The Ultimate Guide To Starting A Sneaker Collection
Sneaker collecting is an increasingly serious and increasingly legitimate business. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had maybe two or three pairs of trainers (not sneakers) at any one time, which I wore until I grew out of or destroyed them, whichever came first. They were more function than fashion. Today, kids and adults alike fill their wardrobes (and cupboards and the spaces under their beds) with treasured collections of kicks. More than any other collectible, sneakers transcend generations and demographics.
Sneaker culture is deeply interlaced with sports culture and music culture. For purists, a shoebox is a time capsule containing a touchstone that confers a sense of connection akin to an iconic album or a classic game. For traders, sneakers are a commodity to be bought and sold for profit, a side hustle that can quickly grow into a lucrative business if you know what you’re doing. For hypebeasts, it’s all about what’s most covetable – being seen wearing sneakers so hot they leave scorch marks as you walk.
Regardless of whether buyers are motivated by pleasure, profit or peacockery (and those things are not mutually exclusive), everyone has to start somewhere. Getting into the sneaker game can feel intimidating or cliquey initially because there is an element of in-the-know snobbery. IYKYK. This guide – compiled with the help of several experts, spanning industry professionals and enthusiastic amateurs – is designed to give you a foothold as you get started. But beware, all ye who enter; it can be addictive.
Learn to talk the talk
Silhouettes. Grails. Colourways. Drops… Sneaker culture has its own vernacular. “The universal language really started when the forums started to appear: NikeTalk, Crooked Tongues, Sneaker Freaker, etc,” says sneaker historian Mr Magdi Fernandes. “The community created this, not the brands.”
The terminology can feel bewildering at first. “But watch enough sneaker-unboxing videos on YouTube, listen to enough sneaker discussions on Clubhouse and follow enough sneaker accounts on Instagram and Twitter and you’ll soon pick it up by osmosis,” says Mr Tom Woodger, vice-president of cultural marketing at StockX, an online marketplace for buying and selling limited-edition sneakers and other collectibles. (Our “Kicktionary” glossary of terms, below, will give you the basics.)
As you get more into it, there’s no shortage of reputable editorial sites for all things sneaker culture. Sneaker Freaker, Complex, Hypebeast and Highsnobiety are among the most established, in depth and respected.
Focus on cultural rather than financial appreciation
OG collectors tend to shake their heads at the younger generation of keyboard warriors who are in it for the hype and the resell hustle, rather than the culture. “Collecting is a personal thing, whereas reselling is just sourcing trainers that you know you can make a profit on with no emotional attachment,” says Mr Ché Storey, an adidas devotee who first introduced me to sneaker culture when we worked together 20 years ago.
“Buying and selling turns sneakers into just another commodity,” says Mr Nihal Arthanayake, Radio 5 Live broadcaster and sneaker aficionado. “It’s cold and transactional.”
An investment of knowledge will pay off in the long run. “The information is all there online now,” says sneakerhead Mr Sam Brandt, a former footwear curator at Dover Street Market, with a collection of more than 1,000 pairs. “Learn one fact about each pair you buy, such as who designed it, what the technology is, the backstory, the inspiration.” Brant spent his teenage years amassing what his parents thought was “useless knowledge” – until he made a successful career out of it. “In time, you might turn your passion into your job.”
There are a number of good sneaker books available – as well as a ton of average ones – and they’re not just for looking cool on your carefully curated shelves. Hey, we all do it. Sneaker historian Mr Nick Schonberger, a Nike editor and contributor to many books and exhibitions, recommends the classics Sole Provider by Mr Robert “Scoop” Jackson and Where’d You Get Those? by Mr Bobbito Garcia. The Sneaker Freaker team have produced some excellent books. Also check out Icons from the late, great Mr Virgil Abloh, which features his take on 10 of Nike’s most iconic sneakers, and Nike: Better Is Temporary, a behind-the-scenes look at Nike’s research lab.
