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First Person Singular: Sneaker collector Duk-Ki Yu

Sunday, December 5, 2010; W03

When I first came here, hip-hop was the new music, and it was sort of a rebellion against my surroundings. Growing up in Northern California, it was very suburban and very white-bread, and there were very few of us who were into hip-hop. When you look at old videos and album covers and magazines, all the hip-hop guys used to have brand-new shoes.

For people who are really into sneakers, your mood almost starts with the footwear. Whether it's skate shoes or a pair of Chuck Taylors, it communicates to the world how particular you are about your style statement. Growing up, I noticed that a lot of kids used to beat their shoes down. They were dirty, the laces would be frayed and dingy, and I always thought that was so unclean. [In high school,] they were always trying to step on your shoes if you had new ones. As a teenager, I used to get into a lot of arguments and fights over that.

With guys who collect and wear limited-edition or collectible sneakers, we never wear a special sneaker all day. It's almost like a woman who wears heels at the office -- you have another spare shoe in a bag or in the car. You put on your special pair, make it fit, and it doesn't matter if you're in pain. You wear it for a couple hours at an event, then wipe it down and it goes back in the box for the next special occasion.

The one thing about collecting shoes, like anything else, is that it's an addictive personality disorder. I spend an unreasonable amount of money on storage spaces. The last time I counted, I stopped at 2,000 pairs. I have a spreadsheet. There are different color boxes, different labels, different fonts that are used. I'm pretty good at looking at a box from far away and knowing what's in it.

Jordans are high on my list, because it's a game shoe that was designed for the greatest player of all time. Anybody who is in their late 20s to early 40s, they all grew up in the shadow of Michael Jordan. His shoes made it cool for guys to say, "Hey, on such-and-such date, when the new Jordans drop, I'm gonna go get me a pair."

The first shoe I bought that I really, really wanted was when I first came to this country [from Korea]. I was 12. My daughter is 7, and my son just turned 6. They've become very selective already with what footwear they like and dislike, and they know all the names. It's hard for me to get adults to decipher the difference between Air Max 95 and Air Max 97 and Air Max 90, but my kids can tell you which ones are which.

Interview by Holly E. Thomas

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