One morning in late July, Chris Santos climbed out of bed filled with anxiety over which pair of shoes to wear. This wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary; for Santos, almost every waking moment revolves around athletic footwear. He spends at least an hour a day on websites like NiceKicks (“the most read source for sneaker news, information, history, and release dates”). He hunts down steals on eBay, reads magazines like Sole Collector, and watches YouTube videos posted by connoisseurs who go by names like “Perfect Pair” and “Soley Ghost.” He meticulously stockpiles his collection in a closet: fifty pairs, stored in their original boxes and organized by edition number. He once spent $700 on a single pair—some Nikes called “What the LeBron.” Making a shoe statement is a daily preoccupation.
But on this day, Santos’s choice of footwear was of particular importance. The 28-year-old wasn’t just going to be showing off for his clients at the Pura Nutrition store, where he is known as the fit, compact personal trainer with a flair for pedal fashion. He had a more important role to play, as a representative of the Laredo Sneakerhead Society. He and the club’s three other organizers would pull on their matching T-shirts, their names emblazoned on the back, and drive five hours to the NRG Center, in Houston, for the Sneaker Summit, one of the premier footwear events in the country. The shoes Santos wore had to impress the right people.
“I had to think about it for a couple of days,” he said later. He considered the orange LeBron 9 Big Bangs and the black Jordan 11 Space Jams but finally settled on some black-and-Carolina-blue Air Jordan 5’s from the 2006 LS series. “They’re OG,” he said, meaning they were pristine. “I picked something that not too many of these young kids are going to have—or even know about.”
He and his buddies arrived 45 minutes before the doors opened and walked to the end of the VIP line in the NRG Center’s cacophonous hallway, where roughly a thousand sneakerheads were already waiting. This was Santos’s first time at the summit, and he observed that the number of early arrivals alone was significantly greater than the entire attendance of the shoe-appreciation events he and his friends had organized in Laredo. He nodded approvingly at the sneakers other people were wearing. “Everybody’s seeing what everybody else is rocking,” Santos said. A satisfied smile spread across his face as he looked at his own feet. “I haven’t seen anybody wearing these yet.”
At three sharp, the doors to the 80,000-square-foot exhibit area opened, and everyone in the line craned his neck to get a peek inside. There, filling the cavernous room, were shoes—hundreds and hundreds of them, stacked on display tables like bright and glossy rows of candy. Shoes in every color and pattern (complementary hues, polka dots, neons); shoes of every material (faux lizard, shiny plastic, fur); shoes with every conceivable kind of accessory (tails, teddy bear heads, five-inch-long wings unfolding off the heel). Some glowed when you flashed a light on them. Some featured a spongy fabric casing that zipped over the laces, as if the shoes were wearing warm-up jackets. One mimicked the design of a Heineken beer label.
(Rows and rows of shoes filled the NRG Center in Houston. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
The crowd buzzed with excitement as ticket scanners granted access. The members of the Laredo Sneakerhead Society followed a group headed for the display booths, while others in line gravitated toward a separate trading area, where sellers quickly set up shop and began hoisting their goods high in the air, walking through the crowd in a large circle as they looked for buyers. One group of kids from Elkins High School, near Houston, built a makeshift exhibit of about twenty boxes in the middle of the trading floor and commenced bartering with a passion that would embarrass a Marrakech rug salesman. Adam, a high school junior with long eyelashes and short-cropped hair, yanked up his sagging jean shorts and thrust a pair of bulky sneakers out to one of his roaming associates. “Go walk around with these,” he instructed. “If they have something to trade, come back.”
“And not with something stupid,” added Adam’s colleague Sam, a senior.
“Hey-hey!” Adam shouted as a young man walked past. “What size are your Galaxies?” Adam pointed to the Foamposite Nikes that the teen was wearing, painted with a purple-and-blue night sky scene and embellished with indented swoops, black laces, and glow-in-the-dark soles. Adam had wanted Galaxies for two years. To afford them—they cost somewhere between $600 and $1,000—he had been buying other shoes low and selling them high, saving his profits for months. But this particular guy’s Galaxies were the wrong size. Adam waved him away and squatted to improve his view of the parade of other shoes moving in his direction.