Find out what’s coming out when
The thrill of the chase is half the fun, but you have to know where to hunt. Download the SNKRS app for a heads-up on high heat from Nike. All brands’ footwear releases vary by location, but Sneaker News, Sole Collector and The Drop Date are pretty comprehensive compendiums that are on every collector’s bookmarks bar. (In the UK, also check out The Sole Supplier.) Then there are all the blogs competing for kick-clicks, such as Sneaker Files, House Of Heat, Sneakers Cartel, Grailify, Kicks On Fire and Freshness, among many, many others. As for Instagram and Twitter, the list is endless. Apart from the accounts attached to all of the above, check out What’s Dropping, Cop ’Em, The Hype Leaks and Py-Rates.
“If anything takes your fancy, put the drop dates and times in your iCal so you don’t miss the releases,” says Mr Luke Piasecki, a collector, networker and all-round side hustler. Everyone has that wheeler-dealer mate who can somehow get their hands on anything, from grail sneakers, to sold out tickets, to a hot restaurant reservation. For me, Piasecki is that man.
It would also be remiss of us not to mention the Sneaker Drop, MR PORTER’s monthly dive into the latest releases we’re stocking, only on The Journal.
Find out who to know
Knowing what is being released is one thing. Getting hold of them is something else entirely. As with so many things in life, it’s often who you know.
There are various ways to embed yourself in the community to increase your chances of getting first dibs. “Tap up the one sneakerhead you know to get an invite to Facebook sneaker groups, Clubhouse discussions and Discordservers where all the key info is shared around,” says Woodger.
“Sneaker Academics is a good place to find out about swap meets and other sneaker community events,” says Storey. “That’s where to meet people who live and breathe sneakers all day.” The bigger conventions include Sneakerness, Sneaker Con and, in the UK, Crepe City.
The community’s most respected collectors know the value of kicking it IRL through relationships built up over years of shared passion. “I’m all about meeting people face to face,” says Mr Kish Kash, a cultural curator, brand consultant and collaborator with more than 3,000 pairs of sneakers in his collection. “Nothing beats going into the sneaker stores and meeting great personalities and creatives who can inspire you.”
Discover how to cop the drop
Sneaker hype is driven in large part by rarity. With global supply chain issues hitting all the sneaker brands hard, the scarcity is increasingly real, rather than manufactured.
“It’s a hustle – that’s the game,” says Kash. “But the days of overnight camp-outs for first-come-first-served releases are dying out. You do still sometimes see lines around the block outside sneaker stores, but that system is hard if you have a regular job.”
Online, the sneaker community is struggling to cope with the scourge of bots, increasingly sophisticated automated software applications that hoover up sneaker drops for resellers before genuine collectors have a chance to tap in the security code on the back of their credit card.
Most sneaker stores now run raffles to try to beat the bots, but even they are hackable. Every second counts. “Set alerts on your phone so you’re ready and in position ahead of the release time,” says Piasecki. “Pre-populate sites with your saved credit card info where possible, so you don’t waste time form-filling, and make sure you’ve got a very quick internet connection.”
“Enter as many raffles as you can to increase your chances of success,” says Ms Hanna Helsø, a sneaker collector and influencer. “And if you’re lucky and win more than one, then you can easily sell the additional pairs on if you want to.”
Navigate the resell market
Which brings us, inevitably, to reselling. “Doubling up” has always been a part of collecting, mainly so sneakerheads could afford to keep funding their habit. You’d buy two pairs if possible – one to keep and one to sell – so that you could afford the next pair. For many collectors, their life savings are stacked up in their bedrooms. “And sometimes when times are tight, you have to liquidate some assets by selling a few pairs,” says Kash. “I’ve been there.”
Reselling has completely exploded in the past few years. Analysis of the sector by investment bank Cowen earlier this year estimated that the sneaker resale market was already worth $2 billion in the US alone and could reach $30bn globally by 2030. StockX is now worth $3.8bn.
The secondary market has skyrocketed during the pandemic. People stuck at home, with more cash to spend because they’re not going out or going on holiday, have been trading kicks at record levels. Digitally savvy resellers are cashing in big time. “We went from revenues of £2m a year pre-pandemic to £2m a month during the pandemic,” says Mr Rob Franks, co-founder of the UK’s biggest reseller, Kick Game.
It’s a grey market that is becoming so legitimised even auction houses are entering the chat. Sotheby’s and Phillips have whole teams now dedicated to sneakers. “I tell my team they are buying and selling works of modern art,” says Franks. Shoes can be part of an investment portfolio of collectibles that appreciate in value, like fine watches or art.
