New York Sneaker Collectors

Following the opening of a four-part exhibition in the US, Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, presented by the American Federation of Arts, our New York editor Janette Beckman caught up with some local collectors to speak about their passion

This May, various articles emerged on a new footwear phenomenon – the sneaker concierge.

As an employee at New York’s luxury Dream Downtown hotel, collector Vaughn Davis was noticed for his ability to locate any shoe requested by the hotel’s guests.

Seems like the corporations really figured out how to appeal to the kids

As the director of guest services, Davis caters for clients staying at the Downtown’s $5,000 a night penthouse. A number of these being CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, which is Fortune Magazine’s list of the 500 largest companies in the US.

While the phenomenon of the sneaker concierge tickled a small portion of the consumer-led press, it also highlighted how the culture of collecting can be sold. So instead of existing as a hobby that is cultivated over time, it has become an instant accessory to a luxury lifestyle.

For the traditional sneakerhead, whose battered first pair of Air Jordan Ones or Superstars are his most prized possession, this is a little way off from the source.

When the culture of sneaker collecting began its journey, it was in New York. Somewhere between the introduction of athlete-endorsed basketball shoes and the emergence of the hip hop movement, where style reigned supreme.

Sneakers became the key to looking and feeling fresh, something to be done everyday. In the words of Run DMC, “My Adidas and me, we get around together, rhyme forever and we won't be mad when worn in bad weather ... Now the Adidas I possess for one man is rare myself homeboy got 50 pair.”

As personal collections and sneaker knowledge gradually grew, individuals could trace their own history by remembering what shoe they acquired at a particular point in time.

Today, the original process of building a collection has almost become instantaneous with the rise of the internet and social media – or, if you have the money, with the concierge.

There is an art to having style; style is the foundation of my sneaker interest

Following the opening of a four-part travelling exhibition in the US named Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, we caught up with some New York sneakerheads to speak about their lifelong passion for collecting.

Operator EMZ, 43, DJ and musician

What were your first pair of sneakers?
No-named skips.

What are your top five sneakers?
Nike Air Force Ones,
Adidas Campus
Puma Suede (early 1980s model)
Adidas Rivalry Hi
Nike Air Max One (1987)

When did your interest in collecting sneakers begin?
Second grade. After the kids made fun of me for having no-named shoes. That week I got Pro Keds and Nike Oceania. I have been hooked ever since.

How has sneaker culture changed over the years?
Seems like the corporations really figured out how to appeal to the kids. Not just the sports fans.

Is there an art to collecting sneakers?
Nope. There is an art to having style though. Style is the foundation of my sneaker interest. 

Who's your style icon?
Jam Master Jay.

Who's your favourite band/musician?
James Taylor.

What's your favourite movie?
Debbie Does Dallas.

I tend to wear one pair of very comfortable
kicks for months at a time

Dante Ross, Vice President of A&R, Warner Bros

What were your first pair of sneakers?
Pro Keds 69ers.

What are your top five sneakers?
Nike Air Force Ones
Converse Chuck Taylors
Nike SB's
Vans Half Cabs
Vans Sk8 Hi’s

When did your interest in collecting sneakers begin?
In junior high school I got a pair of Puma Clydes and life was never the same again.

How has sneaker culture changed over the years?
Reissues and the interweb basically killed its accessibility and resellers made sneaker collecting a bit corny. I tend to wear one pair of very comfortable kicks for months at a time these days or beat up a pair of Chuck Taylors. The Chuck always looks good new or beat up it's the most iconic sneaker ever.

Is there an art to collecting sneakers?
There is. EMZ in particular personifies this. His want to collect off-brand obscure kicks is artistic. Me, I lean towards skateboarding kicks a lot so there's my sense of artistry.

Who's your style icon?
Run-DMC, early Beastie Boys, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Steve McQueen.

Who's your favourite band/musician?
The Specials, Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains, Rakim.

What's your favourite movie?
The Sting.

I'd much rather come up on a vintage pair in an out-of-the-way shop than just buy the latest retro.

Russ Bengtson, 44, senior editor at Complex magazine

What were your first pair of sneakers?
Very first? Probably a pair of knockoffs of some sort. As far as ones I can remember, there was a red on white canvas pair of Converse that stood out and then a pair of blue on white Nike Bruins when I was in fourth grade.

Those were my first leather sneakers, and I wore them until they literally fell apart.

What are your top five sneakers?
Only five? Honestly my feelings on this change so often, and there are probably a 100 sneakers in my Top Five.

Nike Air Jordan Two
Diadora Borg Elite
Nike Air Flight 89 High,
Adidas Rod Laver Super
Nike Flyknit Racer

When did your interest in collecting sneakers begin?
Around 1994, when the first series of Air Jordan reissues came out. Before that, I hardly ever considered the idea of having more than a couple of pairs at a time – in part because I didn't really have the extra money or the space. After I bought three of the Jordan reissues (one pair each of Ones, Twos and Threes), it just grew from there.

How has sneaker culture changed over the years?
It's changed tremendously. Even recently with the rise of social media. Before, there was a network of collectors and aficionados, but you really had to know someone to be part of it, whether it was through NikeTalk or other message boards, or even people in your own city. Now things are so much more interconnected, for better and for worse. As far as the shoes themselves, the retro cycle has just gotten so much faster. Before, you might not see a particular pair for a decade or more, now certain pairs come back every few years.

Is there an art to collecting sneakers?
I think so. Or I hope so. It seems like a lot of what passes for ‘collecting’ today is just hoarding, without much direction. Sneaker collecting should consist of more than just lining up for whatever the latest hot release is—there should be an actual goal. Or, if not a goal, some sort of direction anyway. The fun part for me has been finding pairs I'd been searching for. And I'd much rather come up on a vintage pair in an out-of-the-way shop (or even track down a pair on eBay) than just buy the latest retro.

Who's your style icon?
Have you seen the way I dress? Haha. Er, Hunter S Thompson and the Bones Brigade.

Who's your favourite band/musician?
This is almost as hard as the trainers question. I'll just say you can't go wrong with Motörhead.

What's your favourite movie?
I am terrible at this sort of thing. Raiders of the Lost Ark.