Why sneaker culture is becoming an investment on par with art

Pricey and limited edition sneakers can have people waiting in line for hours to get their hands on a pair. But unique kicks are no longer just private streetwear collectibles — they’re increasingly being recognized as a form of art.

“There’s a lot more energy around the buying, selling and making money off of sneakers than there used to be,” said Meredydd Hardie, a Toronto-based sneaker blogger with a dedicated Instagram following.

“A lot fewer people are buying to wear and a lot more people are buying to sell.”

StockX, a high-end sneaker resale company based in Detroit, recently reached a jaw-dropping $1 billion US valuation, proving how robust the global market is.

And that’s only the beginning.

What started decades ago as a signature look in the urban community, then popularized by hip-hop culture and celebrity collaborations, from rapper Kanye West to Louis Vuitton’s creative head Virgil Abloh, sneaker culture is catching the attention of experienced investors.

Meredydd Hardie is a Toronto-based sneaker blogger and collector. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

Those within the community have always viewed the footwear as a form of art, Hardie says. But outside investors recognizing that value is relatively new.

Canadian entrepreneur Miles Nadal recently paid more than $1 million Cdn for 99 pairs of rare sneakers from Sotheby’s auction house. He then shelled out close to $600,000 Cdn for an additional rare pair, setting a new world record for sneakers sold at auction.

‘Gentrification of sneaker culture’

“No one would blink an eye if he were purchasing, let’s say, textiles or art, like paintings,” said Jemayne Lavar King, a professor at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., who teaches a course on the high art of the sneaker.

“He’s actually adding credibility to the culture, to those who are outside it, because they see what he’s done.”

But King also calls it the “gentrification of sneaker culture.”

“That’s when it becomes problematic, because now you have individuals who have never been interested in hip-hop culture, never been interested in sneaker culture, thinking, ‘Well, there’s value, let’s go in and appropriate that.”

Sneaker expert Jemayne Lavar King refers to the shift in sneaker investment as a form of gentrification. (Jemayne King)

Others see it differently.

“Moments like that are milestones within the zeitgeist that confirm and reaffirm that we’re on the right track,” said Steve Harris, co-founder of Sneakertopia, a sneaker pop-up museum opening this weekend in Los Angeles.

Sneakertopia resembles a gallery of sorts, with high-priced exhibits and strategically placed security watching over them. One display case holds a rare Air Jordan collaboration sneaker with Eminem, valued at more than $30,000 US.

But the space is also highly interactive and photo-ready — to cater to the Instagram generation.

It’s all a product of the footwear’s increased popularity across a wide range of demographics, Harris says.

“Even auction houses are in the reselling game now,” he said. “[Sneakers] have become a respected commodity, a piece of art.”

Some of Sneakertopia’s high-value goods — such as these Nike-Yeezy ‘Red Octobers,’ worth an estimated $6,500, and the Air Jordan Eminems, valued at more than $30,000 — mean there’s tight security on the museum’s premise. (Zulekha Nathoo/CBC)

Worth what someone is willing to pay

Still, the difference between a centuries-old masterpiece and decades-old kicks is well known in the sneaker community.

“Unlike art, sneakers deteriorate,” said Hardie, surrounded by her own collection. “Almost every sneaker you see here will crumble. The shoe will crumble into dust within the next few years.”

She grabs her most valuable sneaker — Air Jordan Ones from the Off-White “The Ten” collection, worth more than $5,000 in new condition — and explains how the white foam will eventually turn an “unattractive shade of yellow” because of oxidation.

“As far as we know, there’s nothing you can do to stop that,” she said.

Hardie shows how one of her most prized pair of shoes will eventually suffer from oxidation. (CBC)

That means the sneaker world can be as unpredictable as the art world. Sometimes investments pay off when a shoe is in limited supply and particularly sought after. Other times, King says, originally high-priced items can be found on the sale rack months later, after missing the mark with fans.

It takes a keen eye to spot the difference in advance.

“Money can’t buy cool,” said King, who wrote the book Sole Food: Digestible Sneaker Culture.

King, who owns enough sneakers to go years without wearing the same pair twice, says a shoe’s worth is simple: It’s whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

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