Saturday, October 29, 2022


One of the weirdest developments of the 21st Century was the emergence of sneakerheads.

I did some Design Patent work for a large sneaker company, and it was an interesting experience.  We got prototype sneakers sent to us, hand-made, and they would be floating around the office.  It was fun to look at next year's models before anyone else saw them.  Funny story - one day a homeless bum broke into our office and took off his smelly sneakers (and left them on my desk, thank you very much - I still can't get rid of that "smell memory"!) and stole two of the prototype sneakers. Since they sent us only one of each pair, he had a mis-matched set.  He also rummaged through offices and stole small things and loose change.

Anyway, we called the cops and they took a report.  Meanwhile, one of the guys running the massive photocopiers ("the uncomplaining associate" they called those machines) got a call from his cousin who ran the parking garage across the street.  "You gotta see this, man!  This homeless dude is sporting the most outlandish pair of mismatched sneakers!"  Well, the Police came, and in a rare instance of justice, actually arrested someone for a crime in DC.

To a sneaker collector, those hand-made prototypes would be gold, today.

Back then - the 1990's - people didn't collect sneakers, they wore them.  And at the time, the media was rife with stories about young black kids in the ghetto, pining for a pair of Air Jordans, which cost over $100!  Grandma would buy her grandson a pair, using the money she made as a custodian - money she could ill-afford to lose.  And the next day, in school, the bullies would beat the shit out of that kid and steal his sneakers.  In other cases, people were being killed over them.

It was sort of an embarrassing thing for Nike, as the company was mostly white folks, and they were paying athletes outrageous sums of money to have their name attached to a sneaker, or in some cases, just to sport the logo.  And since the sneakers cost little to make in Korea, the profits were astounding.  For professional athletes, the sneaker endorsement contracts were more lucrative than their million-dollar signing bonuses.   Meanwhile, some black kid in the ghetto is bleeding out in the gutter, with no shoes on - shot for his sneakers.  People will do anything for status, it seems - kill for it, or die for it.

Well, as you might imagine, there was an uproar over this.  And over time, the hoopla died down and people stopped going nuts over what was, in essence, a commodity item.   But in recent years, it has ramped up again, although this time around, fewer people are being shot for their sneakers, as the people buying these $500 shoes are not even wearing them.

Enter the sneakerhead.  These are ideal consumers for the sneaker companies as they don't even use the product (that would ruin its value!) but instead collect and display sneakers like people used to do with Beanie Babies, or shot glasses, or thimble or spoon collections.  It has been so long since I did sneaker work, so I was largely unaware of this phenomenon until recently.

As you get older, you don't give a shit what other people think about your shoes.  You hope to wake up not in pain, and get through another day without going broke.  You start to appreciate contentment over happiness, as the latter, with its dopamine rushes, often costs more in the long run, as you have to pay back that hit with an equally measured amount of misery.  Buying a brand-new car may be "fun" but the back-end part, where you make five years of car and insurance payments, is misery.

So old people generally look for sturdy and comfortable shoes - because glitzy shoes with no support can kill your back.  And you don't give a shit about what people think about your shoes - and you don't give a shit about people who care about what other people are wearing.  You learn, over time, that such people are boorish and toxic and not worth knowing.

But in High School, the opinions of others - including people you hate - are something to live and literally die for.  These "school shooters" are often months or weeks away from graduation - and moving on with life and moving away from what is the worst four years of your life, if you have a soul.  If High School was the highlight of your life, then, hey, you probably still care about what other people are wearing for shoes.  You're an idiot.  Sorry.

Youth is indeed wasted on the young.

Of course, sneakerheads are not showing off their shoes in high school - given the staggering cost of the shoes, they tend to keep them in display boxes, to impress only other sneakerheads, and not people on the street.  They tend to be a little older as well - most high school kids, unless they are living in Hollywood, don't have the cash for $500 sneakers.

Is sneaker collecting stupid?  Well, no more or less than collecting anything else - which is to say, yes, it is stupid.  Collecting stuff is an stultifyingly boring hobby.  Whether it is a philatelist droning on about some "rare" stamp (which is just a scrap of paper with printing on it - which can, and often are, forged), or someone obsessing about old coins, old cars, glass bottles, beer cans - you-name-it, they collect it - it is sort of a pointless pursuit.  Like anything else, the little guy gets ripped-off in these deals. It is just like Bitcoin or gold - the little guy sees "everyone else" making money off these things, not realizing they are making money off chumps like him.

