FEET ON THE GROUND

For­get fancy footwear. The mod­ern man is mea­sured by the rar­ity of his sneak­ers, writes Hafsa Lodi

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For­get fancy footwear. The mod­ern man is mea­sured by the rar­ity of his sneak­ers

E rmenegildo Zegna is an Ital­ian fash­ion house best known for the qual­ity of its men’s suits. But ear­lier this year, when Zegna un­veiled its first see-now, buy-now prod­uct on the run­way dur­ing Mi­lan Fash­ion Week, it was a pair of high-top leather trainers, cost­ing ap­prox­i­mately Dh3,300.

The trainer has carved a place for it­self at the very high­est ech­e­lons of lux­ury menswear, si­mul­ta­ne­ously ce­ment­ing its sta­tus as a bona fide col­lec­tor’s item. And while la­bels such as Lan­vin, Givenchy, Valentino and Ba­len­ci­aga have all jumped on the band­wagon, these high-fash­ion of­fer­ings don’t re­ally get to the heart of the ur­ban-footwear move­ment, which cen­tres on cre­ativ­ity, in­no­va­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Gucci’s Ace trainer, which fea­tures the brand’s sig­na­ture stripes and a snake, bee or lion ap­pliqué, may be one of this year’s It shoes. But what at­tracts true sneaker con­nois­seurs is not your mass-mar­ket footwear, read­ily avail­able at ev­ery lux­ury de­part­ment store. In­stead, shoes de­signed by ath­letic brands in col­lab­o­ra­tion with sea­soned cre­atives, and pro­duced in lim­ited quan­ti­ties, are what prompt sneaker en­thu­si­asts to fly across the world for their next pair.

That’s ex­actly what Al­ge­rian sneaker col­lec­tor Yaseen Ben­chouche once did, just to get his hands on the lim­ited-edi­tion Nike Air Max 180 Cow­boy Sole Col­lec­tors. Ben­chouche be­gan col­lect­ing trainers in 1995, and to­day owns be­tween 500 and 600 pairs. In 2006, he flew from Paris to Mi­ami and stood third in a queue of hun­dreds out­side Nike­town. Rules were strict – you could leave your place in the queue to quickly use the bath­room or grab a bite to eat, but if you were gone for longer than an hour, you’d lose your spot. “When I told peo­ple I had trav­elled from France, they said: ‘Nah, you liar.’ Then I pulled out my pass­port and plane ticket, and they said I was the cra­zi­est per­son, be­cause I had come all the way for one pair of shoes,” re­calls Ben­chouche.

Avid col­lec­tors will go to ex­treme lengths and queue up for hours – some­times days – to buy lim­ited-edi­tion shoes. “Some peo­ple find it crazy that we would camp out in the cold in Lon­don overnight just to get a pair of sneak­ers,” says Abu Dhabi-based col­lec­tor Jack Brett, aka Jack­son, who moved to the UAE from Lon­don in 2009. He ex­plains that his on­go­ing hunt for cool sneak­ers can dic­tate his hol­i­day plans.

“Choos­ing which stores, sneak­ers or streetwear cul­tures I want to see, has a mas­sive im­pact on where I travel. I can’t re­mem­ber the last hol­i­day I ac­tu­ally went on that didn’t in­volve go­ing to see a cer­tain store,” he says. “Ja­pan is still num­ber one on my list.”

Streetwear cul­ture in Ja­pan is what in­spired the con­cept of the shoe col­lec­tor’s con­sign­ment store, says Ben­chouche. One of his friends, Da­many Weir, brought the con­cept to the United States when he launched Flight Club – which is one of the world’s

Sneak­ers are part of who we are now; you can’t avoid that

most pop­u­lar mar­ket­places for trainers. Ben­chouche took the con­cept to Europe, where he worked un­der the col­lec­tor’s pseu­do­nym Epsi, and launched Wall Kicks Paris, be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Al­ge­ria and open­ing a store called Sneaker City.

Some of the most valu­able sneak­ers cur­rently avail­able at Flight Club are the Air Jor­dan 3 Retro Grate­ful shoes, which are listed at Dh92,000; the Nike Air Yeezy 2 shoes in Red Oc­to­ber, for Dh22,050; and Adi­das Ul­tra Boost Mi­ami Hur­ri­canes, at Dh14,700. Buy­ers can pay up­front or through monthly in­stal­ments over one year.