(The trading floor at the Houston Sneaker Summit. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
An older buyer, in his thirties, walked up and browsed the Elkins High boys’ cluster of wares, finally picking up a pair of Air Jordan 7 Olympics, white-and-silver high-tops that looked a little like something a robot might wear in a sixties-era science fiction movie. “I’ll give you a hundred and thirty,” he said as they slipped out of his hands.
“Hundred and fifty,” Adam shouted, explaining, “You dropped them!”
Sam intervened as the calm voice of reason. “One-forty,” Sam said, modifying the counteroffer. “We got the OG box, yo.”
The man pulled out a stack of bills folded in half. “I got one-thirty right here,” he said.
The teens shouted in unison. “They’re ice!” After consulting each other in whispers, they repeated together. “One-forty.”
The man looked amused and continued to hold his money out.
At this point, Sam relented. “You got it, bro,” he said.
As Sam took the money, Adam kept the hustle going with the next customer. “Buy these, bro,” he begged. “I need my Galaxies.”
The singular obsession with the casual sports shoe is a relatively new phenomenon. Since the rise of Nike, Adidas, and celebrity endorsement deals—most notably with the 1985 release of the Air Jordans—interest in sneakers has exploded, attracting a whole new market of collectors, appraisers, and speculators. Retail sales of athletic footwear hit a record high last year, at $22 billion; resale revenue on eBay was another $200 million. (Forbes took notice of the economic boom, launching a column called Sneakernomics in April.) Such is the market now, in fact, that it supports a lucrative counterfeit culture and other less principled transactions. Earlier this year, former and current Nike employees were busted for selling samples for tens of thousands of dollars. Sneakerheads are occasionally mugged for their shoes, left standing on the road in their stockinged feet.
This fanatacism has inevitably spawned gatherings of like-minded obsessives both online and in the public sphere—and nowhere is this truer than in Houston, where the city’s NBA and NFL franchises, as well as its active hip-hop scene, have been hugely influential in advancing peoples’ proclivities for athletic shoes. The Sneaker Summit, which began in 2003, has attracted thousands, from places as far-flung as Japan and Great Britain, and inspired similar sneaker events in other major cities. “The H-Town Sneaker Summit was the first to take the sneaker show to the next level,” NiceKicks editor in chief Matt Halfhill, of Austin, told me. “In the early days, there were gatherings, but the H-Town Sneaker Summit turned them into conventions held in major venues. They’re responsible for that track.”
More specifically, Bryan Angelle is responsible for it. An electrical designer known online by the nickname Kadoma (a misspelling of a Japanese cartoon character’s name), he grew up during the rise of the late-eighties skateboarding scene, a subculture that relished attention-grabbing shoes. As a teenager he boarded around the streets of his north Houston neighborhood wearing Vans Eras or Half Cabs; he bought Nike Air Force 1’s and Charles Barkley signature models for show. As his interest in shoes grew, he sought out online sneaker forums to chat with other fans. In 2003 he met other members of a popular message board at an Internet cafe to compare shoes. A few dozen showed up, though only two brought extra sneakers from their collections. “If any transactions were made,” Angelle recalled, “it was literally off the other person’s foot.”
(Bryan Angelle, founder of the Houston Sneaker Summit. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
It seemed so eccentric, so marginal. Still, the group began to meet about twice a year and started to grow as word spread. When they congregated, they talked to one another about the original celebrity shoe, the Chuck Taylor. They fawned over Adidas, made popular by basketball and hip-hop culture, and Vans, the preferred brand among skateboarders. They analyzed Air Jordans, arguably the first sub-brand to inspire sneaker fandom. (Fans are known to wait in line for days for a raffle ticket to reserve a pair, and rare samples from the factory sell for at least $7,000. As one fan explained, this is Michael Jordan’s shoe, and who wouldn’t want to partake in that guy’s dominance?) Angelle, as one of the older fans in the group, became its organizer. He watched the crowds grow with each successive gathering—the group had to move from the cafe to a large sports bar to a larger nightclub—until finally, in 2011, Angelle hosted the Sneaker Summit at the Toyota Center in Houston, where it became the first sneaker event to be held in a sports stadium.
