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Sole Searching : Vintage Sneakers Are Attracting Big Bucks, Keeping Collectors and Buyers on the Run


Raphael Aguire has no trouble slipping his booty into a pair of $15 used Levi's. The well-worn jeans are classics, after all. But he draws the line at sliding his feet into someone else's smelly old sneakers, even if they are a rare pair of Nike's with a $1,500 price tag.

"Yuck! That's pretty disgusting," says the 23-year-old office worker from El Monte. "Who would ever pay that much for a pair of dirty old shoes?"

Believe it or not, plenty would.

They may not stand well with most Americans, but overseas and in some trendy circles here in the States, used sneakers--especially certain models by American manufacturers such as Nike, Puma, Adidas and Converse--are now considered collectibles. The vintage sneakers have become such big business that fortune hunters raid the closets of friends and family members and haunt thrift shops, garage sales and swap meets looking for used running shoes they can turn around and sell for as much as 10 times their original price tags.

"People from Japan, France and even some Americans pay a lot of money for them. They're vintage models you can't find in stores anymore," says Ramon Medrano, a used clothing and shoe dealer from Oakley, Calif., who spends his weekends at swap meets surrounded by thousands of pairs of old running shoes. On a good day he'll sell more than $5,000 worth of used shoes. Big dealers who show up in loaded U-haul trucks can average sales of $20,000 in a single day.

Many dealers say used sneakers are a lot like cocaine: Both are in growing demand and their street value increases with their quality. Some credit actor Tom Hank's character in "Forrest Gump" for the recent phenomenon. "His running shoes were authentic, from the '60s and '70s," says David Wilson, a local shoe collector and dealer, who says the white Nike sneaks on the cover of the "Gump" video box have a current street value of $100 to $200. "A year ago there wasn't much competition," he says. "But now everybody knows about them."

The trend seems to have started in Japan, where demand for American brand-name fashions hit a fever pitch in the late '80s and early '90s. Demand soon developed in other Asian and European countries. With fashion seen immediately throughout the world via computer technology and MTV, many American kids started copying the Japanese teenagers with a taste for the past.

"Right now the black, red and white Air Jordans are really popular in Japan," says Yoshio Imahara, a buyer for a Japanese clothing store called American Dream. "But I think this business won't last so long because the Japanese are always changing, usually every three or four years." Imahara says used American camouflage fatigues did a hefty business in Asia five years ago. Now U.S. and Japanese dealers can't give them away.

But Medrano is more optimistic. He believes "any kid--Japanese, French or American--that is into vintage will buy the shoes for a couple more years at least." Meanwhile, interest from other countries could keep business strong until the end of the decade, he says.

Shoe collectors are mostly after certain styles in key colors made during specific years. "For Puma and Adidas the best years are the '60s and '70s," Wilson says. "For Nike [especially Air Jordans] it's the early to mid-'80s. Converse has been around a long time, so anything from the '40s and '50s is pretty hot, but also hard to come by."

Wilson says depending on the brand, year and condition, the shoes are sold for $200 to $2,000. A pair of never-worn vintage running shoes, known as "dead stock," could fetch double. Find them in their original box and you've won the lottery.

Not every old sneaker is worth its weight in gold, however. The material (leather, patent, rubber, nylon), the stitching, the year of production and the unusual markings found on older models make some shoes more valuable than others. Medrano keeps a meticulously organized book of pictures detailing which shoes are currently most in demand and the going rates for them.

Bestsellers at the moment are those produced in bright color combinations and in limited quantities of 5,000 to 10,000, he says. For example, red and white Converse high-tops with a cut out star, circa 1986, sell for up to $200. A pair of forest green and gold Nike Air Jordans, called Oregon Waffles and made in the mid-'80s, have a current street value of between $300 and $500. Navy and gold Adidas from the '70s go for as much as $500.

Running shoes in any color with an embroidered Nike logo on the tongue ('70s) are worth $900. (The Nike logo is printed now, not embroidered.) And navy and white or yellow and black Nike Air Jordans, made in 1985 and sometimes called "dunks," can fetch a whopping $2,000 because they were made in very limited quantities. Any of these shoes in size 8, 9 or 10 (the most difficult sizes to come by) fetch another $150 to $200.

Shoe manufacturers are not blind to the renewed interest in their outdated styles. Some, such as Nike, have even tried to capitalize on it. Last year Nike reintroduced its popular 1985 black, white and red Air Jordans. With new versions of the Nikes readily available, the relaunch caused the street value of the vintage editions to decrease.

"Last year those 1985 Air Jordans were selling for $600 to $900 in the box," Wilson says. "Now they're down to $400." By comparison, the reproductions found in most stores today sell for $59.

The truly well-heeled know the difference. "The leather on the repros is not as good," Wilson says. "Also, the letter J in 'Air Jordan' is slightly different." The new shoes were made in Korea; the old in China, he says.

Nevertheless, the only way to tell if you're wearing new shoes or vintage originals is to look at the year they were made. You'll find it by checking the first two digits of the serial number found inside the shoe.

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