By NATE FAIN
PHOENIX — J Carrillo’s house is covered in sneakers. Some pairs are scattered across the floor, permissible to be kicked out of the way by his girlfriend. Others have been worn once or twice and are stored in the man cave room of the house in individual, transparent display drawers.
In this special room, Carrillo, a DJ who is known under the alias “Chilly,” can open up the top of his coffee table like a treasure chest. Inside are his most prized possessions, about a dozen versions of his all-time favorite sneaker, the Air Jordan XI.
Chilly is a sneakerhead, a collector, willing to spend thousands of dollars to accumulate and sell troves of the trendiest, newest and rarest athletic shoes. With an assemblage hovering around 250 pairs, he’s allotted a permanent place in his heart to what he wears on his feet.
Along with the shoes, his two-story Tempe home is a shrine of sports memorabilia and “Star Wars” knickknacks. Even something he takes as seriously as sneaker collecting is done with childlike exuberance.
“Every time a shoe drops and I’m able to get it, I feel like a kid a Disneyland,” said Chilly, who once spent $1,400 for a pair of Air Jordans 1s. “It makes my day. I love to smell the shoes and touch them and look at them.”
He is part of a community, one that is growing in the Valley, and is navigating a rapidly changing marketplace and retail industry in search of the most unique and artistically inspired shoes in the world. And he is not alone in his love for sneakers. The U.S. athletic footwear industry generated $19.6 billion in sales in 2017, according to a report from global information company The NDP Group.
“It’s a community, but like every community there are good and bad parts,” Chilly said. “Some people are just in it for the money. Others are in it because they genuinely love sneakers.”
Over the years, Chilly has learned how to navigate the sneakerhead community, skirting the sharks and finding what he calls “bounty hunters,” who admire his kindred spirit and help him find the best pairs.
One of them is Ryan Gizinski, the owner of Guest List, a sneaker and apparel store in Tempe. Gizinski started working at a Footlocker when he was 16. Not long after, he became obsessed with sneakers.
Now 30, he has owned Guest List for six years. He organized the Heated Sole Summit at Arizona Mills, which took place on July 28-29. Over 150 vendors set up shop at the swap meet, buying, selling and trading coveted new releases, including the Travis Scott inspired Air Jordan 4 “Cactus Jack” and the Nike Off-White Presto.
Multiple Heated Sole Summits take place each year across the Valley. While the retail marketplace is rapidly moving to online platforms, and local sneaker consignment stores like Pound For Pound are closing, sneakerheads are trying to establish sneaker culture and street wear in Phoenix.
“In 2018, retail is tough, but the market in Arizona is strong,” Gizinski said. “There are five major businesses here that travel to every big sneaker event in the country.”
Last year, Sneaker Con, a globe-trotting shoe show, made its first stop in Phoenix.
Along with living in here Phoenix, Chilly has a condo in Los Angeles, one of America’s most fashion-forward cities and a multi-time host of Sneaker Con. He sees differences and similarities between the two places.
“Naturally, Phoenix is a little bit behind, but the proximity to Los Angeles helps,” he said. “I think it’s stronger here than in like Kansas or Alabama. I know there are a lot of places in Arizona that are trying emulate Los Angeles.”
But for those who have already embraced the culture, collecting sneakers can come with consequences.
Some collections, like Gizinski’s, consist of more than 1,000 pairs of shoes. Even when paying the modest retail price of $120, which collectors only pay for the rarest shoes if they win online lotteries, the hobby (or habit) can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Gregory Robison has long been aware of the financial vortex that often snags sneakerheads. So when he started college at ASU, he sold his entire collection of approximately 500 shoes. Now that he’s 35, has a wife and child, and works a steady job for the City of Phoenix, he’s back in the game.
“During college, I fought it off,” Robison said. “I was focused on school. I told myself, ‘Get a good job, make a lot of money and you can always go back and buy all the pairs you sold.’ ”
He made it through college, but he’s still a prisoner to the rush that comes with owning a new design that no one else has.
“One thing a lot of sneakerheads in the community won’t tell you is that sneakers are a real addiction. I know for a fact: I’m addicted to sneakers,” Robison said. “It’s not just a hobby. Most sneakerheads will tell you, ‘Oh, I can stop anytime.’ We might be able to stop for a period of time, but we can’t fight it, and it’ll come right back.”
Some collectors covet the status and attention they receive for owning something rare much more than innovative designs or splashy colors.
“People might not admit this, but sneakerheads want the shoes that no one else has. It makes them feel a certain way,” Robison said.
Anyone suffering from this sneaker addiction Robison alludes to would have found their strength tested at Heated Sole. During the event, the large, usually vacant space in the mall, filled with vibrant colorways and retro athletic apparel, looks like a candy store. However, the treats there cost more than a couple of quarters — try anywhere from $150-$1,500.
There was money to be spent, but also money to be made. And anyone there — even non-vendors — could sling some sneakers for cash.
