Just for kicks: Meet India’s ‘sneakerheads’
They scrimp and queue to buy special shoes they may never wear. They meet at special events held to trade and talk about kicks. Inside the world of the sneaker enthusiast.Updated: Mar 02, 2019 20:32 IST
At creative director Allen Claudius’s flat in Mumbai, the first thing you’ll notice is sneaker boxes, stacked so neatly they seem like a part of the décor. He owns over 50 pairs of kicks . “While everyone else is getting married and having babies, I’m here thinking, ‘Which sneaker do I cop [pick up] next?’” says the 36-year-old.
Delhi’s Atul Sharma owns over 150 pairs, has been collecting since 2010, and won’t part with a single one. In fact, he sometimes buys two pairs of a design: “one to stock and one to rock”.
In Bengaluru Gokul M, 30, a publicist, carries shower caps in his pocket when he heads out. How else will he protect his precious sneakers from dust and grime?
Meet India’s sneakerheads, a community of 3,000-odd sneaker enthusiasts, mostly men, who collect, trade, review, swap or simply admire sneakers and go the extra mile to acquire a coveted pair.
What makes a coveted pair? Often it’s when the design was issued in a limited edition, part of a special line or created in collaboration with an iconic artist, designer or sportsperson. These aren’t the shoes you pull out to better your marathon time. In many cases, they’re too expensive, too pretty, too culturally relevant, even too uncomfortable to ever be allowed to touch the ground.
- Hypebeast: A person who buys sneakers simply because they are popular or for the bragging rights. They don’t care for the relevance or history of a particular style.
- OG: An original model when it is released for the first time. A re-released model is usually called a Retro.
- Deadstock: New, unworn sneakers, stored in the box, that have never made contact with the floor.
- Daily Beaters: Everyday-wear sneakers.
- Bred: The black-and-red colour scheme.
- On Ice: Keeping a sneaker in storage right after purchasing it and then bringing it out when the hype has died down, to sell at a high price or to show off.
- Grails: The most coveted sneakers, made iconic and often sold in limited numbers.
- (Courtesy: Allen Claudius)
“Sneakers are now a part of a bigger fashion movement that covers cool street-style design to luxury labels,” says Claudius. “They’re the new objects of desire.” And over the last three years, India’s sneakerheads have been joining forces on Instagram and by organising sneakerhead events across Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. Atul’s Instagram page, Sneakertalk India, has over 6,800 followers.
“When I started the Instagram page in 2017, we were barely 40 sneakerheads in India,” he says. Now, after conducting four editions of the sneakerhead meet-up called Delhi Kicks Xchange (DKX), he claims that at least 300-400 people have shown up.
THE FIRST STEPS
Growing up in Mangalore in the 1980s, Claudius remembers walking to school in gumboots because it rained so much. Then, when the other kids started wearing Nike and Adidas sneakers, he started customising his Action and Liberty Force 10 sneakers with oil paint to stand out. “My elder brother got his first pair of Adidas kicks in a size that just about fit us both. He had to squeeze his feet in, while I had to wear two layers of socks!” he recalls.
His current obsession with buying shoes because of their pop-culture significance, however, is barely six years old. “I remember being laughed at when I turned up at Lakme Fashion Week in 2015 in Air Max 90s. To many, wearing ‘casual sneakers’ to a fashion event was sacrilege!” he says.
Today, Claudius’s collection includes iconic designs like the ‘Banned Air Jordan 1’. The name stems from the time when basketball legend Michael Jordan defied NBA rules, which stipulated white sneakers, and wore black-and-red Air Jordans at games in the 1990s, coughing up a fine of $5,000 per game. “We don’t know if this was a marketing gimmick, but my pair is definitely very dear to me,” he says.
In Bengaluru, five sneakerheads organised their first meet-up in June, with an event called Word on the Street in collaboration with Capsule, an online retailer of street fashion. “We had sneaker enthusiasts from Delhi, Mumbai and Chandigarh dropping in,” says James Raleigh Thomas, 27, a network engineer who runs a community Instagram page called Sole Culture Bengaluru.
Their latest event, Sole Affair, in November, had freestyle dance sessions, street-wear pop-ups and an exhibition of deadstock. “Kenny McGregor, a sneakerhead from Scotland displayed his collection of 100 Nike Airmax 1s, all of different colour schemes that he has painstakingly collected over the years,” says Thomas.
Last month, at a Hauz Khas Village restaurant in Delhi, Atul, who’s 38 and an IT executive, organised the latest edition of DKX, called Show Down. Some 300 people turned up. “We invited resellers, sold shoes that had just hit the market and curated a sneaker exhibition of some of our best deadstock (never-worn sneakers collected by sneakerheads),” he says.
- For one thing, a limited-edition release, particularly if the shoes are part of a special line or were created in collaboration with an iconic artist, designer or sportsperson.
- This also means you can never wear your best pair. They’re too expensive, too culturally relevant, sometimes even too uncomfortable — and they’d drastically lose value as soon as they hit the ground.
