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They Dress From The Bottom Up: Sneakerheads Converge In D.C.

Sep 8, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 1:16 pm

A line stretches down the hall, up the stairs, and out the door at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The voice of an event organizer echoes throughout space: "No fakes! We catch you selling fakes, you're getting kicked out!" he warns. "Embarrassment!"

It's Sneaker Con. Organizers say they are expecting about 10,000 people to converge at the convention center over the weekend for this stop of the global tour.

Sneaker Con is exactly what it sounds like.

"Everybody's out here buying sneakers, trading sneakers. Every sneaker you can imagine," describes Tamika Jeter.

She's a stylish Baltimore native wearing a pair of black and white checkered Commes Des Garcon x Nike Cortez Platform sneakers that retail for $390.

It's her first time at Sneaker Con but, a self-proclaimed sneakerhead, Jeter's excited by what she sees. "Exclusives, some [sneakers] that you haven't seen in years," she says. "Everything's here. For the sneaker fan, this is the place to be." She has her eyes out for a good deal on some Yeezy 700s, a collaboration between Adidas and Kanye West.

Tamika Jeter poses for a photo at Sneaker Con. A self-proclaimed Sneakerhead, she says she has always liked sneakers but they became part of her lifestyle after she broke her toe. She's pictured wearing the Commes Des Garcon x Nike Cortez Platform Sneaker, which retails for $390.
Mayowa Aina / NPR

People come from all over the country to buy, sell, and trade sneakers at this event. Organizers say it's one of the few places where people can still physically gather together to talk sneakers. These days more and more people RSVP for new shoes online and wait for a digital drop rather than waiting in lines wrapped around a Footlocker for hours.

The event started in 2009 in New York to celebrate sneaker culture, and has since evolved to include a digital marketplace, an app, and has even developed an authentication process that includes tagging shoes with microchips to indicate that they're real. It helps keep fake shoes out of the marketplace.

Attendees bring their shoes to have them tested and authenticated to make sure they're real.
Mayowa Aina / NPR

Fakes can create problems in a peer-to-peer marketplace like this. Organizers say that's just part of what happens when an item is popular or valuable. But, attendees like 20-year-old Yusuf Lewis say, the biggest issue is an over saturation of resellers.

Lewis flew to D.C. for Sneaker Con from Atlanta. He's the first person in line at the event and even though he says he loves sneakers, that's not really what the event is about for him anymore. "It's becoming more of a resellers playground instead of a person who's passionate about sneakers," he says. "It's not their playground anymore."

For many people, reselling shoes makes them a lot of money. And Lewis has done pretty well for himself too. He says he travels to almost every Sneaker Con using the money he makes from buying and selling shoes. But for many other attendees the prevalence of resellers makes it hard to participate in the sneaker culture.

Comte Momo of Washington, D.C., says he doesn't like all of the reselling and it's hard for him as someone who actually wants to wear the shoes to find the ones he wants at a reasonable price. "It just hurts when I watch somebody buy a size 12 in the new ones that dropped. And I just know that they're gonna go resell instead of a person like me loving and cherishing the shoe" he says. "But, get your bread. I can't be mad."

Comte Momo poses for a photo. He was on the hunt for a pair of Zoom Kevin Durant 4 All Star Galaxy shoes. He had a pair in his collection that he sold to help pay for rent but now it's hard to find a pair to fit his size 12 feet. He's pictured in the Jordan 1 Retro Chicago Bulls Patent on one foot and the Jordan 1 Retro UNC on the other.
Mayowa Aina / NPR

Yuming Wu, one of the co-founders of Sneaker Con, says he isn't worried about the balance between resellers and buyers.

"This show is not about buying, selling and trading," he explains. "Obviously, there is a lot of commerce happening here. But for us, we're really about putting together a great vibe for for people who are interested in this subject to hang out with other people."

There are plenty of other things to do at the convention like a watch a basketball game of 1-on-1 knockout, or interact with artists creating shoe- related artwork and doing customizations, or attend panels featuring people in the shoe industry.

Wu says that as the convention moves into its 10th year, he wants to incorporate much more programming and turn the convention into more of a festival.

People watching isn't nearly as fun as sneaker watching at Sneaker Con. Many come to make a fashion statement as much as they come to buy, sell, or trade shoes. Sneakerheads get dressed from the bottom up.
Mayowa Aina / NPR

Buying, selling, and trading may not be entirely what the show is about, but it is the central activity at Sneaker Con. At least here in Washington, D.C.

Much of the space is taken up by more than 200 vendors who have set up tables and brought hundreds of pairs of shoes to try to sell. Some people just walk around with a couple of pairs in hand looking to trade or sell to a willing buyer. But most of the action, the bargaining, haggling, and trading, is happening in the trading pit.

Anyone who wants to, can bring as many shoes as they like and create a space for themselves on the floor.

It helps to have long arms in the trading pit. People who choose not to purchase a vending table can bring as many shoes as they can carry to trade amongst everyone else. Without display tables or much space, most simply advertise their shoes by holding them up in the air.
Mayowa Aina / NPR

That's where 18-year-old Lateef Amdali is set up.

"A goal for me is to definitely go home with a couple of sneakers that I've been wanting for a while," he says. "And definitely sell some things I'm trying to get rid of in my collection to make a profit off of it."

