Ermenegildo Zegna is an Italian fashion house best known for the quality of its men's suits. But earlier this year, when Zegna unveiled its first see-now, buy-now product on the runway during Milan Fashion Week, it was a pair of high-top leather trainers, costing approximately Dh3,300.
The trainer has carved a place for itself at the very highest echelons of luxury menswear, simultaneously cementing its status as a bona fide collector’s item. And while labels such as Lanvin, Givenchy, Valentino and Balenciaga have all jumped on the bandwagon, these high-fashion offerings don’t really get to the heart of the urban-footwear movement, which centres on creativity, innovation and collaboration.
Gucci’s Ace trainer, which features the brand’s signature stripes and a snake, bee or lion appliqué, may be one of this year’s It shoes. But what attracts true sneaker connoisseurs is not your mass-market footwear, readily available at every luxury department store. Instead, shoes designed by athletic brands in collaboration with seasoned creatives, and produced in limited quantities, are what prompt sneaker enthusiasts to fly across the world for their next pair.
That’s exactly what Algerian sneaker collector Yaseen Benchouche once did, just to get his hands on the limited-edition Nike Air Max 180 Cowboy Sole Collectors. Benchouche began collecting trainers in 1995, and today owns between 500 and 600 pairs. In 2006, he flew from Paris to Miami and stood third in a queue of hundreds outside Niketown. Rules were strict – you could leave your place in the queue to quickly use the bathroom or grab a bite to eat, but if you were gone for longer than an hour, you’d lose your spot. “When I told people I had travelled from France, they said: ‘Nah, you liar.’ Then I pulled out my passport and plane ticket, and they said I was the craziest person, because I had come all the way for one pair of shoes,” recalls Benchouche.
Avid collectors will go to extreme lengths and queue up for hours – sometimes days – to buy limited-edition shoes. “Some people find it crazy that we would camp out in the cold in London overnight just to get a pair of sneakers,” says Abu Dhabi-based collector Jack Brett, aka Jackson, who moved to the UAE from London in 2009. He explains that his ongoing hunt for cool sneakers can dictate his holiday plans.
“Choosing which stores, sneakers or streetwear cultures I want to see, has a massive impact on where I travel. I can’t remember the last holiday I actually went on that didn’t involve going to see a certain store,” he says. “Japan is still number one on my list.”
Streetwear culture in Japan is what inspired the concept of the shoe collector’s consignment store, says Benchouche. One of his friends, Damany Weir, brought the concept to the United States when he launched Flight Club – which is one of the world’s most popular marketplaces for trainers. Benchouche took the concept to Europe, where he worked under the collector’s pseudonym Epsi, and launched Wall Kicks Paris, before relocating to Algeria and opening a store called Sneaker City.
Some of the most valuable sneakers currently available at Flight Club are the Air Jordan 3 Retro Grateful shoes, which are listed at Dh92,000; the Nike Air Yeezy 2 shoes in Red October, for Dh22,050; and Adidas Ultra Boost Miami Hurricanes, at Dh14,700. Buyers can pay upfront or through monthly instalments over one year.
The consignment store model is successful because it’s where “sneakerheads” can both stock and seek hard-to-find styles. But not all collectors are sneakerheads, claims Joshua Cox, who, along with Kris Balerite, Hussain Moloobhoy and Raj Malhotra, founded Sole DXB, an urban footwear, fashion and lifestyle event held annually in Dubai.
“A collector may have an extensive collection and elements of the culture they like – but isn’t necessarily ingrained in the lifestyle,” says Cox. “A sneakerhead lives and breathes every single aspect of sneakers. They will stand in line for hours waiting for the latest drop, scour the internet endlessly looking for a pair they couldn’t get their hands on, and connect with other like-minded ‘heads’ within the community to get the latest scoop on trading values. Simply put, a sneakerhead is a diehard enthusiast, who appreciates good design and will stop at nothing for rare finds.”
But what do collectors actually do with their trainers, especially when they have hundreds? Do they put them on display in a showroom, never to be worn, or do they actually wear them? “If you’re someone who has to consider that question, then you’re probably going to want to buy two of everything,” says Sole DXB’s Balerite. Benchouche agrees. “Real sneaker collectors always buy two to three pairs [of one design],” he says. “Always double-double – wear one, and keep the other to resell.”
