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Shoe Gazers 

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007
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Some stand, while others sit in a long line of folding metal and cloth chairs. A few are watching portable DVD players. The gathering is very multicultural overall but is separated into subgroups based on race: Asian, Latino, black, white — their style is a very contemporary Southern California mix of gangsta, skater and punk rock.

I pull the car over to the side of Fairfax and my girlfriend and I ask the kids, very nicely, what they are up to. Their replies drip sarcasm. “We’re waiting for Britney Spears!” says one guy. “We heard J.Lo’s gonna be here!” says another. “Michael Jordan’s supposed to show up!” shouts a third. I’m confused. Why would people who are clearly making some kind of public statement be so squirrelly and evasive?

Now I have to know what’s going on.

I park the car around the corner, walk back and infiltrate the mob. Luckily, the first couple of guys I approach offer me an empty folding chair.

Frizzy-haired Max, who looks like he could be into the band Korn as much as into hip-hop, and Hansi, who has an art-school-meets-barrio-poet vibe about him, lay it down for me with a cool, calm authority. They are all waiting for the Fairfax Avenue boutique shoe store Supreme to open up the next morning at 11 (more than 12 hours from now) so they can be the first ones to buy the new Nike SB Trainers, a sneaker made especially for the Supreme store, which has U.S. locations only in L.A. and New York City. The shoes, which retail for $148, could — and in many cases would — be shortly resold on eBay for two or three times that much.

The kids are part of a subculture called “sneaker heads” or “shoe heads” and they come from all parts of greater L.A. Max and Hansi, who looked to be in their late teens or early 20s, drove more than an hour from the heart of the Inland Empire.

“Rock the shoes to break the necks,” says Hansi, quoting a common sneaker-head motto. And by “break the necks,” they mean turning heads, not literally stepping on someone’s jugular. Of the sneaks that are kept and never resold, there seems to be a split among the collectors. “Some people wear ’em and wear ’em out,” says Max, “Some people save them, never even wear ’em.”

The resell prices for this footwear are nothing to sneeze at. A model from a while back called What the Dunk retailed for $129 and resold on eBay for $3,000. Someone gives me a glossy brochure featuring the new Trainers in question. They are Michael Jordan–inspired and have a black-over-white, fine webbing pattern on the tongue, black laces and a velcro pull strip near the toe. They come in four colors, and I especially remember a rich, medium blue and a bright, sunny yellow.

To my eyes, they were a little underwhelming for all the hype — not as physically impressive as, say, a space-age ski boot. But I love casual, laceless slip-on shoes from the discount rack at Big 5, so what do I know of ultra-hip, rare-model sneakers?

“Some kids say, ‘I don’t want to spend a lot on a pair of shoes,’?” Max explains. “?‘What if they go out of style?’ Shoes are like wine, they go up in price with time.”

Adds Hansi, “You know. Like baseball cards.”

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