Sole Searching

by Jamesetta Walker
photography by Rich-Joseph Facun
headline font by Tomas Pasma


Phillip Wilson shows off a photo of himself with his daughter, Zorah. The two are sporting matching Nike Air Max, she in Little Max and he in Air Max 95.

Even before Zorah was born, she had five pairs of sneakers. The average American has two. At age 2, her stash has mushroomed to 20 pairs.

Thank her dad.

He owns 884 pairs. Yes, 884.

Phillip Wilson

It would take him more than two years before he’d have to wear the same pair twice. To symbolize his passion, he’s getting a tattoo on his arm depicting boxes of sneakers snaking into a pile.

“If I could wear a pair of sneakers to work, I would,” says Wilson, 33, of Chesapeake. He’s a loan officer, though, and so it’s largely in his off time – like this day while he waits at a restaurant to meet with friends – when he does.

Wilson is engrossed in a thriving culture across Hampton Roads that has brought together sneaker aficionados from different backgrounds and occupations. They’re typically males and range from teen to Gen X. They are enamored by the craftsmanship and creativity of elite sneakers as much as the rush that comes from having a coveted piece of pop culture. For many, the affordability of such status symbols was out of the question in their households as youths.

Wyatt “WI-FI” Ballance

“Sometimes it’s bigger than the shoe. You’re walking in the mall and people look down at your feet, and they’re like ‘Dang, he got those already?’ ” says Wyatt “WiFi” Ballance, a 24-year-old paraprofessional at a Norfolk middle school.

Conversely, many self-professed sneaker addicts cough up hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on footwear they may not readily wear, regarding them as trophies of a sort, and breaking them out only after the pandemonium has waned. The Internet, of course, plays a huge role.

“It could be ugly, but once the buzz builds …
I gotta have it,” Ballance says as he banters with a sales associate at a local shoe and skate shop where sneakers abound. From January to April, he splurged on 10 pairs of sneakers, building his budding collection to 65 pairs.

There is money to be made, not just spent, in this pursuit.

These sneakers have resale value, and it’s that value that is largely fueling the nationwide frenzy that erupts when celebrity-endorsed sneakers such as Nike’s Air Jordans and its Air Yeezys by Kanye West are released. In December, skirmishes broke out in several states among impatient shoppers hoping to scoop up the re-released Air Jordan 11 Retro Concords.

In June, the Air Yeezy 2 was up for release – and Rodney Smith, 26, of Virginia Beach was prepared to spend $1,000 on a pair, the most he’s ever plopped down. “If you want to do it, you’ll do it. A lot of people spend money on rims, but I keep my car regular,” he says. “Because it’s shoes, people think it’s crazy.

“I never do it spur-of-the-moment. I plan it just like you would if you were buying a car.”

Hampton Roads is a natural hotbed for sneakerheads. Norfolk and Virginia Beach are legendary in the underground streetwear and skateboarding market, fueled largely by enterprises that gained ground in the mid-2000s including Ralph Reynolds’ RP55 Group, Blac Label, Sole Brother Shoe and Skate Shop, and Commonwealth. Such nationally renowned operations keep pulse of what’s next and are central among patrons’ networks.

Chris Vaughan

Count among the sneakerheads Smith’s boss at Sole Brother, on 20th Street in Norfolk. That’s Chris Vaughan, 41, who grew up skateboarding and in the surf-skateboard retail world. He began taking up the passion seriously about 10 years ago and opened his shop to get the footwear more easily.

Now he can rattle off the inspiration behind every Nike shoe he has in stock.

“I’ve always loved shoes but wasn’t able to get them,” he says. “A lot of these Jordan re-releases are something I wanted growing up. At the time, $100 was out of the ballpark. These re-released Jordans are allowing a lot of guys to relive their youth.”

He and other local sneakerheads point to Jordans as igniting the resale market; manufacturers have since been able to build hype around their other series.

“With Chucks, people were buying because they liked it, not because they could make more money,” Vaughan says of the style of Converse sneakers that gained fame in the 1970s.

“For example, the Nike Tiffany Dunk SB was released in 2005 for $100 to $150. It will now sell for around $900.

“That’s why kids line up overnight. When you can buy the shoes first off, you can buy them at retail. The kids are going right back out and selling them to somebody in line.”

Shoe corporations seem to have perfected a release strategy that feeds the momentum and resale potential, using what’s known as strikes.

The quickstrike is a limited special edition shoe, and the hyperstrike is ultra limited in production, generally for the elite customer. Nike’s Marty McFly, named after Michael J. Fox’s character in Back to the Future, falls into that category. Only 10 pairs of shoes a day were sold for 15 days on an auction site, going for $5,000 to $10,000 each.

