STORY BY: JAMES CHOW
PHOTOS BY: GIOVANNI CARDENAS
Thulani Ngazimbi reminds me he can’t talk for long because he’s hoping to cop a pair of Fear of God Vans, a heavily sought-after shoe collaboration created by Los Angeles-based designer Jerry Lorenzo.
“I had a timer and everything. It's not looking good man. I'm not gonna get this,” he tells me while swiping down on his phone, hoping that’ll dismiss the loading circle.
Ngazimbi is a Cal State Long Beach business graduate student who doubles as a student senator and runs his own longboard and clothing business called The Rad Black Kids. On the side, he flips sneakers. He’s constantly browsing his phone, searching through different websites like sneaker news platform Nice Kicks to see what sells.
To flip sneakers is to make a profit out of reselling them.
The sneaker industry is not a simple shoe brand to Foot Locker. It’s more complex than that. The pair of soles one own goes beyond the feet — from the way it is produced to how it is obtained. What one may not know is that money and sneakers can be a quick transaction without a paper trail. Sometimes, that paper may be stained with blood.
According to Ngazimbi, to be successful at flipping sneakers, one must know the hype. He says he works smart by narrowing his search for niche sneakers on the market as compared to other sneaker sellers who look to buy the most hyped product. He brackets his shoes in tiers.
“Yeezys and Fear of Gods are in my ‘hopefully, maybe’ bracket,” Ngazimbi says. “Other stuff, I’ll quantify them in hype.”
Sneaker fanatics like Ngazimbi know that obtaining a pair of Yeezys is no easy task — unless you are willing to hand over a large sum of money. According to Mashable, on June 27, 2015, the day they were released, the collaboration between Kanye West and Adidas sold out in 12 minutes, and immediately pairs were on eBay for up to $10,000.
Dante Holley, a New Jersey hip-hop artist and clothing merchandiser, won a pair of Yeezys for being the first person to correctly decipher the acronym “TLOP” as “The Life of Pablo,” West’s seventh album.
Although Holley takes pride in owning the shoes, he suggested the price point is too much for him.
“When Kanye gave me the pair of Yeezys, that was pretty awesome,” Holley says. “Those are my favorite pair of shoes, but I wouldn’t buy them if he didn’t give them to me.”
Yeezys, often presented on men’s fashion sites, are also featured on many social media accounts such as streetwear site Highsnobiety, which hosts contests and giveaways for the shoes.
Some people create bots on social media configured to look for “retweet to win” contests, hoping to get pairs of the most coveted sneakers without spending more than the cost of Internet access.
Ngazimbi doesn’t use bots. He looks for and buys shoes from global sites and tries to resell them. However, after studying the supply-and-demand economic model, he doesn’t think he’ll be flipping sneakers for much longer. He predicts that next year, there will be even more people reselling shoes due to the popularity of shoe-flipping, and the supply will outweigh the demand.
“[Last year], I could move stuff in a 24-hour period, before I could even get it in my hands,” he says. “I could order something somewhere, get it within 15 days and ship it in an hour. But now that rarely happens. My average last year [moving shoes] was a week. Now it's like three weeks to a month.”
The unauthorized authentic
If certain sneakers are supposed to be rare, why are they showcased all over the internet?
Because factories in Asia re-create coveted shoes and sell them for cheap. Sometimes, these factory manufacturers even find the blueprints for the real shoe design.
Some people call these counterfeits “unauthorized authentics,” or UAs. Others reserve the term for shoes that came from the legitimate manufacturer but were rejected for sale due to some small defect.
Ngazimbi says UAs are “the highest-quality fake.”
“I think the UAs are made by people with similar technology and access to similar production methods,” Ngazimbi says. “ But the problem with the UA is the typeface of the box might be wrong, [or] the heel tab might be wrong. The [Nike] Off-Whites Vapormax with a print on the inside? Nike intentionally made that print faint. All the UAs are bold, so that's one way you can tell.”
Though many people equate UAs with knock-offs, there is a clear distinction between the two.
According to Suzanne Marshall, a Cal State Long Beach professor of fashion merchandising and design, “A [product] that carries the name of the designer is a counterfeit. A product that has someone's name on it but ripped off [the design] from somebody else is a knock-off.”
Marshall says both are illegal, and that Forever 21 is known for knocking off designs from other fashion companies. In 2017, Refinery29, a news website tailored to young women, reported that Gucci and Adidas accused Forever 21 of using stripes and similar colorways on its products.
“Forever 21 has gobs of lawsuits all the time,” Marshall says. “It's a huge issue today. Lots of jobs and lots of money is lost to the person who actually designed that.”