Young entrepreneurs have figured out a pretty simple system. Buy a limited-release pair at retail value, and sell it for five or six times the price.
Kyle Warner is one of those savvy salesmen. Only a teenager — unlike the Generation Xers who were introduced to sneakers by Michael Jordan in the 1980s and dominate the community — he set up a line of about six pairs of sneakers on the floor at the summit.
He loves sneakers, and has pumped a lot of money into his “high-end” collection. But he said he’s made a lot of that money back.
“I make so much money on shoes,” Warner said. “The most I’ve ever made (on one pair) is $1,100 above retail.”
Warner pointed with his foot to a pair of blue and white shoes that he had set up to sell.
“Got these Off-White Jordans for $190. I’m looking for $700-800,” He said.
Reselling shoes has made the hobby more sustainable and affordable for some sneakerheads, but older members of the community worry that resellers aren’t in the game because they love basketball shoes, but because they want to turn a profit.
“It might seem like the community is growing, but I don’t think a lot of people like sneakers,” Chilly said. “I think a lot of people like money, and some people have found out how to flip shoes for a profit. … I don’t have a problem with resellers. I do have a problem with price gougers.”
But as retailers struggle across the country, and with fewer consignment stores to mitigate fair pricing, the marketplace has shifted to websites like Facebook, Ebay and StockX, where bidding wars are encouraged.
“The majority of people I sell to don’t live in Arizona,” Warner said.
The marketplace has changed, but so has the market. Sneakerheads still seek the status that comes with having a unique collection. But now the athletic practicality of a shoe matters much less than it used to, and the artistic value of a shoe is of higher priority.
“The sneakers used to be associated with the athletes. You wanted to be like Mike or play like Kobe. Now, it’s all about the fashion,” Robison said. “They wear the shoes, but they don’t watch football or basketball. In the ‘80s and ‘90s that would be blasphemy.”
Like the Air Jordan zealots before him, Warner does love basketball. He’s a diehard Portland Trail Blazers fan and owns at least one version of all four signature shoe releases of his favorite player (Damian Lillard). He even wants to open his own sneaker shop in Portland, which he considers a better city — with close proximity to Nike headquarters — for business than Phoenix.
But as he pointed to a pair of Black Mambas that he was trying to get rid of, he said current players’ shoes don’t drive the market.
“Kobes, LeBrons, that stuff is all downhill,” Warner said.
Many of the major athletic apparel brands, such as Nike and Under Armour, have seen a dip in basketball shoe sales and have focused more energy on running and casual footwear. Several product advisory boards see this as the new normal.
Street brands, like Supreme and Off-White, have gained popularity and have even started collaborating with the larger athletic apparel companies. Kanye West, Travis Scott and Pharrell Williams have also recently inspired shoe designs for Adidas and Nike, cementing a place in the sneaker business for the entertainment industry.
As consumers crave more flamboyant and creative designs, artists are taking the classics and giving the one-of-a-kind customization.
Even the NFL — known for its strict on-the-field dress code — started the “My Cleats, My Cause” initiative, which allows players to wear cleats with custom artwork to promote a charity of their choosing.
Jon Trevor hopes that someday he’ll be able to put his work on display in an NFL game.
The head of human relations for a startup company, Trevor, in his spare time, has combined a lifelong love of sneakers with artistic gifts. He does commission-based shoe customizations for everything from football cleats and golf shoes to Air Jordans.
Trevor’s art is more of a stress reliever than a side hustle. His business model is not complex. He doesn’t have a website, only an instagram page with photos of his work. Interested buyers approach him with an idea, and if he likes the idea, he’ll come up with a design and make the shoes a reality.
The work itself is a little more complicated, and the end product doesn’t come cheap. Trevor, 37, uses a variety of paints and styling utensils. It can take several hours of intense work to complete a pair.
Trevor loves shoes, especially basketball shoes, but over the years, he’s weary of the sneakerhead community, which he believes has become “soulless,” and its too consumed status.
“We’ve made shoes more important than they really should be, but they’re really just a piece of rubber and cloth,” Trevor said “There was an allure to shoes, now no one really cares about that. They just want to show off for their friends and Instagram.”
But even he has found life-long friends in the sneaker community, ones who share his appreciation for custom shoes.
“Some of my closest friends in that group, I’ve never even met in person,” Trevor said. “One guy, I’ve been talking to him for five years, he’s from New Zealand. We might meet up later this year. The custom shoe community is really tight-knit.”
Frustrations haven’t deterred Robison either. He and some friends started the “Sneak Diss Podcast,” which has 1,200 subscribers.
“We’ve come to learn on our podcast lately that the times have changed,” he said. “There are more sneakerheads now than ever before. That’s because of the celebrity aspect of it. There are more people on television and the internet than ever before who love sneakers.”
The community has changed a lot since Robison got his first pair of Air Jordans, in 1991, but it’s one he just can’t leave no matter how hard he tries.
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