The hysteria over sneakers and their resale value has exposed some connoisseurs to theft. Several years ago, burglars raided Vaughan’s home for his prized footwear. He learned to spread his stash across a number of places.

It’s a new and sobering reality, he says. “People collect shoes like it’s going out of style now.”

With his 884 pairs and counting, Phillip Wilson is perhaps the local king of sneaker addicts.

Shoeboxes consume his closet. Outside the closet, they’re stacked from floor to ceiling. Some are stored at a relative’s house. He’s even made a chair out of his boxes.

His wife doesn’t mind much, he says, considering they wear the same size shoe.

“I might collect a lot of shoes, but I’m not a hoarder.”

He reconsiders.

“A bit excessive,” he concedes.

He’s been drawn to sneakers since he was about 5, courtesy of an uncle. He distinctly recalls at age 6 having a beloved pair of Nike Air Pegasus. And unlike many other sneakerheads, whose parents were reluctant to shell out a lot on kids’ shoes, his mom paid $200 for the Air Foamposite One, also known as Penny Hardaway’s Air Penny 1.

“I love having shoes that no one else has, but I also like the newness of it,” Wilson says. He’s paid $1,235 for the Jordan 1 at an auction. Lore has it that there are only 23 in the world, the 23 representing Jordan’s jersey number.

“Jordan,” he boasts, “doesn’t even have that shoe.”

On this afternoon, he’s changed out of his office shoes for lunch with his buddies in the Almighty Soul Crew. He’s put on a pair of midnight, navy and reef blue Nike Avenger Dunk SB Lows. They coordinate with his light blue and white Nike-logo embroidered oxford shirt, complete with silver Nike cuff links.

He and his three Crewmates have made a business of collecting and reselling sneakers. The group is a conglomerate of artists and entrepreneurs with a mission of promoting sneaker culture, says member Derek Locust, a 30-year-old self-employed collector in Hampton. Their network organized in 2007 but by 2009 had filtered down to a handful of diehards. They run a sneaker consignment shop via their Facebook page and their website, almightysoulcrew.com. Fans follow them on Twitter @almightysoulcrw.

Their passion for sneakers bonds them so deeply that they meet at least once a week at random restaurants for banter and business. Where Sex and the City left off with fashion as a character, the crew picks up with a Sneakers and the City version where they loosen any harness to discuss their lust for footwear.

Today the men are comparing the current fervor for sneakers to the ’80s and ’90s when the releases would hit the market on a school day, a practice that has been dropped to discourage children from skipping school. And even with a job or a healthy allowance, $100-plus for footwear was no small amount then, they recall.

Rodney Smith

A third Crewman is DJ PUNisha, a 26-year-old Portsmouth deejay who’ll reveal only his last name: Anderson. His mom died when he was 10. She’d instilled in him a drive to excel. Family members entrusted with his care rewarded him with $50 for every A and $25 for every B.

“So I did everything,” he says, to get shoes. “On any specific shoe I could tell you what it meant to me.”

The retro re-releases are particularly coveted because the earlier shoes were much better constructed and the design was ahead of the era, he says.

“The quality was better,” chimes in Marque Robinson, a 23-year-old mass communications major at Norfolk State. “Then you were wearing the exact shoe Jordan was wearing.”

That there is real money to be made is evident in Wilson’s business deals. He snaps up multiple pairs of the same shoe, sells some and keeps some. The most he’s paid for a pair of sneakers is $2,200; he then sold them for $3,330. He says he’s sold $22,000 worth of elite sneakers to one customer alone in the past three years. Locust, too, has refined his strategy. A year ago, he had 425 pairs; now it’s down to 125.

“A year ago I purchased to collect and resell, and now it’s for personal use and to resell.”

Chris Vaughan is wary of anyone who doesn’t appreciate the art of the shoe and wants only to gain.

“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s not even necessarily people who like shoes but someone who wants to make money.”

For true sneakerheads, the craze has been credited with unifying people of different backgrounds.

“You can tell someone who collects shoes by what they have on their feet. … It’s really bridged the gap,” he says. “When you see a guy wearing shoes like that and you go up and start talking, you’re in the same culture.”

Like Wilson, the father of young Zorah, Vaughan wants to pass down his love for the culture. He looks around at the colorful kicks adorning his store shelves, and he hopes.

“I want to have a kid and have him decked out in all this stuff.”

BEHIND THE DESIGN

Shoes provided by Sole Brother, Ghent, Norfolk, VA

To sneakerheads, Nike’s shoes are the main collectibles.  Most have a story behind what supposedly inspired their designers. Some shoes, for example, are based on movie characters, some on animals; some are just unique designs by famous designers or celebrities. Here’s a sampling, from Chris Vaughan of Sole Brother in Norfolk.

Warning:  You might get hooked, start collecting and become a full-fledged sneakerhead.

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