- One example of such a pair is Nike’s Banned Air Jordan 1. The name comes from when the basketball legend defied NBA rules about all-white sneakers and wore black-and-red Air Jordans at games in the 1990s, coughing up a fine of $5,000 per game.
- It’s not clear if this was a marketing gimmick, but the pair is among the most valuable you can find.
- What do you eventually do with shoes you can’t wear? A lot of collectors in the West make a living trading in them.
- Given how some of them can appreciate in value, you could even bequeath them in your will! There are kicks from the 1980s that can now fetch up to $10,000.
The event also showcased works of Delhi photographer Parth Sharma, 24. Also a sneaker collector, Parth specialises in taking photos of sneakers. He built a photobook as part of his graduation project in 2016, shooting in-demand sneakers against traffic-ridden bridges, on rooftops with a view of the skyline and at Chandni Chowk at dawn to “give the picture an Old Delhi charm”. “I’ve entered empty, half-constructed malls just to get the grunge effect in the background and run away before the guards catch hold of me,” he says, laughing.
For Shivani Boruah, 30, a Bengaluru-based marketing professional who owns over 65 pairs of kicks and is among India’s few female sneakerheads , it helps that getting smaller women’s sizes has become easier over the years. “If it was hard to get fresh releases of premium sneakers in India earlier, it was even harder to find women’s sizes,” she says. “But as the demand has risen, brands are quick to ship out sizes like a UK5 or a UK6 now,” she says.
Sneaker collecting is not for the faint of heart or the short of budget. Nike Air Jordans 1s, when they launch in the US, cost around Rs 12,000. For India the retail price can shoot up to Rs 18,000 a pair after import duty and shipping costs. Some special edition models can cost more, depending on how much buzz they’ve been able to generate.
For both buyers and resellers, the first port of call is the Singaporean online marketplace StockX, which posts trending market prices for a particular pair and puts available pairs on auction. “The resale value of a pair of original Air Jordan 1 Chicago shoes released in 1985 could be anywhere between $5,000 to $10,000 on the website now,” says Atul.
Sneakerheads go to crazy lengths to buy limited-edition pairs. Across the world, fans camp outside stores to skip queues ahead of a covetable “drop” or collection launch. Many wake up at 4 am to cop (to purchase) a particular pair online.
Bengaluru’s Gokul M, has done both. “I’ve woken up at 4 am and queued outside the Adidas Brigade Road store last year, when they launched the Dragonball Z Goku sneakers which I eventually bought for Rs 14,000,” he says. He went to Delhi to pick up a pair of Puma Boris Becker sneakers and have the tennis player sign them. “I’ve participated in raffles, stayed glued to my laptop for days, just trying to cop a pair that has historical significance,” he says.
One of India’s first campouts for sneakers was in Delhi in 2016, for the Bred Air Jordan 1s. Atul says he waited all night in anticipation. The appeal was in the pair’s place in sports culture. “I also have the rare orange-white-and-black Air Jordan 1 from the Shatterboard collection, because Michael Jordan was wearing a pair when he shattered the basketball backboard while going for a dunk in one of his games.”
RUNNING THE EXTRA MILE
“Sneaker culture is common abroad, but it is so niche in India that we have to wait it out to understand if premium sneakers really have a potential market in the country,” says author and adman Ambi Parameswaran. “Even luxury watches invested in the country five years ago, setting up premium stores which eventually ended up being more of an advertising medium than one for sale,” he says. With premium sneakers, we still need to wait it out.
The sneaker community is niche, but already, the lines are drawn. There are those who hoard popular sneakers for their monetary or cult value, and followers of sneaker culture who see the hoarders as “hypebeasts”. Adidas’s Yeezys, for instance, were created in collaboration with musician Kanye West. They’re widely available, their appeal is mainstream, and they’ve been over-marketed, which means a certain type of sneakerhead tends not to waste their time on them.
This is not to say that sneakerheads don’t know the value of what they buy, wear and worship. Atul wouldn’t dream of selling his prized possession of 150 sneakers even though “in the West people make a living off collecting and reselling sneakers,” he says.
Claudius, on the other hand, doesn’t want to cross the 50-pair mark, because he’d rather not turn into a hoarder. “I downsize by giving them away to family and friends,” he says. But he did sell a few last year. His Space Jam Air Jordan sneakers fetched him Rs 28,000 and funded a last-minute trip to Thailand.
Meanwhile, Atul in Delhi has a problem. His eight-year-old daughter Eeva already wants to be a sneakerhead like her dad. “Hopefully, by the time she grows up, it’s not going to be so hard to get the good releases in India, and no one is going to judge you for ‘wasting money’ on your passion, “ he says. For now, Eeva is content with the Air Jordan 1s he bought her, although they’re one size too big. “I can’t afford to have her growing out of these sneakers in a year,” he says, laughing.
First Published: Mar 02, 2019 20:00 IST