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'Sneakerheads' Kick It Up a Notch in Search for That Rare Pair

By Michael Tunison
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

They have all the trappings of a flourishing subculture, with their own blogs, magazines, documentaries and books. But for years, Washington's "sneakerheads" had to go out of town for their kicks.

No longer. Local retailers are catching up with a market that has become increasingly mainstream.

Sneakerheads collect sneakers -- they call them kicks -- but they seldom bother with the ones you can buy at a mall. They are on the search for the Holy Grail, that hallowed pair that, for reasons of rarity or beauty or both, inspires near-obsessive desire. They want something average shoppers can't get.

In the past, finding these shoes usually meant a trip to New York's many sneaker boutiques or a search on the Internet, which carries the risk of fakes. Then, in December and January, two stores catering to sneakerheads opened in the District -- first, Major in Georgetown, then Commonwealth in Adams Morgan.

"It's really a great thing for D.C.," said Dale Kupferberg, 25, assistant men's apparel buyer for Up Against the Wall, a District-based clothing chain. "There were a few stores in the area you could rely on, but they never got into exclusiveness. You'd have to travel to New York and hit up those eight shops in the SoHo area. Now I have friends from New York calling me to get stuff here."

The owners of Commonwealth, Larry Incognito and Omar Quiambao, said that online orders to their first store in Norfolk indicated the market was big enough to support the boutiques in the District. From visits here, they noticed a void in the market. They had only to look at the feet going by.

"For a while, the sneakers available in D.C. were just very cookie-cutter, very vanilla," said Duk-ki Yu, a co-owner of Major. "Sophisticated shoe buyers aren't going to go for that. There was a niche that wasn't being filled, and retailers weren't realizing that D.C. has its own unique style."

Like hip-hop, sneaker collecting had its incipience in the Big Apple. In 2003, Vibe Magazine columnist and sneaker collector Robert "Bobbito" Garcia chronicled the culture's rise in his book "Where'd You Get Those? New York City's Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987."

Sneakers have long been identified as one of the material icons of hip-hop culture. But as the sneakerhead subculture evolved, according to its denizens, it began to stray from hip-hop and develop its own aesthetic.

"There are basic elements to the sneaker collector look: sneakers, obviously, fitted hat, hoodie, jeans," Yu said. "It borrows freely from both the skater and hip-hop look. It's such a mash of cultures."

But the significance of the sneaker to the wardrobe of the young male in the District has been in contrast to what has been available in the area.

"The average Washingtonian teen or young male has at least 10 pairs of tennis shoes to every pair of dress shoes," said Ean Williams, director of DC Fashion Week fashion show. "For young men, shoes are the one accessory where no color is forbidden -- that's why they get them in every color."

Plenty of places in the Washington area sell the latest releases from popular sneaker manufacturers. But the proliferation of chain stores such as Foot Locker and Footaction make their shoes relatively unappealing to the sneaker aficionados. The niche demand of collectors along with the emergence of up-and-coming designers have spurred popular brands to create specialty accounts with smaller boutique stores to carry rare models.

Major and Commonwealth both had long lines at their grand openings, helped in part by buzz created on the Internet.

"It's a blessing," said Kendel Matthews, 24, of Baltimore, as he toured Major. He said he owned about 120 pairs of shoes and was eyeing a pair of the Nike Air Foamposite One, an ultramodern undulating blue sneaker made of specialized Foamposite material developed by Nike and selling for $200.

Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the NPG Group, said the boutiques make a connection that the larger retailers do not.

"If I go into a big box store in a mall, they're going to be carrying shoes from however many number of brands, and they won't know much about any of them," Cohen said. "But the boutiques are going to know the specifics about each model they carry and are going to offer shoes that carry cachet, that can be considered collectibles. It's all about the urban connection. And it's not just urban lifestyle anymore; it's also suburban."

For customers, finding these rare shoes is about gaining distinction by sporting the pair nobody else has. For others, it's simply about looking their best. For still others, finding and purchasing sneakers is not unlike collecting art to be meticulously stored and treasured.

"At first it was just something you did to set yourself apart," said Tim Fabrega, a co-owner of Major, who goes by the nickname DJ Underdog. "Now there's a whole culture surrounding it. The whole idea behind this culture is to be first, be different. It's about being an individual."

"I don't collect shoes, I accumulate," Yu said. "I don't even know how many I have. I lost track after 1,500," adding that he keeps his shoes in a climate-controlled storage space.

Kupferberg remembers his first foray into sneaker collecting: As a student at Walt Whitman High School, he would trek to Montgomery Mall looking for the latest colors of the Nike Air Max '95. He said he now owns about 125 pairs of sneakers.

Because sneakerhead culture places such an emphasis on exclusivity when word leaks that a sought-after shoe is going to be released by a certain store, it can create mob scenes, like the crowds lining up for days last fall for the latest generation of video game consoles.

On a recent Saturday, Kupferberg traveled to Elite Boardshop to buy the latest version of the Nike SB Dunk. When he arrived at 9 a.m., already 90 to 100 kids were lined up to purchase the shoe. "It was like lining up for concert tickets," he said. "The sneaker culture is becoming so prevalent that the line thing is getting to be a bit of a problem."

Partly because the shoes are inextricable from the culture itself, Commonwealth's owners define their store as a lifestyle boutique -- selling high-end brands of clothing and holding art shows -- rather than a shop focusing just on sneakerheads.

"I used to rely almost exclusively on the Internet," said Eddie Lin, 16, of Rockville, while exploring Commonwealth. "Now that this place has opened, it's much more convenient. I can just hop on the Metro and check out what I'm interesting in getting. The best thing is that I don't have to spend extra money on shipping."

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