Nevertheless, people buy knock-offs if they think they’re stylish and fashionable.
“At Forever 21, a lot of the people don't know where the inspiration for those brands came from,” Marshall says. “Forever 21 is copying the [designs] they think are the cutest and would appeal to their target customer.”
When putting together an outfit, Holley believes what makes or breaks a fit is the shoe. It doesn’t matter the brand of the shoe or whether they’re real or fake, he says. What matters is how you rock it.
“Shoes is [sic] everything,” Holley says. “Shoes can make or break your whole fit ... Sneakers are like your personality. That's why I wear them, to express myself.”
“I used to wear [fake shoes] at school and pretend they were real. It depends how you rock it. If you got some bo bos (generic shoes) and you know how to rock it, then get it off.”
A pair of sneakers could cost you your life. A 1990 Sports Illustrated article detailed the life of 15-year old Michael Eugene Thomas, a proud owner of a pair of Air Jordans who would later be murdered over them. The GQ documentary series “Sneakerheadz” estimated that 1,200 people die over sneakers annually.
The statistic is why sellers like Ngazimbi never meet anyone in person to buy shoes.
“I've seen someone getting run over. I've seen kids getting shot in news reports,” Ngazimbi says.
He details a time where someone he met online wanted to do an exchange in person.
“I saw him online. We were both in L.A.,” Ngazimbi says. “He asked me, ‘Why aren't you meeting me? Just come and meet me.' I was like ‘Nah man, safety.’ You know what he said? He said, ‘Nah, I wouldn't kill over these.’ Someone casually just said that.”
The normalization of violence in the sneaker community has brought concerns for many buyers and parents.
Marshall says she cautioned her son when he bought a pair of shoes when he was on the East Coast.
“My son was afraid to wear sneakers in New York,” she says. “I think that's craziness. [Violence] seems over the top for a pair of shoes.”
Sneaker violence was all over the headlines in Holley’s world. Although he didn’t experience it firsthand, he was exposed to it when meeting the mother of Jamal Gaines, a man who was killed in his own sneaker shop.
Holley has since met with people who have been affected by violence over material things through his annual 5k charity run. He started this run to spread awareness of sneaker violence.
“A lot of people who come to the races, they'll tell me stories about how they were affected, like 'My brother got killed over an Xbox' or this kid got killed over a car or money,” Holley says. “It's just, like, over some kind of material thing.”
Ngazimbi doesn’t believe that violence is inherently tied to the sneaker industry. However, he says that questioning why people are fighting over shoes oversimplifies the problem.
“I think that the rise of sneaker culture parallels with income inequality because the people I see who are fighting are people who are counting on getting that shoe in order to pay their bills,” he says. “Some people might be getting the shoes to wear them, but others are getting them just to eat.”
But the resellers aren’t the real problem, Ngazimbi says.
“I think kids who are in the sneaker culture fighting aren't the problem,” he says. “Corporations are the problem.... I think the problem is creating or facilitating atmospheres like Complex Con where you know you're deceiving people into paying money to get into this thing, waiting in line to get this product, only to game them later and release the product for general release. In the sneaker game today, that's what I think is the bigger issue.”
Bobby Hundreds, creator of the Los Angeles streetwear brand The Hundreds, also complained of the negative atmosphere of Complex Con. In an Instagram post, Hundreds said he had mixed feelings toward the event, calling it “an undeniable success,” with a “frustrated, frantic” vibe.
“I watched a kid today, caught up, pushed and shoved in the distended [Nike] line for six hours,” Hundreds wrote in his post. “He maybe moved four feet. I assume he paid the full admission. I’m sure he didn’t intend to spend his weekend like this. I’m positive he didn’t get the shoes.”
Ngazimbi says corporate interests paint resellers as the villains, yet corporations are the ones gaming them. He criticizes companies like Nike for viewing resellers with contempt.
“My question isn't even do we fault the kids that's doing it,” he says. “My question is, what the hell is up with these corporations that would be willing to play these kids out like that? These kids are paying for new [shoes], and then you treat these kids like a burden even though they're consuming your product. Exactly what you want them to do is what they're doing.”
Ngazimbi cited this case in point: Earlier this year, Nike partnered with Amazon so the site could sell the company’s products online. Formerly, Nike products on Amazon could be sold through third-party sellers. But with the new partnership, third-party sellers aren’t allowed to sell Nikes on Amazon, a move Ngazimbi calls “contemptuous.”
“On principle, I just won't buy Jordans.”