“When we first started, Houston was not that big of a sneaker market,” Angelle, who just turned forty, explained. “There were a lot of highly sought-after sneaker releases that would go to more-traditional fashion markets in L.A. or New York, and we’d be passed over. So one of our goals was to make enough noise with the summit that brands would know how many sneaker fans reside in Houston—then they’d include us in these releases.”
And now, it seems, Houston is circled on every shoemaker’s map. In July sneaker fans at the summit previewed the Etonic Akeem the Dream Retro high-top, a rerelease of a 1984 Hakeem Olajuwon signature shoe. In early 2013 the company Supra co-designed two skateboarding sneakers with Angelle and local hip-hop sneakerhead Bun B—shoes that were first available at the summit before being sold in select stores across the country.
Angelle has recognized that the sneakerheads value exclusivity and one-of-a-kind experiences. People still remember a summit event from a few years ago, when Angelle conducted a rare Q&A with D’Wayne Edwards, a legendary shoe designer who was one of the first to work on Nike’s Jordan line. It was a unique opportunity for Edwards too. “We don’t always get a chance to talk to the consumer, who is just as knowledgeable as we are,” Edwards told me. “For me, it’s really important to understand the passion that people have for sneakers. When you’re working in a corporate environment, it’s so structured that you don’t get the moments of raw emotion. This was one of those moments on a massive scale.”
This isn’t the only way Angelle sets his convention apart. Whereas some sneaker promoters are all about the marketplace—they set up displays at sporting events or hip-hop concerts, hoping to catch the passing fan—and others focus solely on the obsessiveness of rabid collectors, enshrining shoes in glass cases at invitation-only shows, Angelle embraces both realms, so that the Sneaker Summit is a glorious, energetic mishmash of commerce and art. He brings in businesses related to footwear—think shoe protectant and designer socks—while also allowing proud collectors to showcase brag-worthy shoes. Deejays perform in the halls, former pro basketball players Olajuwon and Maurice Taylor have made regular appearances, and fans are given the floor space they need to buy, sell, or trade.
(Deejays and dancing are part of the atmosphere at the Houston Sneaker Summit. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
“In the beginning, we were doing it because we loved it,” Angelle said. “We didn’t have any idea where it was going. We wanted to keep doing it and growing, and when we started to make money, we made it bigger and better, and that’s what we continue to do.” This past year, Angelle has taken the show on the road, expanding to cities like New York, New Orleans, and Milwaukee; eventually, he’d like to go international. Such is Angelle’s enthusiasm for curating the event that the Sneaker Summit seems to have eclipsed his passion for his own private collection. He rarely talks prices or numbers, two metrics that any collector measures his work by. When asked about his own closet, he shrugged. “The Sneaker Summit has become my showcase,” he said.
(This year’s Houston Sneaker Summit attracted about three thousand attendees. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
“I’m downsizing my shoes to get down to eight hundred or maybe four hundred,” an exhibitor named Sam Colt told me while passersby gawked. Colt, from Dallas, owns 1,800 pairs. He’d arranged a selection of them in orderly rows two sneakers deep, seven tables wide, and told the stories of each as he presented them. He showed me his customized Nike IDs, a line that allows customers to tailor every aspect of a shoe online to fit their whims. One red-white-and-blue pair he’d designed was made of faux-ostrich skin and featured the label “Panama,” the country where Colt spent his teen years as a military brat. Another pair, made from two hues of cork, wore an inscription: “CLARO” on the back of the left shoe, “QUE SÍ” on the back of the right. “ ‘Of course,’ ” he translated. “Because there are only two kinds of cork.”
A handful of Colt’s shoes were sample releases designed by various artists, including Mister Cartoon, a tattooist, and KR, a street painter. He held one pair of Nike Zoom Kobe 5 Throw It Down, Shannon Browns—white sneakers designed for the pro basketball player, which feature a silver band, a royal-blue sole, and a clementine-orange lining—and began the chronicle of his acquisition. “We had a dunk contest a few years back,” he began. “Shannon was originally going to wear this shoe.” At the last minute, he went on, the powers that be decided that he would wear a different shoe, and all the Shannon Brown Kobe 5’s were to be destroyed. “But some of them weren’t destroyed,” he said. “This is one of about forty-eight pairs that has the metallic look to it on the side. It’s probably the only size twelve-and-a-half that exists.” Colt gazed at the shoe the way a starving man might behold a steak. “I’ve had people trying to get this shoe away from me for many years.” (Remarkably, none of the sellers seemed worried that their rare sneaks would be stolen at the summit, although some did have imposing signage that cautioned “Do Not Touch.”)
