Sole traders: how sneakers became as collectable as art

Lifestyle

To most people they just look like a pair of trainers or sneakers, but for Gerome Sapp the Nike Air Yeezy 1 Prototypes represent a watershed moment in design and modern commerce. “If you’re a sneakerhead, you know that sneaker,” says Sapp.

The art market is paying attention, too. The shoes, co-designed by Kanye West and worn by him to the Grammys in 2008, became the most expensive ever sold when Sapp’s company Rares bought them for $1.8m (£1.28m) at Sotheby’s in a private sale in April.

“It was a the first time Nike did a collaboration with an artist rather than an athlete, and let the artist have a hand in the design of it. So there are a lot of firsts around that sneaker,” Sapp adds.

Sapp believes the Yeezy sale will usher in a new era: one where sneakers are as valuable as collectable art or, as Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, said in 2020, many young people “may value sneakers more than a Matisse”.

“Flipping” sneakers (buying at retail and selling higher in the secondary market) can earn traders thousands of pounds of profit in minutes, with buyers hunting on social media sites such as Instagram for sought-after pairs.

The trade has proved pandemic-proof, with one estimate predicting the sneaker resale market could reach $30bn (£21.3bn) by 2030. “We’ve seen an exponential boost in the auction world,” adds Nicholas Smith, the author of Kicks: the Great American Story of Sneakers and host of the BBC’s new podcast Sneakernomics. “Now they are in the same area now as something collectible like baseball cards or luxury watches.”

Some pairs are so limited that they’re sold via lotteries, which traders attempt to bypass by using specialist software. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek front page recently featured a pair of Air Jordans with the tag line that tried to sum up the trend: “This isn’t a sneaker, it’s an asset class”.

But beyond the hype and headlines there are tangible signs that sneakers’ standing in the art world is shifting. The evolution of the footwear from functional item to collectable art is explored in the Design Museum’s Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street, which opens this week.

Such exhibitions give kudos and legitimacy to sneakers as art pieces, according to Smith. “We’re in a new chapter in the world of sneakers,” he says. “Collecting has been around for decades but it has really blown up in the last couple years thanks to social media, which makes it really easy to find a specific rare pair of sneakers.”

Sapp, a former Baltimore Ravens American football player who moved into the world of business startups, offers fractional ownership of hard-to-find sneakers via his company, Rares. Buyers can buy a share of a shoe and trade it as they would a stock, so the Nike Air Yeezy 1 Prototypes will be divided into 72,000 shares, each going for $25 each.

Sapp says the secondary market is now split into the flipping market (with sneakers going for around the $500 mark) and “investment grade sneakers”, which he describes as any shoe worth $5,000 and over. “Now, no disrespect to Matisse, you know if I can get my hands on that I will too,” says Sapp. “But right now, sneakers are the thing. I can see it every day, and I can tangibly touch it, and I can tangibly control it.”