Nike--constitute a growing percentage of the sneaker sales market. Spending on athletic shoes that cost $100 or more shot up to $674.5 million in 2005--a 37% increase over last year's top-tier sneaker spending, according to the NPD, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based retail and consumer information company. In all, American men spent $8.7 billion dollars on athletic footwear between October 2004 and October 2005.
So what's behind the growing demand for fashionable men's sneakers--shoes once reserved for shooting hoops, running 10Ks and simply schlepping around? "Men are savvy. They want to look just as good as women do, but they don't want to look like they care," says Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop, a chain of trendy boutiques based in New York City. Greenfield stocks her stores with men's sneakers made by everyone from Hush Puppies to John Varvatos, because she knows that low-key but expensive footwear can help achieve that stylish-without-trying effect.
"The same guy who's started mixing designers is now mixing his foot accessories with cool-looking brands, like Hogan or Prada," Greenfield continues. "We're seeing a vintage, retro, street feel in sneakers now: They definitely don't look like they just rolled out of the gym." Greenfield says men's sneakers at Scoop sell for between $195 and $295.
And it isn't just American men who are susceptible to paying three figures and up for shoes you can't even wear to work. (International spending statistics are not available.) Erik Börjesson, co-founder of SneakersnStuff, a Stockholm-based sneaker and lifestyle boutique, says his 2004 sales were in the several million dollar range--not bad for a seven-year-old specialty store in a country with a population of only nine million.
Börjesson says his customers fall into one of two categories. There's the more general consumer, looking for a comfortable shoe. And then there's the "sneakerhead."
"That's a guy who's really into sneakers," Börjesson explains. "He's looking for the newest, most limited-edition stuff he can find. Sneakerheads make for good publicity--they know what they're looking for, and when they come here and they find it, it gets the store good word of mouth." The most expensive sneakers currently in stock at Börjesson's store are the adidas Micropacers. Only 500 pairs were produced, and they are selling for $600.
Sneakerheads aren't just a Swedish phenomenon; they exist in America too, and stores like the New York City-based men's boutique Nom de Guerre keep this rare breed of sneaker-hunter smiling. The priciest sneaker on Forbes.com's list of the Most Expensive Men's Sneakers is, in fact, on display at Nom de Guerre: It's a rare Nike shoe that was never released for sale but was produced by the company for friends and family at a book release party. Since fewer than 40 pairs of these sneakers were made--and they weren't ever intended for commercial resale--the pair is expected to fetch between $1,000 and $1,500, according to Wil Whitney, a partner in the store.
To compile our list of the Most Expensive Men's Sneakers, we contacted fashion designers, sportswear companies, exclusive boutiques and sneaker fanatics to find the priciest pairs currently for sale. Most of the styles we ended up with are better suited for looking sporty than acting sporty. However, Bottega Veneta makes a great pair of Pony Cricket sneakers, retail price $590, but it would be a shame to actually use them for anything athletic. We hear taupe doesn't do so well with mud.
Of course, a comprehensive listing of the most expensive sneakers ever sold would have to take into account all-but-extinct Nike and Reebok makes, obscure eBay postings, auction records, one-off designer samples and historic pairs, like the sneakers Wilt Chamberlain wore when he set the NBA's single-game scoring record and which Sotheby's sold in 2000 for $55,000. Some, no doubt, would be rare enough to merit the most expensive sale tag of all: priceless. But this informal survey of some of the priciest sneaks currently on the market should give you a good idea of just what a little running shoe can do these days: run you right into debt.
See our list of the Most Expensive Men's Sneakers.