The con­sign­ment store model is suc­cess­ful be­cause it’s where “sneak­er­heads” can both stock and seek hard-to-find styles. But not all col­lec­tors are sneak­er­heads, claims Joshua Cox, who, along with Kris Ba­lerite, Hus­sain Moloob­hoy and Raj Mal­ho­tra, founded Sole DXB, an ur­ban footwear, fash­ion and life­style event held an­nu­ally in Dubai.

“A col­lec­tor may have an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion and el­e­ments of the cul­ture they like – but isn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­grained in the life­style,” says Cox. “A sneak­er­head lives and breathes ev­ery sin­gle as­pect of sneak­ers. They will stand in line for hours wait­ing for the lat­est drop, scour the in­ter­net end­lessly look­ing for a pair they couldn’t get their hands on, and con­nect with other like-minded ‘heads’ within the com­mu­nity to get the lat­est scoop on trad­ing val­ues. Sim­ply put, a sneak­er­head is a diehard en­thu­si­ast, who ap­pre­ci­ates good de­sign and will stop at noth­ing for rare finds.”

But what do col­lec­tors ac­tu­ally do with their trainers, es­pe­cially when they have hun­dreds? Do they put them on dis­play in a show­room, never to be worn, or do they ac­tu­ally wear them? “If you’re some­one who has to con­sider that ques­tion, then you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to want to buy two of ev­ery­thing,” says Sole DXB’s Ba­lerite. Ben­chouche agrees. “Real sneaker col­lec­tors al­ways buy two to three pairs [of one de­sign],” he says. “Al­ways dou­ble-dou­ble – wear one, and keep the other to re­sell.”

It takes a great deal of fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment, as well as a fair bit of net­work­ing, to be­come a col­lec­tor of

“Fash­ion houses are now look­ing to younger, more in­flu­en­tial creative di­rec­tors to lead and chal­lenge the stereo­typ­i­cal norms of fash­ion,” says Sole DXB’s Mal­ho­tra. And while these may not al­ways em­body the street-level soul of trainer-trad­ing, they have helped to wash the shoe of its grungy stereo­types.

Turk­ish de­signer Bünyamin Ay­din of Is­tan­bul­based la­bel, Les Benjamins, says that streetwear – and trainers – are a part of the so­cial iden­tity of mil­len­ni­als. Ay­din be­came the first Mid­dle Eastern brand to col­lab­o­rate with Nike, when, this March, he was one of 12 de­sign­ers world­wide se­lected by the brand to come up with a de­sign in­spired by the clas­sic Air Max sil­hou­ette.

But even though trainers are trend­ing, and be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ac­cept­able even for for­mal oc­ca­sions, Ay­din points out that some tra­di­tional out­lets have yet to catch up with this new life­style. “Some res­tau­rants that I’ve seen, even here in Dubai, and in Lon­don, still do not al­low sneak­ers,” he says. “I was so shocked to see that – I mean, sneak­ers are part of who we are now; you can’t avoid that. Some sneak­ers are even more ex­pen­sive than loafers. I’m in this cul­ture, I’m not go­ing to wear Tod’s, that’s not me. If it isn’t ac­cept­able, then I’m in the wrong place.” other very well. The ac­cess is now global, and so is the in­ter­ac­tion, which be­fore was a mas­sive hur­dle,” ex­plains Jack­son.

How­ever, the sud­den, wide-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions of the web and so­cial me­dia may have also al­tered the very soul of the pre­vi­ously ur­ban, un­der­ground na­ture of sneaker-col­lect­ing. “Now it’s dif­fer­ent,” says Ben­chouche. “You only see re­sellers in the queues; no­body’s re­ally pas­sion­ate about the shoes any­more, they just want to buy them and sell them on sites like eBay within the next hour.”

