The evolution of the collectible sneaker

By Alex Moore

3 minute read

The resale sneaker market is currently estimated at US$2 billion and expected to triple over the next five years.

And according to investment banking company Cowen, it could potentially reach US$30 billion by 2030. How can second-hand shoes be worth so much, you ask? Well, as any bonafide sneakerhead will testify, we’re not talking about mere footwear here, rather works of art. 

“How and why people collect sneakers has evolved hugely,” explains Lymited’s Head of Fashion, Rosie Croft. “Ten years ago sneakers were considered a subculture. Collectors were often enthusiasts introduced to sneakers through skate, music and street culture, buying sneakers from local stores or travelling to pick up a niche pair. In today’s world, sneakers have been propelled into the mainstream, with a globally connected network of sneakerheads and a fast-paced market that sees new drops on a daily basis. Plus, the internet has facilitated the ‘resale’ market – which is booming – allowing people to collect not just for passion, but as a financial investment.”

Case study: Nike x Virgil Abloh

Thumb Fashion Collectible Sneaker Nikeoffwhite
Top: Nike x Off-White "The Ten" Air Presto sneakers. Above: Nike Air Force 1 ‘07 Virgil x MoMA sneakers

Case study: Nike x Virgil Abloh

Take Nike’s 2017 collaboration with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White for example. “The Ten” collection saw the American designer reconstruct 10 classic Nike silhouettes for a series of limited-edition releases, driving collectors to peak hysteria. 

“What we’re talking about here is larger than sneakers, it’s larger than design culture,” said Abloh at the time. “It’s nothing short of state-of-the-art design. These 10 shoes have broken barriers in performance and style. To me, they are on the same level as a sculpture of David or the Mona Lisa. You can debate it all you want, but they mean something. And that’s what’s important.” There’s no denying it’s a bold claim, but it’s one that has certainly aged well. A standout from the collection, the Air Force 1 ’07 Virgil x MoMA, retailed at $175, but today you won’t find a pair for less than £7,500. 

“Nike has harnessed the power of collaboration, partnering with a diverse range of designers and creatives, from luxury powerhouse Dior to pop superstar Drake,” says Croft. “Nike offers their sneakers – albeit icons in their own right – as a canvas that is open to interpretation and innovation. The creative opportunities are boundless.”

The catalyst for contemporary sneaker culture

2 Fashion Collectible Sneaker Nikekaws
Jordan x KAWS, Jordan 4 Retro KAWS sneakers

The catalyst for contemporary sneaker culture

If ever there was an icon in its own right, it’s the Air Jordan 1, widely regarded as the catalyst for sneaker culture as we know it today. The shoe was designed for Michael Jordan ahead of his first professional season (1984-85), and promptly banned for violating the NBA’s uniform policy. Still, Jordan wore them every game and Nike picked up the $5,000 fine (per game). That year Jordan won Rookie of the year, the Air Jordan franchise made $100 million, and the sneaker became arguably the most famous of all time; one that has seen more than its fair share of interesting collaborations. Levis, A Tribe Called Quest, Dover Street Market, Travis Scott, Gatorade, Vogue, Paris Saint-Germain and Spiderman, to name just a few. 

More recently, American street artist KAWS was tasked with reimagining the shoe’s younger sibling, the Air Jordan 4, in a collaboration described as the biggest sneaker release ever. The Brooklyn native had previously designed his own Air Force 1 and Air Max 90 shoes, but never before had his drops managed to ‘break the internet’.

“KAWS is an icon, and we saw this as a chance to celebrate two iconic brands by incorporating the style and soul of the Jordan brand with the larger-than-life story of KAWS,” said Gemo Wong, head of energy projects at Jordan. “We hope to transcend sport and art with our unique collaboration.”

Of course, not every sneaker can expect to have quite that impact. So what makes a truly collectible pair, one that might genuinely be considered a work of art? “Scarcity, innovation, condition and provenance,” says Croft. “As an example, a pair of Nike’s ‘Moon Shoes’ are the most expensive sneakers ever sold, selling for $437,500 at private auction in 2019. They were one of only 12 pairs ever made for runners in the 1972 Olympic trials, and are believed to be the only unworn pair left in existence. It’s like anything, as time goes on and the amount of unworn, pristine pairs goes down, the value of those remaining will only continue to rise.”

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