Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sole searching: The global quest for limited edition sneaks, duds

By Kathryn Wexler
McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI - Jason Odio is a 21-year-old party promoter for the Opium Group whose workday doesn't end until sunrise.

Isaiah Orlen is 27 and recently got law and business degrees from the University of Miami.

Their interests intersect - in their closets. Both love limited edition sneakers and clothing; things others don't have and might not be able to get.

"Just the rush of grabbing that box, of knowing I got that sneaker is exciting," said Orlen, a Coconut Grove, Fla., resident and collector for a decade. "There's an addiction."

Graffiti artists, graphic designers and even mainstream companies such as Nike and Adidas have figured out that releasing designs in shockingly small numbers can whip up an international buying frenzy, tons of talk - and plenty of collateral cool.

Sold exclusively through select boutiques that compete for accounts, the garb is promoted through Internet sites, blogs or word of mouth, endowing the phenomenon with an edgy, secret-society feel.

Nike's official Web site, for instance, makes no reference to its line of sneakers hardest to come by, called "Tier Zero." Danny Waserstein, whose family-run Shoe Gallery in Miami sells limited edition items, estimates there are about nine stores worldwide that get Tier Zero.

"These big companies don't advertise," said Waserstein, 31. "It's `publicized' through the street - underground."

Plenty of luxe brands like Herms and Louis Vuitton make a limited number of super-high-end handbags. Nabbing one is a matter of money or stardom.

Landing limited edition hoodies, T-shirts or sneakers requires knowledge, patience and hustle. The items are targeted mostly to young men, ages 15 to 35, and prices aren't much higher than mass-market merchandise - usually between $100 and $200 for sneakers. A hot secondary market now exists on, where the garb can command three times its original price.

Some peg the movement to the late 1980s, when New York City scenesters started rejecting regular clothing as muffling self-expression. The indie strain persists. Graphics tend to be irreverent, ironic or cynical.

Odio owns a shirt by 10 Deep that has the character from the old Purple Punch ads but says, "Purple Punch with codeine." Another shirt 10 Deep released this summer has a skull with dollar signs in its eyes and the caption, "The Summer of No Love."

Collecting has become a phenomenon without borders. Web sites cite shops in Tokyo and Barcelona as often as those in New York City. It is not the purview of a single culture, geographic area or ethnicity.

"We get Latin kids, we get African-American kids, we get Japanese kids," Waserstein said.

Nor is there any one type of music associated with the phenomenon, like uber-baggy jeans and Tommy Hilfiger clothing were with rap music.

What the enthusiasts share, really, is their enthusiasm. That, and the conviction that they're renegades of a sort.

Said Dao-Yi Chow, co-owner and buyer for Addict, an upscale shop in Miami Beach, Fla., that is very picky about its limited edition stock, "People are really particular of their individuality and not wearing what everybody else has."

Even when you know where to go, you can't always nail what you want.

When Nike issued a release date of Jan. 28, 2006, for its Air Jordan Defining Moments Package (a set of two pairs of sneakers for $300), Shoe Gallery received exactly 24 sets. Each customer was allowed only one.

"We had guys sleep out (over) two days," Waserstein said.

Collectors say they know the limits on production are entirely artificial. It's not as though the items are handmade or fabricated with hard-to-get material. In some cases, clothing is more a question of limited distribution than limited manufacturing.

Still, it's that very restriction that brings status. Some have an awesome reverence for the goods: "I've been scared to wear a couple of things," said Odio. "For instance, I got Reebok Miami Vice (limited) edition shoes, and I'm afraid of them being scuffed."

These days, the most influential shops collaborate with clothing and even sneaker companies for exclusive designs and releases. Chow, for instance, who in the late 1990s helped open Footwork, a notable but now defunct boutique in Manhattan's East Village, has commissioned fashion caps by the Buffalo-based designer New Era. Only four dozen will be made, and they will sell only at Arrive, for $65.

Orlen sees a common sensibility among limited edition collectors: "They're a little fed up with corporate America."

But how anti-corporate is patronizing a billion-dollar corporation like Nike?

"It almost doesn't mean anything now when you say limited edition," Chow said, "because big companies are doing something for cachet of the brands."

Orlen notes the irony. Still, he just loves securing hot releases, like his Nike Air with ostrich stripes or those in crazy patent leather - and the attention they bring from others who recognize them.

"Did Nike choose to produce them in limited pairs? Yes. Is that good? Yes. Because I don't want people walking around with a style that I'm wearing."

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