Ask any economist to name the top 100 appreciating assets, and it is highly unlikely that old sneakers would make anyone's list. Yet the value of those decrepit shoes in the back of your closet—yes, even the ones that reek worse than fetid feta—may well have increased by a multiple akin to Amazon.com's stock. To wit: A mint-condition pair of Nike Dunks or Terminators, which retailed for around $50 in the mid-1980s, now fetches between $1,000 and $1,500. Puma Beasts, surreally kitschy kicks adorned with faux leopard skin, are worth up to $3,500. The Holy Grail of sullied soles, a limited edition pair of Air Jordans with a gold swoosh, reportedly command in excess of $25,000. What in the name of Jack Purcell is going on here?
"Fashion is fickle, but in the past few years there has been a huge demand for old shoes," says Tace Chalfa, who owns The Red Light, a vintage clothing shop in Seattle's University district that had sales of more than $300,000 in "previously owned footwear" last year. Two years ago Chalfa innocently paid $50 for a pair of 1976 Nike Stings, which were festooned with a psychedelic mix of orange suede and green nylon. Within days she sold the pair to a teenager for $1,000. "Pretty much after that, I was in the used-shoe business," she says.
The vast majority of the consumers are not the among the legion of sports memorabilia collectors who covet Michael Jordan's jockstrap but rather are Japanese fashion Brahmins with an eye for camp who actually wear what they purchase. Consequently, most of the used-shoe dealers are located on the West Coast and are starting to do significant business over the Internet. "Actually, because the Japanese and the Asian economies are in a recession, we expect our sales to be way down this year," says Steve Gillette, owner of Husky Boy Vintage, a shop in Tacoma, Wash., "but it's still pretty big business."
How big, no one knows for sure—certainly nowhere near the annual sales of $13.3 billion in new athletic footwear. Still, it is telling that even as Nike denies paying much attention to the vintage-shoe market, in 1995 the company reissued the original Air Jordans, which retailed in 1985 for a comparatively modest $65. "They are supposedly going to reissue the Dunks again, too [the company plans to reintroduce the model in January], which will decrease the value of old Dunks by at least 50 percent," says Chalfa. "On the other hand, it will help popularize the retro look."
Perhaps. But what about the—how to say it?—"skeeviness," to use grunge parlance, associated with wearing something that has been on a stranger's foot? Chalfa thinks little of it. In fact, she warns against trying to clean old footwear before offering it for sale. "People devalue the shoes all the time by doing that and fading the color," she says. "Sometimes, if the shoes are really nasty, I might use some water and a little soap, nothing abrasive. But usually I don't do much before reselling them."
For the entrepreneurs in this fledgling business, the smell of success has an aroma all its own.