Yes, some of these things become "rare collectibles" and might be worth something, someday.  Others are just mass-produced junk, and the amateur collector has no real shot at accumulating anything of real value, over time.  It is fun to look at some of these collections, as well as old antiques.  But to spend countless hours at is and countless dollars?  You go right ahead with that.  I promise to feign interest in your hobby when you blather on about it.  I will!

The latest chapter in the sneaker saga, of course, is that Sleazy Wheezy lost his Billion-dollar sneaker contract with Adidas.   We used to think a million bucks was a scandalous amount of money to endorse a sneaker - and here is a guy who isn't even an athlete attaching his name to a product.   But of course, it has all come undone, rather quickly, just as endorsement contracts fall apart when athletes are caught cheating, doing drugs, beating their wives, or fighting dogs.  And in each instance, the true fans get all outraged that their false God is being called into account.

Don't be a fan - of someone else. It is about as stupid as being a sneaker collector.  Be your own #1 fan - you need all the help you can get.  The superstars?  Not so much!

While one can at least appreciate that the upside-down flying Jenny stamp is a rare collectible - they aren't making more of them - it is hard to understand why anyone would "collect" a manufactured good that is still in production, and literally millions of them could be made.  That was what unwound the "Beanie Baby" collection saga - people finally realized there was an unlimited supply and they were not worth thousands of dollars.  In fact, those ugly little bears were not even worth their sales price.

Another episode from my sneaker saga illustrates the point.  The reason why we got Design Patents on sneakers (and why every sneaker company does) is that people will make knock-offs, once they see the shoes (which back then cost under $10 to make and sold for $200) are selling like hotcakes.  The problem is, the people making the knock-offs are the same people making the real thing.  They fill an order for the US sneaker company and then keep the production line running to make "bootleg" sneakers for the overseas markets. It wasn't just a cheap copy, it was the real thing.

What is funny to me about sneakers is how inexpensive they can be.  I have been a fan of the Merrill Moab sneakers - between the two of us, we've bought about ten pairs.  They can be had for under $100 a pair, which is still a lot of money.  Like most sneakers, they last about a year or two before the expanded polyurethane foam compresses and they get dirty and nasty.  Better to just buy new ones every so often.  Unlike old leather shoes, they cannot be resoled - not that cobblers even exist anymore!

Recently, Mark took me to Bass Pro Shop to buy a pair of "Sketchers" which I was not a big fan of.  Why?  Because a few years ago, they were a "hip" sneaker and people were paying top dollar for them, and the soles were hard as rock.  I guess they were designed to skip and slide around in or something.  Well, now they are out-of-fashion and have soft comfy soles which are nice for around-the-house wearing.

And they were little over $30 a pair.

I have not been a fan of cheap shoes - I had a bad experience with a pair of Walmart sneakers back in the day - they fit poorly and the soles were hard as rock - made of some bizarre plastic material.  But cheap sneakers have improved quite a bit.  This summer, our kayaking sandals (Tevas) fell apart and we stopped by "Shoe World" in Missouri and found really nice sandals for like $30 a pair - far cheaper than Tevas or the over-rated Birkenstocks.

Now, of course, if you are really wealthy (as opposed to say, having a nice salary) you can afford to wear Prada.  You are not the Pope, however.  What kills the middle-class is when they try to ape the characteristics of the very wealthy.  A billionaire can wear a Swiss watch costing thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.  A middle-class person really can't afford to go around with that kind of money on his wrist.

And why?  No one wears "watches" anymore, except perhaps Apple watches, which, while overpriced, don't cost thousands - just yet.  The whole point of an expensive watch - or shoes, or handbags or whatever, is to try to project an image of power or status and superiority.  If you are a billionaire, maybe these are trivial expenses.  For the average American, just a waste of wealth - and you can't accumulate wealth by spending it.

I have a feeling that the "sneakerhead" phenomenon will go bust as Beanie Babies did.  When a recession comes, the middle-class collector will try to sell his coveted collector sneakers and discover, to his dismay, that every other chump is trying to unload his as well.  We saw this in 2008 with guns - people realized they had a very expensive paperweight in their closet, and they needed the money for more important things, like food and rent.

Collecting anything is really a dead-end.  Like I said, if you find it an amusing hobby, so be it.  But to throw hundreds or thousands of dollars at "collections" - as a middle-class person - is really an utter waste of money.  You are better off investing in something that earns money (and by that, I don't mean speculating - that is just another form of collecting!).   You can't accumulate wealthy by spending it. 

And if someone tries to tell you that someday, their sneaker collection will be worth millions, just back away slowly.  You're dealing with a crazy person.