It takes a great deal of financial investment, as well as a fair bit of networking, to become a collector of sneakers – even if one’s motives are purely personal. “Only buy what you can afford,” advises Jackson. “Plan ahead for the hard-to-get releases and be prepared to hustle for the ones you really want. Be more than happy to help other people, as what goes around comes around.”
Jackson is in the process of launching a new concept space in the UAE. “By teaming up with some of the most renowned leaders in the industry, we’re bringing a bespoke men’s barbershop, select sneaker and streetwear consignment store, and specialty coffee all under one roof. We aim to be a cultural hub here in the UAE where you can express your art, design and style,” says the entrepreneur.
At Sole DXB, which this year takes place on the weekend of December 7 in Dubai Design District (d3), sneaker vendors from all over the world exhibit their valuable wares, some of which are shoes that were made exclusively for a brand’s family and friends. These are extremely rare, as they are made in very limited quantities and never even make it to stores. Throughout his career as a collector, Benchouche has owned some family and friend exclusives, including the Nike Air Force PlayStation sneakers. When word spread in the collectors community that Jay-Z was on the lookout for a pair, Benchouche, who had them in the right size, sold them to the rapper for about Dh7,000. The most valuable find the collector has ever come across, however, was an Air Jordan X Eminem shoe. “At the time that I had it, it was around Dh20,000, but within a few years its value skyrocketed to around Dh90,000,” he says.
While consignment stores were once optimal spaces for sneakerheads, the industry has since evolved. International fairs, such as Sneaker Con, take place around the world, while online marketplaces, such as StockX.com, are convenient and reliable platforms for buying and selling rare sneakers. And through social-media apps like Instagram, re-sellers can connect with customers around the world within minutes. “The growth of the culture has happened in line with the growth of social media; they complement each other very well. The access is now global, and so is the interaction, which before was a massive hurdle,” explains Jackson.
However, the sudden, wide-reaching implications of the web and social media may have also altered the very soul of the previously urban, underground nature of sneaker-collecting. “Now it’s different,” says Benchouche. “You only see resellers in the queues; nobody’s really passionate about the shoes anymore, they just want to buy them and sell them on sites like eBay within the next hour.”
Nonetheless, many collectors remain loyal to the original trade, and continue to value creative vision over trend hysteria. “For us, it’s all down to collaboration,” says Sole DXB’s Moloobhoy. “Sure, there’s an element of ‘hype’ and ‘limited quantities’ involved, but we don’t mind that.
“We’re talking about collaboration in its purest sense – when two entities come together and produce a product inspired by a collective creative journey and unique vision. A true reinterpretation of a silhouette through the deconstruction of design, material and colour,” he explains.
Whether it’s populated by veteran collectors or new-age shoe addicts, the sneakerhead community is expanding all over the world, and with concepts like Sole DXB becoming yearly events on the calendar, the UAE is no exception. The 15-year-old Emirati YouTuber Rashed Belhasa, also known as Money Kicks, is the region’s poster child for expensive sneakers, with a collection worth hundreds of thousands of dirhams.
Consumers in the UAE are also notoriously brand-conscious, so the majority will gravitate towards trainers with designer names affixed to them. Jackson points out that brands are now connecting with a wider audience through exclusive partnerships and capsule collections, citing the recent collaboration between Louis Vuitton and streetwear label Supreme (a collaboration that Belhasa also invested in, getting hold of trainers, clothes and bags from the collection, and foiling his Ferrari to match it, too).
“Fashion houses are now looking to younger, more influential creative directors to lead and challenge the stereotypical norms of fashion,” says Sole DXB’s Malhotra. And while these may not always embody the street-level soul of trainer-trading, they have helped to wash the shoe of its grungy stereotypes.
Turkish designer Bünyamin Aydin of Istanbul-based label, Les Benjamins, says that streetwear – and trainers – are a part of the social identity of millennials. Aydin became the first Middle Eastern brand to collaborate with Nike, when, this March, he was one of 12 designers worldwide selected by the brand to come up with a design inspired by the classic Air Max silhouette.
But even though trainers are trending, and becoming increasingly acceptable even for formal occasions, Aydin points out that some traditional outlets have yet to catch up with this new lifestyle. “Some restaurants that I’ve seen, even here in Dubai, and in London, still do not allow sneakers,” he says. “I was so shocked to see that – I mean, sneakers are part of who we are now; you can’t avoid that. Some sneakers are even more expensive than loafers. I’m in this culture, I’m not going to wear Tod’s, that’s not me. If it isn’t acceptable, then I’m in the wrong place.”