Friday, July 28, 2006

Sole searching
L.A.’s growing number of "sneakerheads" aren’t just making a footwear statement, they’re defining a lifestyle.

By Susan Carpenter
Times Staff Writer

July 27, 2006

The 300 pairs of Air Jordans, Nike Dunks and other premium sneakers are neatly stacked from floor to ceiling. Arranged by model number, they make the space look more like a Foot Locker stockroom than a 17-year-old's bedroom in a Central L.A. house. But this is where Cesar Vasquez sleeps at night.

At least it's where he sleeps when he isn't talking about sneakers with his friends, looking for sneaker information online, shopping at sneaker boutiques, selling sneakers or cleaning his "kicks" with a toothbrush, as he does after every wearing.

"I would buy them, play basketball, mess them up," Vasquez said of a habit that began his freshman year in high school. "But then I noticed these are cool. Let me just keep them clean, and then I started collecting them, and then they just all added up. And it kept on growing."

Vasquez is a "sneakerhead" — someone so rabid about collecting rare and vintage sneakers that he buys at least one pair a week. Though that may seem a bit excessive, he's part of a growing subculture of sneaker lovers. Whether they're "hypebeasts" who collect limited-edition reissues of classic styles, aficionados interested in predominantly vintage sneakers or casual collectors who like what looks good to them regardless of a shoe's resale value, sneakerheads see no reason to wear any other type of shoe.

Sneakers are the shoe of choice particularly for teens and young men. More than mere fashion, they represent a collision of lifestyles and subcultures, whether it's hip-hop, skateboarding, basketball or graffiti art. And they seem to be reaching a sort of cultural critical mass, with hip-hop acts Jay-Z and 50 Cent signed to signature deals, graffiti artists such as Stash and Futura 2000 designing them and websites like and spreading the word on new styles. The phenomenon has grown to such an extent that in the last few years several books on sneaker collecting have been published, as have various magazines, such as Sneaker Freaker and Sole Collector. It's inspired the recently released documentary "Just for Kicks," and even a traveling sneaker art show.

"Celebrities being really into it, it influences a broader market," says Peter Fahey, 24, an Australian sneakerhead who runs the traveling sneaker art exhibition "Sneaker Pimps." (See accompanying story.)

"The cool kids in the city will start wearing the fresher kicks, people will see them wearing those and they'll want to do the same. It caught on as a trend in a way and grew into a culture almost overnight. Now kids are forming interest groups around the shoes. It's a whole culture growing out of having cool sneakers and collectible shoes."

In recent years, ubiquitous mainstream brands such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Vans — and a growing list of other sneaker manufacturers — have found a way to make themselves cool again with "retro exclusives," offering high-design versions of classic styles in runs of as little as a few hundred to a few thousand pairs. Most limited-edition sneakers retail for about $100 to $200 and are available only at sneaker boutiques, where sneakerheads have been known to camp out for days for certain models — and to resell the shoes at triple the price online.

So if you have a pair of Marc Jacobs Vans slip-ons, it didn't come from Nordstrom or even a Vans skate shop. And if you happened to score the Nike Air Zoom Moire+ iPod shoe with black or gray speckles when it was released last weekend, you didn't get it at Big 5 — you had to go to one of the few boutiques worldwide that got it.

The sneakerhead phenomenon has been going on for decades in New York, but it's only recently hit big in L.A. Four years ago, there wasn't a single sneakers-only boutique in the area. Now there are a dozen, with more opening in the next few months.

The store Undefeated has been ground zero for the L.A. sneaker scene since it opened in 2002. Walk through the prison-bar entrance of the La Brea Avenue shop and it's like stepping into a sort of urban Zen paradise. A small waterfall cascades over rocks into a reflecting pool, while a steady hip-hop beat throbs in the background. A stick of incense burns in the mortar of an exposed-brick wall, just inches from an oversized photo of Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson's tattooed hand.

On the opposing wall: dozens and dozens of sneakers. There is a hunter green Adidas with an image of tennis player Stan Smith stitched into the side, a Day-Glo Nike Air Stab and a brown "prison issue" Vans with a triple Velcro closure.

Eddie Cruz founded the store four years ago after Union, the Japanese streetwear store he owns three doors down, showed there was a market for retro sneakers in L.A.