Looking around, a newcomer might have wondered how fans explain the depth of their obsession to their nearest and dearest. Like, how did Aaron Castillo, a 31-year-old San Antonio therapist, get to a point where he was buying multiple matching sets of shoes for his kids to wear throughout their still unfolding childhoods? “I started buying them before my daughter was born,” he said, pointing to the various sets of matching Penny Hardaways, Charles Barkleys, and Jordans, some of which were only a few inches long. “Everything that I have for them is going to be worn by them eventually. I have sizes zero till school age.”
(Aaron Castillo, a therapist from San Antonio, has purchased matching sneakers for his family. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
I asked a question that his mother had probably asked him: Why shoes?
“My parents could only afford one or two pairs of the basketball shoes that I remember wanting as a kid,” he said, “so when I came of age and started working, I started buying some of them for myself.”
This seemed to be a common refrain. Another collector, a steakhouse manager-in-training with a size thirteen foot named Wei Wang, simply stated, “I have big feet,” a fact that has led him to develop an inordinate focus on footwear. Wang, who owns 250 pairs he organizes by generation number, brought a small cart of shoes he wanted to sell so that he might clear out closet space for new merchandise. He was adamant that he would never exhibit the bulk of his collection, explaining, “I don’t want to take them out and let them get oxidized and get dust and have people touch them.”
Amid the displays were also booths catering to the fringe element of the sneaker business. At one, representatives for a website called Shoeston were on hand to explain how they could help shoe stalkers find their coveted kicks. At another, a 29-year-old San Antonio artist named Jake “Dank” Danklefs* talked to collectors about his customization process, in which he takes sneakers apart, reassembles them in an original way, and paints them with a unique design for $450 to $700 per pair. (This is Danklefs’s full-time job. “I get to travel all the time. I mean, this is my sixth event in a row,” he said. “I have an invite now to go to the Netherlands.”)
Roughly five hours in, as the event was winding down, Danklefs and others began packing up. “Near the end you’ll see people really getting hungry, and you’ll see crazy deals go down because they don’t want to pack up their shit and take it with them,” he said. “So you’ll see guys—like fifteen-year-old kids—with ten thousand dollars’ worth of shoes.”
And it happened just like that. Half an hour before the summit’s end, the trading reached its peak. A near panic seemed to set in as kids riffled through boxes and engaged in last-minute bartering. Sellers put more effort into their pitches, holding their samples a little higher, a little more urgently.
The Laredo Sneakerhead Society had reconvened in the middle of the exhibit space to compare notes. The four members had sold most of the extra shoes they’d brought, and Chris Santos was raving about having seen the most exclusive shoe from the summit: the Red October. Created by Kanye West, this limited-edition Nike was a monochromatic, bright-orangish-red high-top with a Velcro strap across the laces. It goes for about $8,000 on eBay. “I saw, like, three of them,” Santos said.
(Kanye West’s limited-edition Nike, the Red October. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
With every tick of the clock, the chances of a sneakerhead’s acquiring his Holy Grail shoe slipped away. Those Nike Zoom Kobe 6 All-Star Hollywoods that require 3-D glasses? Keep looking. Those SF x Puma Sharkbaits? Ready to spend a grand?
Near the door, Adam was admiring a Galaxy shoe at another collector’s table. “Did you get your Galaxies?” I asked. I recalled the yearning he’d had, how hard he’d been working to get a pair. I wondered how many shoes he’d bought and sold over the previous two years while he pined for those Galaxies.
“Yeah!” he said. “I bought them for seven-fifty.” Noticing he wasn’t carrying them, I looked at his feet. But he wasn’t wearing them either. “I already sold them,” he said. He pulled out his iPhone and showed me a photo of himself licking the shoe. Then, satisfied, he pulled out a wad of cash. “I sold them for 1.2 K.”
*A previous version of this piece misspelled Jake Danklefs’s name. We regret the error.