If you have the money, the verified aftermarket pretty much guarantees you can get what you want. You should expect to pay a substantial mark-up on the original price tag, but basic price comparison research can ensure you don’t get scammed and end up overpaying. StockX, which tracks sneakers’ real-time value like stocks, is a useful guide as it shows the full price and sales history of different silhouettes so you can make sure you’re trading at a fair current market price.
Beware of sneaker snakes
“Fakes are flooding the market,” says Magdi. You’ve got to be especially careful going direct via private listings. “If the deal looks too good to be true, it generally is,” says Brandt.
Ask for pictures and a video of the shoes. “Look at the box,” says Brandt. “Look at the quality of the label, learn where the labels are placed, study the tags inside the shoes, which have the production date, release date, factory code, shoe SKU, often a QR code now.”
Verification– which all the big resell players, such as StockX, Kick Game, eBay, Goat and Klekt, now provide – is key. Experts can sniff out fakes, sometimes literally. “There is a certain smell to Nike sneakers from the glues they use and the factories they are made in,” says Brandt.
Don’t (just) believe the hype
A hypebeast and his money are soon parted. For some purists, it’s a mug’s game trying to battle the bots, take part in multiple raffles or deal with opportunistic flippers charging extortionate prices for deadstock. But there is another way. Resist herd mentality. “When they go hype, we go low,” says Piasecki, whose collection is focused mainly around Air Max shoes.
“Back when we started collecting, if everyone else had it, we didn’t want it,” says Brandt. “And if my mates said they didn’t like a shoe I’d bought, that probably made me like it even more. Now everyone wants the same Off-Whites, etc. You’re just flexing. There’s nothing original about it. My advice: be more discerning. Don’t buy something just because everyone else is buying it. Be individual. Find a shoe you’re really into personally and collect that.”
Kash agrees. “Individuality is key in an era of conformity,” he says. “There are some great shoes that the hypeheads don’t seem to want, such as the New Balance x Bodega 990s that I’m wearing today. Beautiful shoes, no one cares. Great! Or [Nike] Huaraches. They had a moment about five years ago, but now no one cares. Fantastic shoe.”
Arthanayake suggests taking a moment for honest introspection. “Ask yourself why you’re buying them,” he says. “Are they just a social signifier, like a flashy watch for your feet? Or do they mean something to you? Are they going to complement your wardrobe?”
Educate yourself on storing them
Substantial collections take up a lot of real estate. “Be prepared to risk the ire of your significant other,” says Storey, who speaks from experience. Serious aficionados can devote whole rooms to their collection and that rent really adds up over the years.
“There’s the usual pattern: once you move in with a partner or have a family, sneakers get moved into a loft or a garage, but those are the very worst places to store them,” says Brandt. “These spaces get too hot in summer and too cold in winter and those extremes of temperature tend to dry out and crack shoes or turn them moldy, so when you finally come to wear them or sell them, they’re completely ruined.”
A lot of sneakerheads keep their collections in their wardrobes and/or under their beds where the temperature is more ambient and the humidity more stable. Storey uses dust sheets. A dehumidifier is a smart investment. “A bit embarrassing, but I do keep some important things at a facility primarily used by others for wine storage,” says Schonberger. “I have failed a major rule. Give yourself a constraint of space. I have shoes in way too many places.”
What to do with all the boxes? “Always keep the original box if you ever think you might sell them second-hand,” says Piasecki. “You’ll get a better price with the box.”
“Oh man, you’ve to keep the original boxes,” says Kash. “To me, they’re part of the shoe, part of the design. So yeah, stack ’em up.”
“I keep them in the original boxes, but make sure that only the same size boxes are on top of one another to avoid any crumpling of corners,” says Storey. Woodger, as ever, has an eye on the StockX resale value and advises keeping ones you may intend to sell inside the original box and then inside a plastic box to make sure the sneaker box doesn’t get damaged. He also advocates borrowing a trick from resale stores and using shrink wrap to protect the shoes from dust, humidity and dirty fingers.
If, like Helsø, you keep your sneakers out on display, be sure to keep them away from direct sunlight, which can lead to fading and discolouration over time.