He says he started buying and reselling shoes when he was around 13 years old.

"I was asking my mom and dad to buy me sneakers [and] sometimes they'll say 'no,' so I had to find a way to get them myself," he says. When he figured out that he could resell his shoes for a profit, then buy more shoes, and resell those, he quickly turned his hobby into a business.

"I just got really into it and learning [that] I can make money from this I didn't have to have a job necessarily," he says as he sells pair of shoes for $280 cash.

Lateef Amdali, 18, stands with his collection of shoes. Amdali starting buying and selling shoes by the time he was 13 years old. He says his most memorable flip to date netted him over $1,000 in profit off of just one shoe.
Mayowa Aina / NPR

Children as young as 10 years old like Theo Galper of Chevy Chase, Md., were in the trading pit too getting in on the action. He says he learned about buying and reselling from his older brother, 13-year-old Bennett. Their father, Josh Galper, says he's impressed by what his sons are doing. "I think it teaches a lot about how to build a business and what goes into building a business," he says. "And that's been fascinating to watch how they price things, how they negotiate, how they keep track of their inventory, which is a challenging thing to do when you're, you know, 13, 10, and 7."

Co-founder Wu says it's a mixture of everything; the commerce, the artistry, the fashion, that makes sneaker culture attractive around the world.

"A sneakerhead in Melbourne, Australia, they're as interested in Nikes, Jordans, [and] Yeezys as much as the kid in in Phoenix, Arizona." Or here in Washington, D.C.

Meantime, back in the trading pit, Amdali says even though his goal is to make a profit, it's not just about money. "I definitely have my own sneaker collection. My [Jordan] ones collection goes crazy — 18 pairs right now," he says. "I love the game."

For Amdali, and Sneaker Con, the game continues year-round.

Mayowa Aina is an NPR Kroc Fellow.

: 9/12/19

A previous version of this story misspelled Theo and Josh Galper's last name as Galpert.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to switch gears now and talk about a subject of utmost importance to some of us. That would be shoes. And sneaker heads already know this - some of the most coveted sneaker releases and collaborations - Jordans, Yeezys, LeBrons, - often do not make it onto someone's feet without passing through a reseller first. These days, a lot of that reselling happens online or through informal social media groups. But for many, an important marketplace is Sneaker Con. This weekend, the convention stopped in the nation's capital on its world tour. And NPR's Mayowa Aina jumped in, feet first.

MAYOWA AINA, BYLINE: A line stretches down the hall, up the stairs and out the door at a convention center in Washington, D.C. The sound of an event organizer echoes throughout the space.

UNIDENTIFIED EVENT ORGANIZER: No fakes. If we catch you selling fakes, you're getting kicked out - embarrassment.

AINA: He's yelling at a bunch of people waiting to get into Sneaker Con, an event that is exactly what it sounds like.

AINA: Everybody's out here buying sneakers, trading sneakers, every sneaker that you can imagine.

TAMIKA JERET: Everything that you can imagine.

AINA: That's Tamika Jeret. She's a stylish Baltimore native wearing a pair of black and white checkered Nike Cortez platform sneakers. Those retail for $390. It's her first time at Sneaker Con, but as a self-proclaimed sneakerhead, she's excited by what she sees.

JERET: Exclusives, some that you haven't seen in years. Everything's here. For a sneaker fan, this is the place to be.

AINA: Organizers were expecting more than 10,000 people from all over the country to come buy, sell and trade at Sneaker Con. Vendors have set up tables and brought hundreds of pairs of shoes to sell. But many just walk around with a couple pairs in hand, looking to trade or sell to a willing buyer. Most of the action - the bargaining and the haggling - is happening in the trading pit. That's where 18-year-old Lateef Ambali is set up.

LATEEF AMBALI: Two eighty, bro. Come on.

AINA: He says he started buying and reselling shoes when he was around 13 years old.

AMBALI: I was asking my mom and dad to buy me sneakers. You know, sometimes they'll say no. So, you know, I had to find a way to get them myself.

AINA: When he figured out that he could resell his shoes for a profit then buy more shoes and resell those, he quickly turned his hobby into a business. One of his most memorable flips were a pair of Jordan 1 UNC Off-Whites, white and powder blue shoes made in collaboration with fashion designer Virgil Abloh. They retail for $190.

AMBALI: Then I sold them on StockX for like 1,500.

AINA: That's not the norm for every flip, but it is possible. And that's part of the reason why people get into it. Even though commerce is essential activity at the event, Yuming Wu, One of the co-founders of Sneaker Con, says they started the event to support sneaker culture.

YUMING WU: There's not a huge difference in terms of, you know, a sneakerhead in Melbourne, Australia. They're as interested in Nikes, Jordans, Yeezys as much as the kid in Phoenix, Ariz.

AINA: Here in Washington, Ambali says his goal is to make a profit, but it's not just about the money.

AMBALI: I definitely have my own sneaker collection, yeah. My 1s collection go crazy - 18 pairs right now. Definitely not just in it for the resell and the money. I love the game.

AINA: For him and Sneaker Con, the game continues year-round. Next stop - Toronto. Mayowa Aina, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.