"I started buying Nike sneakers in little mom-and-pop shops in the Bronx in New York for $19, $29, and bringing them here to L.A. and selling them in the Union shop for $200 a pop," said Cruz, 42. "A lot of people didn't know that Nike was making these great colors in these classic styles. We were selling so many sneakers out of this little area inside Union, I was like, we need to expand on this."

The store has been so successful that he opened a second location in Santa Monica in 2004. He's opening a third Undefeated store at Sunset Junction in Silver Lake this September.

Undefeated is the only store in L.A. to sell Nike's "tier zero" sneakers — ultra-limited or early-release shoes that are available in about 10 stores worldwide. Last weekend, Undefeated was the only store in town with the speckled Nike iPod sneaker.

Shoe collaborations, such as the one between Nike and Apple, are a way to keep the scene "hot and give it street credibility," Cruz said. Most often, collaborations are with graffiti artists, fashion designers, hip-hop artists and even the sneaker boutiques themselves. Undefeated has projects in the works on the AI 1 Allen Iverson shoe for Reebok (due in October) and a Sk8 High series for Vans (November).

"The approach from a collaborative standpoint mirrors that which we have with our athletes. When we do something with basketball, we work with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — the best guys. In this world, it's the same type of thing," said Christian Parkes, brand manager for Nike's sport culture division.

Nike recently split into two groups — one devoted to sport performance (basketball, running and other shoes used to play sports) and sport culture (sports shoes worn on the street). Most of the $18.9 billion in U.S. sneaker sales are now in lifestyle, rather than performance, shoes.

That wasn't always the case. From the early 20th century up until the 1970s, sneakers were used for sports. That changed when the break-dancing craze erupted in New York; B-boys adopted basketball shoes simply because they were comfortable. Back then, Adidas was the shoe of choice; the brand got a bigger boost when '80s rappers Run-DMC adopted Adidas as part of the group's signature look.

Then Nike got in the game, signing rookie NBA player Michael Jordan to a signature shoe deal. In 1985, Nike released the black-and-red Air Jordan 1 basketball shoe. The sneaker industry hasn't been the same since. With each subsequent year, Nike released a different Air Jordan and Jordan racked up wins, making the player and his namesake sneaker a force.

In 1986, 1 in 12 Americans owned a pair of Air Jordans, according to the recently released sneaker documentary "Just for Kicks." That made the brand too popular, as far as some buyers were concerned, and thus the sneakerhead was born. Sneaker fans, in a quest to be original, started seeking out obscure makes and models from small shops in and around New York.

Now sneakerheads can get their fix buying sneakers at sites such as, or they can chat on sites such as, a 50,000-member forum (not affiliated with the Oregon-based shoe company) that includes information on new releases — specifically, what shoe is coming out when and which stores will get it. Other sites with sneaker release information:,, and

Most in the industry estimate the sneakerhead ratio is 80% men and 20% women. The reason? "Guys wear sneakers every day," said Arsen Salatinjants, co-owner of the women's sneaker boutique Kendo. "Women like to wear heels, flip-flops, sandals, so it's a little bit different."

That gender imbalance has resulted in some shops offering women's styles in larger sizes so men can buy them, or men's styles in smaller sizes for women, as Kendo often does. "When I was younger, I used to go with my friends to Foot Locker or Sport Chalet and I used to run to the girl's section right away," said Salatinjants, 29. "I knew that was the stuff that most people weren't going to have."

He isn't alone. A baby-blue Nike Air Force 1 Invisible Woman shoe is resting on its box just inside the door of Cesar Vasquez's bedroom, having been worn within the last few days and properly cleaned. The shoes cost about $100 when they hit stores in early June. Now they're going on EBay for about $250, says Vasquez, who can camp out at stores for days to score a rare shoe.

"All you do is talk, make jokes, waste time. You just hang out with your friends, so the time flies by quick," said Vasquez, who typically brings cash and a handful of friends. He doesn't have a job, and his parents don't give him money. The bills in his hand are from reselling — a common phenomenon, thanks to EBay.

Because the sneakers are so rare, boutiques generally sell one pair per customer. Vasquez brings friends so he can buy one pair for himself and have his friends buy extras, which he later sells for at least double the price online. During a recent camp-out for a Nike Air Max 1 reissue, he bought three of the 24 pairs for sale.

"I think retail was $180. They resold for $500," he says. "I kept one and sold the other two, so I got a free shoe and $700 back."