Make a decision on wearing
If you intend to sell the shoes, even trying them on can erode their value. (See “deadstock” in the Kicktionary below.) You may well have holy grails that you can never wear, but otherwise “wear your shoes, or they will degrade and fall apart”, says Magdi. It might seem counter-intuitive, but wearing sneakers can prolong the life of materials such as foam by compacting them. Otherwise, like a classic car that’s been left to rust or a fine wine that’s turned to vinegar, your sneakers can fall apart. “I’ve had to throw away hundreds of pairs due to not wearing them and the soles end up crumbling,” says Magdi. Maybe he should have kept them. “People are buying crumbled shoes now,” says Franks. “Not to wear, but to own, like modern-day artworks.”
Arthanayake gets philosophical on this issue. “There’s something about how our footwear deteriorates, how it changes, how it becomes us through the way we move and the way we walk,” he says. But if you care about your shoes, even your everyday beaters, you’re going to make an effort to look after them. Talking of which…
Get invested in cleaning
First of all, give box-fresh sneakers a protective spritz with a hydrophobic barrier such as Scotchgard or Jason Markk Repel Spray, which will keep them looking crispy for longer. “Some sprays are not so safe to use indoors, but Jason Markk’s is non-toxic and all natural,” says Brandt.
“My tip is to give your sneakers a little wipe after each wear to stop stains bedding in and to postpone the deeper cleans,” says Helsø. Jason Markk Quick Wipes are just the job here. Keep a couple on you for emergencies.
For more restorative care, both Sneakers ER and Crep Protectsell touch-up paints and paint pens. The former offers a postal laundry service within the UK while the latter provides professional cleans at select flagship stores around the world.
Get versed in the sneakers every aficionado should own
We asked every expert involved in this story for the shoes that should be in every sneaker fan’s rotation. Tastes and opinions vary greatly, which is part of the point, and people will doubtless take issue with this list. If you’re a Jordan or an Air Max fan, for example, you’ll naturally lean more heavily into those.
We sharpened the focus to sportswear brands, rather than opening it up to luxury brands, and we narrowed in on classic silhouettes that have stood the test of time and are easier to get hold of than one-offs and high-heat collabs.
If you’re looking for a solid base to build on, here are the silhouettes that got the most votes. How many can you tick off?
adidas Originals Samba
adidas Originals Gazelle
New Balance 574
Nike Air Max 1
Reebok Club C
Learn the language of sneakers
Learn to talk the talk as well as walk the walk with this brief guide to sneaker-speak.
Beater A go-to pair you wear whatever the weather and don’t mind “beating up”.
BIN Buy It Now, the price a reseller sets if you don’t want to get into a haggle.
Bot Controversial software that games the system to automate the checkout process and purchase items quicker than is humanly possible. Bot users then resell at a higher price.
Colourway The colour or combination of colours used to differentiate styles.
Cop To successfully buy a pair of sneakers.
Crispy When a sneaker is very, very clean.
Deadstock A pair that have never been worn or even tried on. They’ve stayed in the box since you bought them, factory-laced.
Double up When you buy two pairs – one to rock and one to stock (or resell).
Drop A new sneaker release, often limited and therefore much anticipated and hyped.
Grail A highly collectible and covetable sneaker.
Heat A measure of a shoe’s hype.
High-top A sneaker that rises above or on the ankle.
Hypebeast A person who buys whatever is trending or deemed “high heat” and focuses on flexing.
Kicks Another word for sneakers, trainers, creps/crepes.
L A loss, a failure to cop.
Lows The opposite of high-tops, sneakers that sit below the ankle.
Mids Short for mid-tops. Any sneaker that’s in between a high-top and a low-top.
OG Original. The original release of a sneaker, not a retro or a rerelease.
Reseller Someone who buys as many limited-release sneakers as they can with the sole intention of selling them to make a profit.
Restock When a store receives a new delivery of a previously sold-out sneaker.
Retro Retrospective. A sneaker that has been rereleased.
Silhouette A sneaker design
Sneakerhead A true cultural aficionado, as distinct from a reseller, who is more about the transaction.
W A win, a successful purchase.
Illustration by Mr Ben Lamb