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By Michael Kahn
San Francisco - Alex Wang's lifelong love affair with sneakers has moved beyond a relatively simple shoe fetish to full-blown obsession.
The 27-year-old former computer programmer is part of a growing subculture of devotees known as sneakerheads, who spend all night in line eagerly awaiting the release of a new shoe and devote staggering amounts of time and money to collecting footwear.
But it is an investment that can prove lucrative to collectors fortunate enough to get their hands on shoes like a limited edition version of the Nike Dunk that retailed for $120 (about R800) and, a week later, sold on the Internet for about $1 500 (about R9 600).
"I wear shoes out that most people don't have," Wang said. "You have what other people want. That is part of what drives sneakerheads."
The sneaker subculture has also attracted the attention of big companies like Nike, which see the shoe-collecting community as a way to gauge the latest fashions and boost their brands among young trend-setters.
Known among sneakerheads as "Retrokid", Wang caught the shoe bug in high school. Since then he has accumulated more than 600 pairs of sneakers he keeps in storage lockers, closets and at the houses of his parents and friends.
Wang has also appeared on television, works for a sneaker magazine and operates the sneaker-centred website at his own expense.
His life is all about shoes, all the time.
"Sneakerheads are a different breed," said Wang, who insures his collection for an amount he declined to disclose.
"Any sane person only needs two pairs of shoes at a time, but we have 10 or more or even hundreds."
Collectibles easily run into the hundreds of dollars with vintage models, and limited-edition sneakers or anything related to basketball legend Michael Jordan are typically worth more.
An original black-and-gold Air Jordan 1, for example, is estimated to have cost a Japanese collector $23 000 (about R150nbsp;000) , and Wang said he has paid as much as $875 (about R5nbsp;700) for a pair of sneakers.
But with so much money at stake, some sneakerheads refuse to wear their collections and only grudgingly divulge details about what they have hidden away in their closets.
"Your never keep them in one place," said one sneakerhead at Huf, a San Francisco shoe boutique.
"You need to keep them in a safe place - like a bank vault."
Sneakerheads say their hobby is no different than collecting stamps or baseball cards.
And much like a rare coin, a hard-to-find pair of vintage sneakers in good condition can prove to be a better investment than a blue-chip stock, said Steve Mullholand, 35, who runs Sole Collector magazine.
He added that Nike, the world's largest athletic shoe company, produces the most collectible sneakers due in large part to the enduring popularity of the Air Jordan and Air Force 1 lines.
"The turnover is so fast on some shoes," said Mullholand, who also operates the site instyleshoes.com, which sells rare and hard-to-find sneakers.
"You are better off going to Footlocker and buying the latest Jordan retro and sitting on it than going to Charles Schwab and buying stocks," said
As an example, he cited the limited edition Nike Dunk release in Paris in 2003 when the shoe retailed for about $120 and was selling for about $1 500 on the Internet a week later.
He also attributes the growing ranks of sneakerheads to popular NBA stars like Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett as well as hip hop musicians like 50 Cent, who has had his own Reebok line of shoes developed.
"Some of these kids will buy three or four of these really hot shoes, make the money and pay for the other ones," Mullholand said.
"It is insane."
The Internet, which allows collectors to buy, sell, trade and talk about shoes, has also played a pivotal role in creating a worldwide marketplace and online hang-out for sneakerheads.
"Ebay is the Kelly Blue Book of shoes," said a sneakerhead in a shoe boutique, referring to the popular online marketplace.
"It is like the stock market somewhat."
Nike spokesperson Joani Komlos said the company was well aware of the growing numbers of sneakerheads and "pretty tied" to the community.
Keith Hufnagel, a professional skateboarder who owns Huf boutique, agreed that small stores like his are important for big shoe companies and enabled them to create a bigger buzz for their products.
"They are catering to this business because it makes their brands cool," Hufnagel said. "Having people line up to buy their shoes helps their image." - Reuters