None­the­less, many col­lec­tors re­main loyal to the orig­i­nal trade, and con­tinue to value creative vi­sion over trend hys­te­ria. “For us, it’s all down to col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says Sole DXB’s Moloob­hoy. “Sure, there’s an el­e­ment of ‘hype’ and ‘lim­ited quan­ti­ties’ in­volved, but we don’t mind that.

“We’re talk­ing about col­lab­o­ra­tion in its purest sense – when two en­ti­ties come to­gether and pro­duce a prod­uct in­spired by a col­lec­tive creative jour­ney and unique vi­sion. A true rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of a sil­hou­ette through the de­con­struc­tion of de­sign, ma­te­rial and colour,” he ex­plains.

Whether it’s pop­u­lated by vet­eran col­lec­tors or new-age shoe ad­dicts, the sneak­er­head com­mu­nity is ex­pand­ing all over the world, and with con­cepts like Sole DXB be­com­ing yearly events on the cal­en­dar, the UAE is no ex­cep­tion. The 15-year-old Emi­rati YouTu­ber Rashed Bel­hasa, also known as Money Kicks, is the re­gion’s poster child for ex­pen­sive sneak­ers, with a col­lec­tion worth hun­dreds of thou­sands of dirhams.

Con­sumers in the UAE are also no­to­ri­ously brand­con­scious, so the ma­jor­ity will grav­i­tate to­wards trainers with de­signer names af­fixed to them. Jack­son points out that brands are now con­nect­ing with a wider au­di­ence through ex­clu­sive part­ner­ships and capsule col­lec­tions, cit­ing the re­cent col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Louis Vuit­ton and streetwear la­bel Supreme (a col­lab­o­ra­tion that Bel­hasa also in­vested in, get­ting hold of trainers, clothes and bags from the col­lec­tion, and foil­ing his Fer­rari to match it, too). sneak­ers – even if one’s mo­tives are purely per­sonal. “Only buy what you can af­ford,” ad­vises Jack­son. “Plan ahead for the hard-to-get re­leases and be pre­pared to hus­tle for the ones you re­ally want. Be more than happy to help other peo­ple, as what goes around comes around.”

Jack­son is in the process of launch­ing a new con­cept space in the UAE. “By team­ing up with some of the most renowned lead­ers in the in­dus­try, we’re bring­ing a be­spoke men’s bar­ber­shop, se­lect sneaker and streetwear con­sign­ment store, and spe­cialty cof­fee all un­der one roof. We aim to be a cul­tural hub here in the UAE where you can ex­press your art, de­sign and style,” says the en­tre­pre­neur.

At Sole DXB, which this year takes place on the week­end of De­cem­ber 7 in Dubai De­sign Dis­trict (d3), sneaker ven­dors from all over the world ex­hibit their valu­able wares, some of which are shoes that were made ex­clu­sively for a brand’s fam­ily and friends. These are ex­tremely rare, as they are made in very lim­ited quan­ti­ties and never even make it to stores. Through­out his ca­reer as a col­lec­tor, Ben­chouche has owned some fam­ily and friend ex­clu­sives, in­clud­ing the Nike Air Force PlayS­ta­tion sneak­ers. When word spread in the col­lec­tors com­mu­nity that Jay-Z was on the look­out for a pair, Ben­chouche, who had them in the right size, sold them to the rap­per for about Dh7,000. The most valu­able find the col­lec­tor has ever come across, how­ever, was an Air Jor­dan X Eminem shoe. “At the time that I had it, it was around Dh20,000, but within a few years its value sky­rock­eted to around Dh90,000,” he says.

While con­sign­ment stores were once op­ti­mal spa­ces for sneak­er­heads, the in­dus­try has since evolved. In­ter­na­tional fairs, such as Sneaker Con, take place around the world, while on­line mar­ket­places, such as StockX.com, are con­ve­nient and re­li­able plat­forms for buy­ing and sell­ing rare sneak­ers. And through so­cial­me­dia apps like In­sta­gram, re-sell­ers can con­nect with cus­tomers around the world within min­utes. “The growth of the cul­ture has hap­pened in line with the growth of so­cial me­dia; they com­ple­ment each

CLIMB THE RANKS Le , Tiziano XXX sneak­ers from Ermenegildo Zegna. Be­low, the Asics Gel-Lyte trainer at the Sole DXB event

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