How Ali Khalifeh is boosting Dubai's 'sneakerhead' community, even in the pandemic

The founder of youbetterfly talks about turning shoes into art and why this time around, he's hanging on to his Yeezy Red Octobers

Holy grail. That’s the term used by “sneakerheads” to describe their all-time list of most coveted trainers. The impossible-to-get-hold-of ones, with the eye-watering price tags. Every collector has their own holy grail and, once obtained, the shoes are guarded closely. Usually.

Ali Khalifeh, the man behind youbetterfly, which opened in Dubai in 2018 and resells trainers, comes at things a little differently. For example, for the recent launch of the youbetterfly space within That Concept Store in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, Khalifeh turned his most precious trainers into a decorative wall feature. “It was like going into an art gallery, but for sneakers,” he explains. “Because that’s how I look at it, personally.

“We saw it as a good opportunity,” Khalifeh says of the tie-up with That Concept Store. “It’s a beautiful space, where you can shop, eat, grab a coffee, have a meeting and do sport. You can do everything in one space and, for us, sneakers are part of who you are.

"But we wanted to do it in a unique way. You can’t go into a sneakers store and see a pair of Jordan 1987s or Yeezy Red Octobers; it’s not a regular thing to see. We wanted it to be a mix of streetwear and in-demand sneakers and the Vault, sneakers that have a story or history behind them.”

Trainers may now be mainstream and created by luxury brands such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Dior, but not that long ago, they were the reserve of sports players, clubbers and skateboarders. For collectors such as Khalifeh, they have exerted a magnetic pull since 1985, when basketball player Michael Jordan teamed up with Nike to create his own line.

“I really started at a young age, watching NBA back in Lebanon, seeing Michael Jordan and hearing reporters talking about his shoes,” Khalifeh says. “In 1997, I got my first Jordans. I literally begged my parents to get them, and every year I would only get one pair of shoes. I used to wear them to every single event, even weddings. And people would ask: ‘What are you doing?’ But it’s me.”

Having studied computer science, Khalifeh relocated to Dubai. Once in the UAE, he dedicated himself to bolstering his shoe collection. “At one point, I had 150 pairs. I literally spent my entire salary and bonus on buying sneakers.”

Acquiring the latest kicks and owning the best streetwear became more than just a hobby for Khalifeh. Realising it was a passion that ran through his veins, he took the plunge, quit his job and founded youbetterfly. Khalifeh knew it would be more than simply a shop, but a way to bring the collecting community together.

“I thought, why not? Let’s try this because there is no outlet for sneakerheads.” At first, he sold off parts of his own collection (“it didn’t feel that bad,” he admits). But were there any that he later regretted getting rid of? Red Octobers, he says. “But then I got them back.”

Created by musician and fashion designer Kanye West, Red Octobers are widely accepted as a must-have for every serious collector, and were launched in 2014 via West’s Twitter account. After the launch of two other Nike Air Yeezy 2s, the Red Octobers were released without warning and had a limited run. They have been highly sought after ever since.

“My first bonus ever, I spent on Red Octobers,” Khalifeh says, laughing. “And I have flipped this pair something like four times. If I got a good price, I’d say, I will sell. And once I sold them, I’d look at my collection and think, I wish I had the Red Octobers and if I get a good deal I will buy them again. But this time, I am never going to get rid of them. I am keeping them in my collection.”

There are a few other pairs that he has also vowed to hang on to. “I have a signed pair by Kanye West from his Yeezy tour, and it’s crazy how they ended up in Dubai. There is a video of West signing them. Someone threw them on stage, he grabbed them and signed them. Now they are here, in my collection with a certificate of authentication and the video for proof. Then I have the Mars Yard 2.0 by an artist called Tom Sachs,” he says.

The stuff of legend, the Nike Mars Yard 2.0 are remakes of a 2017 design, made from fabric used by Nasa for the Mars rover, with detailing taken from the Apollo Lunar overshoe. To get hold of a pair, would-be buyers had to complete a Nasa obstacle course, dubbed Space Camp, and then watch an art film by Sachs. Little wonder Khalifeh has no desire to part with them.

“And then I have my first-ever Jordans, the 1997 play-offs. And the Chicago OG ‘85s.” These are another solid investment. At the time of writing, Jordan 1 OG Chicagos (1985) were available on the resale site StockX for $34,000 a pair.

Based on a love of basketball shoes – even Khalifeh’s dog is called Nike – the youbetterfly space is not so much a shop as a warehouse, in a decidedly unfashionable part of Al Quoz. “It’s not a typical space, like in a mall or in a hyped area,” he says. It houses a basketball court and even a graffiti wall, and visitors are encouraged to come and hang out. This human connection is very important, he explains, to keep things authentic.

“Before I had youbetterfly, I used to camp out to get my sneakers [as soon as they were released in stores]. We used to sleep in the car. It was all about the hustle and nothing beats the feeling of getting that pair at 7am when you’ve stayed awake the whole night.

“So that stays with me in terms of searching for new pairs. I don’t search online, except eBay. It’s a small community, so we know who collects what. If someone is looking for something and I know someone, I put them in touch. Or people know what I love, so [they] send me stuff and I choose what I want. That’s how we do it, through the community and connections.”

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Our community is small here in the UAE and we all help each other
Ali Khalifeh

This same notion of creating for others helped Khalifeh to navigate the pandemic. “For the first two or three months we had to shut down the store. Our products are super-niche, so the first few months were really tough,” he admits. Rather than sit around, though, Khalifeh set about remodelling the space.

“I changed the warehouse layout, we grew the space, and we did it in silence. So when the country opened again, our statement was: ‘We never shut down, we just got bigger.’ It was a good way to invite people to come to the warehouse to check it out, as we had a new space for them.

“Our community is small here in the UAE and we all help each other,” Khalifeh says. “So it’s really nice to see the support around you and people reacting to the milestones you achieve.”

Updated: October 13th 2021, 5:02 AM