We talked to five collectors and experts about being Sneakerheads and the fascinating universe of sneaker culture.
No one in high fashion paid attention to sneakers in the ’80s, but, with prices for prize examples going stratospheric, look at them now. We record an oral history of the humble accessory that’s now a blue-chip commodity.
JEFF CHEUNG, CO-FOUNDER OF SOLEADDICT
I’ve been buying and collecting shoes all my adult life and I can’t tell you how many pairs I have. When we hosted the panel at K11 to talk about shoes, I learned much from the audience questions. When people said they had many boxes of shoes in mint condition that they’d never opened, let alone worn, I totally understood that kind of obsession. It’s so much more than a hobby — we devote so much of our life to it.
Where do I see sneaker culture going? Only up. It’s not like watches or other commodities, where the market is volatile and changes depend on the economy — local and global. Even during the pandemic, sneaker culture was on the rise. I’ve been collecting for a long time and over the years, I just see them going higher and higher and higher. I don’t see anything going down. Even in China, young people are buying Nikes and Yeezys, not just designer shoes. Personally, I only buy Nikes.
You have to understand that sneakers aren’t just a one-model or single-style kind of culture, something that might be hot for a year or two, like the Yeezy, and then go down. Air Jordans we thought would be hot forever, but even they went down in popularity for a while. Sometimes, really nice stuff doesn’t sell, or too many of a particular shoe got made, so people didn’t want it. You can’t put shoes in any particular economic model as they’re such an emotional investment. Whenever I am selling something really important in my collection and I know it’s leaving Hong Kong, I’m wary about it. I feel some shoes should belong in Hong Kong and I want them back, and I don’t want them to leave the city — that’s the kind of love I have for them. Does that make sense to anyone else? No. But shoe addicts will understand this passion.
Over the years, I think I’ve spent HK$3 million on collecting shoes and I’ll probably spend more — and with no regrets. It’s really important for a shoe to have a good story, more than ease or comfort or even style. Whether it’s Nike Jordans or Adidas, it has its own mini universe. The brands’ popularity and profits may fluctuate, but the culture keeps going up.
There’s a massive trading market of shoes online, especially on Japanese sites, but they’re complicated to navigate. If you can’t speak Japanese or you don’t have a Japanese address, you need to have a third party to buy from sites such as Yahoo Japan. But Japan in general — whether brick-and-mortar stores or online — is definitely a paradise for sneakerheads.
A lot of people follow my shoe Instagram account (@soleaddicttunds) — fashion designers, fans from Finland or Malaysia, American actors — but I honestly have no idea who they are until friends point them out to me.
What’s been incredible about my account is that I can see how genuine sneakerheads are now influencing the fashion industry. They have a say in it: genuine fans are changing the products and the marketplace. Virgil Abloh was a sneakerhead, and now he’s the creative head of a brand. When the fans become industry leaders there’s a shift — a real change occurs.
“SALTY EGG,” MULTI-MEDIA ARTIST
I have no idea how many pairs of shoes I have — I stopped counting years ago. I was in school when I first started buying shoes. I just wanted to look cool and stand out in the crowd. I’d wear the shoes to basketball courts, play in them, damage them — I didn’t care back then until I became a serious collector in 2000.
NowI have shoes that I don’t touch, perfectly preserved in boxes. I buy in multiples; one to wear, one for spare; one to invest, one to trade. I once won a pair of Nike What The Dunk sneakers in a raffle – a special edition, so special I saved it for my graduation, and then wedding. Truth is, they’ve never really left the box! Even the wedding wasn’t special enough.
Back in 1997, I paid $3,500 for a pair of Reeboks with the number written in Chinese on the side — it was so cool to have that rare shoe. Everyone was wearing white canvases in high school, but I’d change into my Jordans when I played basketball, and everyone would look at my feet.
I learned about sneakers from Japanese magazines — the origins of great, rare shoes can be traced back to Japan. I think the Japanese influence on the Hong Kong market is huge — it was the animation, the art that was embossed on the shoe. You’d see people lining up for three days to get them, and there was no pushing and shoving, it was all very respectful, systematic, they lined up and didn’t fight. We’re all super friendly, as it’s this bond we all share.
The most expensive pair was sold recently at an auction for, I think, around HK$5 million — the 1972 Nike “Moon Shoe”. You can find crazy numbers like that for signed Michael Jordan Converses even today. You’re owning a piece of history, a piece of art — it’s not just a shoe.
