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BusinessFeature

The art of sneakers

In Bordeaux, France, an exhibition celebrates sneakers as new art masterpieces. Prices are soaring, but the record-breaking season has only just begun.

Aymeric Mantoux

By Aymeric Mantoux16 septembre 2020

The unprecedented offensive launched by the brand with former NBA star Michael Jordan, for which the interest of the young public has grown fast (Shutterstock)

Paris, on the eve of the new school year. “Jordans? We are totally sold out,” explains Jamel , manager at a Nike store, “except in black or white and the very unusual sizes. And I have no date for the restock. Deliveries are random, as are quantities and models. We never know in advance.” No need to check at Citadium or Jordan Bastille, two very popular Parisian sportswear boutiques, either, because they’re out too. The same happens on the Nike website, with Jordans being the ultimate enfant terrible. Your only chance of finding the pair that your teenager is so desperate to wear is second-hand or resale stores, such as Clockers, in the Marais in Paris. “There,” Jamel continues, “depending on demand, you can find a pair that sells new for 100 euros in an open edition – that means neither limited nor numbered –but out of stock, for twice or even ten times as much.” The reason? The unprecedented offensive launched by the brand with former NBA star Michael Jordan, for which the interest of the (mainly, but not exclusively) young public has grown fast.

The Michael Jordan series on Netflix (DR)


Collectors' sneakers are being auctioned off at prices never seen before. In the wake of a Netflix production released in the early days of the lockdown, the Jordan series has sparked interest in the eponymous sneakers so highly prized by rappers, hipsters and influencers alike. “The brand has launched a massive offensive with celebrities, but also with youtubers and Instagramers scrutinized by the under-18s,” one of them confirms.

As a result, even the most remote target audiences seem to have caught the “Jordan virus”, and everyone simply has to have a pair.

Sneakers, a financial investment

As soon as they hit the stores, most models are sold out. It’s boom times for web platforms specialized in reselling, collectors and speculators. On the sneaker resale market, the rarest pairs are frequently traded for between $10,000 and $20,000. Even $30,000 is not unheard of. Today the whole world dreams of this brand that has become a must-have despite the sometimes prohibitive prices.

The Jordan Dior model is now worth over $10,000 on the secondary market (Dior)

This is the case with the Jordan Dior. It sold for 2,000 euros when it was launched last June, with a waiting list that is rumored to have ballooned to 5 million people worldwide. The Jordan Dior model is now worth over $10,000 on the secondary market. Surely the best investment of the year?
But speculation has been growing steadily since the early 2000s. Initially snubbed by the big brands, specialized sites like Stadium Goods have seen an explosion in popularity. Everyone has learned the rules of the game, that is now all about limited editions, sudden and unpredictable deliveries (called drops), and the resulting spike in the number on the price tag.

Sneakers are an emblematic symbol of the globalized cultural world

Constance Rubini, MADD director


The tipping point was 2015, when the market exploded as a sneaker information guide turned into an online sales platform. That year, an American, Josh Luber, launched the online sneaker exchange StockX. Since then, the site has become the reference in the field, with an online catalog of more than 20,000 pairs that puts stores - and their stocks of at best a dozen or so pairs at a time - to shame.
Josh’s gamble? He was convinced that “sneakerheads” would be willing to pay more for a vintage pair than a recent one. And the market proved him right. In 2019, the resale market for sneakers was estimated at $2 billion in the United States, and up to $7 billion worldwide. “We have customers in 170 countries around the world,” said Scott Cutler, president of StockX. It's a global phenomenon. Detroit-based StockX played this scenario perfectly and is now worth more than a billion dollars.

Art sneakers as collectors’ items

While sneakers have long since moved beyond the status of mere footwear to become icons of pop culture, this year the Jordans in particular reached a milestone. This summer, a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s that had been worn by NBA star Michael Jordan himself sold for $615,000 at an auction at Christie's. What this tells us is that sneakers are no longer luxury fashion items, but have become collectors' items in their own right, like a beautiful piece of art.

The pair of Nike Air Jordan 1 worn by former star basketball player Michael Jordan sold for $615,000 at an auction at Christie's this summer (Christie's)

While this is not the first time a pair of Jordan's has been auctioned off, it is certainly an absolute record - but one that could well be broken soon. The current craze for sneakers is unprecedented. In fact, it far exceeds the world record for handbags, the pinnacle of which netted a mere 317,000 euros in 2017. The earliest auctions date back to 2013. In 2017, a pair of Jordan's broke the $100,000 mark. Last May, another auction house, Sotheby's, sold a pair of Jordan sneakers that had been worn by Michael Jordan for more than $500,000. “We're setting record after record, but there is really no limit,” explains Pierre Dernoux, author of L'odyssée de la basket: Comment les sneakers ont marché sur le monde, published in 2019.

But what makes the price? As with art, it is rarity and authenticity. The record-breaking Jordan pair was, in fact, the very pair he had been wearing the iconic moment when he shattered the plexiglass backboard in an exhibition game in 1985 – and for proof, one needed look no further than the single shard of plexiglas still embedded in the left sole. But that's not all. Sneakers and streetwear in general as a cultural symbol are gaining momentum in contemporary art. “Just like graffiti, which was seen initially as a marginal outlier on the art scene and has now become an industry in its own right,” says French artist Kongo, who regularly customizes pairs of sneakers for friends. The trend is on the rise, especially as artists collaborations increase and museums start to take note.

Designers, architects, couturiers have their eyes on the ball

It comes as no surprise that the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design of Bordeaux (France) is devoting an exhibition to sneakers. It is called “Playground” and the players are now artists and art dealers. “Sneakers are an emblematic symbol of the globalized cultural world,” explains Constance Rubini, MADD director, who conceived this exhibition staged by the designer Mathieu Lehanneur. Sneakers have turned into works of art. As brands engage in collaborations with famous artists, galleries take their cue and showcase models signed or customized by artists from the street art world. Kaws, of course, whose name has itself become a brand, but also Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer, Tom Sachs, Takashi Murakami… In 2011 Lacoste presented a space-age shoe designed by the late Anglo-Iranian starchitect Zaha Hadid at Frieze London. Nike has a limited edition (200 pairs in all) in store of SB Dunk Lows inspired by the paintings of Bernard Buffet. Designers, architects and couturiers have taken over the codes of streetwear to overcome the utilitarian boundaries of the basketball court.

The "Jesus shoes" designed by the artist collective MSCHF, already sold out (MSCHF)

In 2006, in a bout of creativity, Adidas encased 1000 pairs of Adicolor lo W1 in a painter's box with an artist’s palette and paint tubes. The march of the art sneaker is afoot, and the pace is picking up. For example, the Brooklyn-based art collective MSCHF recently designed a pair of “Jesus shoes” with soles containing actual holy water, taken from the Jordan River blessed by a priest. “This generation places more value on sneakers than on a Matisse,” said collector and designer Virgil Abloh, “because they know that a Matisse is out of their reach.” Like him, many designers regard sneakers and their visual language as walking canvases.

An approach reminiscent of the Support Surface movement, born in the 60s, that aimed to deconstruct the painting and the canvas as such. Approaches and opinions vary on how to collect sneakers, but one thing is certain: it is wise to keep the original box and packaging. And if you wear them, think twice before throwing them in the trash … With prices going through the roof, who knows how many small fortunes have been lost in this way! You'll never look at an old pair of sneakers the same way again.

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