Innovation & Design

In Siren Song of Swoosh


Like most of my friends in fifth grade, I craved a pair of Air Jordans. Unfortunately, my feet were small and I had to settle for the kiddie version, which, among other deficiencies, didn't have a see-through bubble in the sole so actually were not "Air" anything. "Why are you wearing fake Jordans?" my classmates asked.

Such was my first encounter with the devotion and obsession with detail that is Nike (NKE) fandom. But my classmates were amateurs. True sneaker devotees seek out limited-edition versions of existing models, with cachet that derives as much from scarcity as appearance. And some editions are more limited than others.

Early on the morning of Apr. 21, several hundred sneakerheads, most in their late teens and early twenties, lined up outside the skateboard boutique Supreme, in New York's SoHo. Many had expensive-looking spiky haircuts. Others donned too-large baseball caps with flat brims twisted slightly to the side. Almost everybody wore jeans and T-shirts or sweatshirts, adorned with pictures or logos meaningless to the uninitiated, and sported retro Nikes in a rainbow of colors and fabrics. Almost all male, some were speaking Chinese as they waited for a shoe to "drop."

SUPREME EFFORT. The Nike SB Blazer by Supreme was launched and sold exclusively at Supreme shops in New York City, Los Angeles, and Japan. According to Geo Moya, who works at the shop, 3,000 pairs would be available worldwide. Nike declines to comment on the number. Alerted by in-the-know blogs or a tiny sign at the shop, the most die-hard sneaker groupies had spent the night in portable chairs. As crunch time approached, some had passed out in a downtown parody of a Soviet breadline.

The new shoe, the fourth collaboration between Supreme and Nike, is a variation of the simple Blazer sneaker originally released in the early 1970s. The new version features quilted leather with big gray snakeskin Swooshes on the sides. A strip of red and green checkered fabric, Gucci's colors, rises from the heel and attaches to a small metal ring. The rubber soles have no bubble. The Blazers come in three colors of leather: red, black, and white. Many sneakerheads bought all three.

"I think they're ugly. I just want to sell them," said one 14-year-old who probably should have been in school. He wasn't the only one there who considered the Blazers a business venture, and, of course, the shoes popped up on eBay (EBAY) almost instantly.

SNAKESKIN ATTACK. For others, these Blazers had a deeper resonance. Jean Rivera, a computer technician, explained that the Blazers are the "most New York sneaker there is." The quilted pattern evokes jackets worn in the inner city and the shoes "represent the Dapper Dan era," a reference to a stylemaker in the early days of rap. How is snakeskin New York? Well, "it's just bad," Rivera says. "That s---'ll bite you."

Eventually a squat guy stood at the door and began allowing people into the small spare shop, several at a time, as if it were a nightclub. Most of those who reached the counter arrived at their leisure, hugged the cheerfully sadistic doorman and slipped past. Once inside, they chatted and admired the sneakers as the throng outside, packed tighter than a rush-hour subway, looked on longingly.

"Last time we had a release we had barricades, and it worked so much better," one of Supreme's famously aloof clerks said as he looked outside. There was some pushing and shoving, but not much. Causing trouble was not the way to get Blazers. News that more shoes would arrive Saturday didn't seem to inspire anyone to leave.

FIRST TO THE STREET. Lots of other sneaker makers have enlisted hip-hop stars, high-fashion designers, and, of course, athletes to lend their shoes an aura of authenticity or whatever. But the kids at Supreme were dismissive. Starting with the Air Jordan, "Nike was first to market," says a young man who calls himself Maze and runs the sneakerhead blog "Kix and the City."

Wearing some blingy jewelry and a vintage pair of Nike Vandals -- Atlanta Hawks 1974 edition, black with a yellow Swoosh -- Maze said the sneaker giant reached out to graffiti artists and boutiques, who in turn want to work with the biggest name out there.

Like Maze, the kids in line were the type that make marketers salivate -- the cool hunters' prey. And it's Nike that inspires them to wait outside all night for the privilege of paying $168 (plus tax). So long as Nike continues to choose cool color schemes, says Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, it'll be able to keep this up "relatively indefinitely." Even Nike's competition must be tempted to stand up and applaud.


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