LANCE CHIU, TALON ESPORTS CREATIVE DIRECTOR
I grew up in an Asian American family in California that didn’t have much money. I went to a store called Mervyn’s where I saw the Air Jordan 3 and my mom said, “No! I’m not paying US$120 for sneakers!” That, I think, subconsciously ingrained in my head a love for sneakers.
In California, everyone was always trying to one-up each other’s sneakers. This probably shows my age, but I was wearing Kangaroos, but they were pay-less specials, so I’d always dream about Air Jordans. It wasn’t until I got to eighth grade that mom finally said, “OK, maybe we can buy you something decent,” so I got the sneakers that looked good, though they weren’t the crazy expensive Jordans.
Hip-hop, sports, MTV, street fashion – it wasn’t one particular thing when I came up. I was on the West Coast, where a lot of hip-hop culture influenced shoe culture. Basketball didn’t really kick in until high school for me, because that was during the Michael Jordan era. And when the Michael Jordan phenomenon took off, that’s when everyone was buying his signature shoes. It all came together and, yeah, it was one holistic thing. In a weird way, sneaker culture was like the cool-kid thing that everyone did — especially anyone who was a rebel.
I’ve been creative my whole life, so naturally I gravitated towards aesthetics and building on it. Being a designer. I also buy shoes that I’d never wear. I put them away and store them to admire, like they’re art forms. I appreciate the form factor, and then when it’s something I wear, I look into the comfort in addition to the aesthetics. I literally have one set on top of my shelves that are all shoes I’ll never touch — they’re plastic-wrapped. There are sneakers that are laying landmarks for specific moments, like the Olivia Kim (vice president of creative projects at Nordstrom) collab of the Nike Footscape I’m wearing because of my daughter, because it links me to her. It’s a women’s shoe, so I was lucky to get mine in a size 14.5 to match hers. And I remember the Air Jordan 11, because it reminds me of high school back in ’97, playing ball. Different moments in my life are marked by the shoe I had and, in some cases, still have.
Collectors are bifurcated into two genres. You have people who just get it because they like it, and you have people who buy because they want to invest. At the end of the day, most buy because they like it. Picking up stuff to resell is its own bubble. Then there are others who keep them in pristine condition in humidity-controlled rooms – all that fanatic stuff. Many never crease them, but I like to wear them.
A couple years ago they brought out a special edition for the Michael J Fox Foundation — the craziest prices I’ve seen were for the Nike Air Mags, the Back to the Future sneakers, which sold for a quarter of a million.
Essentially the generation of OG fans of sneakers has become the people who are now the creatives as well as the sneakerheads — look at Yoon Ahn from Ambush, Kim Jones and Virgil Abloh, the creative heads of big fashion brands. All those guys were genuinely in the street culture and collecting back when they were younger, and now they can dictate trends. When creating a collection, you want to hark back to something that’s close to your heart. The rebels are now the visionaries — they’re the leaders, the ones who’ve become
BRIAN SISWOJO, ACTOR, MEMBER OF HIP-HOP GROUP 24HERBS AND OWNER OF SKATEBOARD SHOP 8FIVE2
I got into skateboarding in the late-’80s and now it’s a huge part of my life — the music, the fashion, the culture and the shoes are all connected to that. I researched everything through skateboarding magazines, videos and then really got into the shoes.
The Air Jordan 1 was made famous through the skateboarding crew, because when it first came out it wasn’t all that popular — hard to believe today, because of how difficult it is to get a hold of a pair. Skaters would buy the cheaper shoes, as skateboarding always messed them up. Every time you hit the board you’ll scuff them, so you always need to have three or four pairs. You’d ruin the original pair, but you’d have spares..
I’ve been collecting sneakers since the ’90s, but it wasn’t until 1999, when I started a sneaker distribution company, that I’d grab and go crazy and get 30 pairs a month. The craziest flex was when I got, like, 3,000-something pairs at one go. But I had to tone it down when I ran out of space. I store them all in mint condition in my warehouse.
I’m not like a lot of sneaker collectors today who collect because of the hype. The Travis Scott Jordan shoes, the ASAP Rocky Nike shoes — the newbies buying because of the celebrity name attached to them. I love sneakers, I love shoes in general and I don’t care if it’s trendy or not. As long as the silhouette is nice, the material that they use is special, I just buy. The hype isn’t my whole deal. If it’s not cool to me, I don’t care if it’s popular or not.
What should people know about sneakerheads? Comfort is maybe least important, because if you really like sneakers, you look at the design, shape and silhouette. Nothing else matters. A few years ago, Jay-Z came out with a Reebok collab, a big name in the hip-hop game. It made us sit up — but it looked like a potato with a shoelace, the hype was bigger than reality.
There are some incredible collabs between high-fashion brands and athletic gear, like the Chanel Insta-Pump Fury with Reebok, many of the limited-edition collabs with artists – we can smell the inspired collabs and the money-grabs — they’re not the same, bro.
Once I bought this rare pair: a guy drove by in a Mercedes, rolled down the windows, I handed him the cash and he gave me the box of shoes. It was like an illicit deal, but it wasn’t. It was an OG Air Jordan. I bought another pair once at a friends-and-family sale and I re-sold them for 10 times what I paid. I regret it, man, but I needed the money then. I feel for it the way some people feel for art or an incredible meal — it’s the experience, it’s not just a shoe.
There’s this guy in Hong Kong named Horace, who concentrates on collecting basketball shoes. All us sneakerheads know about each other — word of mouth, no media. He’s got all the OG Kobe Bryants — he’s the only dude I know who’s seriously collecting and also loving it. There are many who buy to re-sell at greater value. Some do it just for the passion.
The one I paid the most for? Vans x Junya Watanabe. I bought it from Japan, I don’t want to say the number, but it wasn’t that much, honest. I had a guy who knew a guy … we deep-dived into it. It’s an addiction that will never break.
IRENE YU, MERCHANDISER, JOYCE
Undoubtedly Japan is the sneaker capital of Asia. It’s always had a strong influence in respect of fashion and pop culture. The unique design of the shoes, the colourways, the materials — and the special editions created for the Japanese market are highly coveted. However, that’s not to say that American trends were overlooked in Hong Kong. Sneakers first came to my attention because of basketball stars like Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway.
The big sneaker moment in the fashion world came when Isabel Marant released the Beckett wedge back in 2012. You started seeing all these celebrities and socialites in them. Fashion houses and shoe designers such as Celine and Christian Louboutin started putting emphasis on sneakers as a separate but coveted category, giving them a nod of approval, putting them on the map in the high-fashion realm. Soon, successful collaborations followed between artists and designer brands — the massive sales probably sparked the interest of athletic-wear companies to collaborate with major artists, musicians and sports stars.
In my opinion, the Adidas x Yeezy collaboration had the X factor that bridged the sneaker world with high fashion. When it hit, musicians, actors, socialites were all seen wearing the Yeezy 350 Boost which, coupled with the social-media boom, turned it into a first-of-its-kind global phenomenon. When my mom told me she wanted a pair in the turtle-dove colourway, I knew how much of an impact it had made.
My interest in sneakers is more oriented around its aesthetic than a sports- or celebrity-fan following. The Jordan III, IV and XI, Nike Dunk and Air Max are staples in my shoe collection, in juxtaposition with my more tailored and feminine wardrobe. The craziest prices I’ve seen are for the Dior x AJ1s — north of HK$120,000. But of course online you’ll find staggering figures for rare sneakers that hit more than a million.
The sneaker trend is here to stay. Fashion today is an amalgam of subcultures, and sneakers have become a statement of identity. Collaborations have been and are still highly sought-after. I’ve always been a fan of Nike and Sacai. Their collaboration is a powerful one. It’s changed how women designers contributed to the evolution of the sneaker industry. I’m looking forward to the launch of the Nike LD Waffle x Sacai x Undercover later this year.
From a sneakerhead perspective, I see a lot of fashion brands taking design cues from classic sneakers. Similarly, sportswear companies are elevating their designs by taking inspiration from fashion brands.
I believe the industry is constantly evolving and renewing itself. Sneakers don’t have an intrinsic value like watches and jewellery. Their value is purely in the eye of the beholder. The commodity itself transcends age and is breaking down demographic barriers.
(Hero image: Soleaddict Founder Jeff Cheung’s multi-million-dollar collection of rare and collectible Nike Sb sneakers at the K11 Art and Cultural Centre)
Photography: Natalie Dunn