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Meet the men who make thousands selling second-hand trainers

Meet the men who make thousands selling second-hand trainers

Five years ago, while the rest of the UK was focused about flash floods and the Sochi Winter Olympics, Luke’s* phone was blowing up with a different kind of news. Nike had released the Air Yeezy 2 Red Octobers, the brand’s final sneaker collaboration with rapper Kanye West, and to him, it was the only news that mattered. So, during a wet week in February, he was driving up and down the country with only one thing on his mind.

"Kanye had left Nike on bad terms, but they still had a pair scheduled," Luke explains, on a dial-in call from the US. He’s agreed to speak to me, but only anonymously – a common thing in an industry where backhand deals and huge sums of money are often at play. The release of the Red Octobers was one of the first moments when the numbers started to get ridiculous. “Rumours were flying: is it going to drop? Is it not going to drop? Then, one Sunday afternoon in 2012, they dropped them, randomly, and without warning, on their website." For the thousands of like-minded obsessives, things got panicky.

Luke managed to buy two pairs of the shoes online, but he wanted more. He started buying up every pair he could get his hands on. "The shoes retailed at about £200, but I was buying up pairs for £800, or £1,000, or more. I was literally driving around, meeting anyone who had a pair in person, and buying them. I think I bought 15 pairs in total."

Luke’s behaviour might seem extreme, but in his world, it was shrewd business. Luke had a plan. He left his 15 pairs of Red Octobers for a year. Then, after 12 months, he sold them – for £3,000 a pair. If he’d waited until today, they’d go for almost £5,000. Ludicrous? Yes. Surprising? Not for guys like Luke. This is the world of the resellers, where traders deal in footwear and fashion and where nothing is too exclusive - as long as you’re willing to pay the price.

A pair of Nike Air Max 95s in Tahsin Sabir's stock room. He mostly trades in rare Nike and Adidas trainers.

The six billion dollar men

People have been coveting and collecting trainers since the 80s, but the idea of reselling them is still relatively new. Just ask Tahsin Sabir, one of the longest-running British resellers – despite only having started seven years ago. Tahsin collects classic shoes from the 80s and 90s, and it was while getting rid of a few of these older models that he discovered reselling. "Three or four of us used to do it," he tells me. "We’d just pick up a few pairs for cheap, and then managed to make some money on them. I remember a pair of Infra-Red Air Max 90s from 2010, which I must have sold for about £100 profit. I thought, 'There might be potential here'."

He wasn't the only one. By 2014, sneaker trading hub StockX valued the resale market at $1 billion globally. Today, that figure is closer to $6 billion, and growing. Reselling trainers has gone from a hobby to a cottage industry to an actual industry. And for Tahsin, who reckons he’s sold over 2,000 pairs of shoes since he started. Though £140 still represents a decent day at the office, a handful of sales have netted him more than £1,000 a pair.

"It's like the London Stock Exchange," says Luke, who sells 20-30 pairs of trainers per month. "Everyone is trying to make a sale, to buy stock. We’re all trading in commodities." He started trading in trainers during his time at university, when he’d queue up outside Nike and Adidas stores to buy the latest releases for himself. "I used to see other people who weren't just getting one or two pairs – they were getting five or six, and selling them. So I started to do the same. It would cover the cost of my pair, and then leave a little bit of money in my pocket."

 

Nike first released the Air Chapuka in 2001, then re-released the silhouette with a slight update in 2016. This version, in the 'Michigan' colourway, is from the original drop.

Ask any self-respecting ‘sneakerhead,’ and they’ll tell you this is how it all began – people funding their own trainer collections by selling the odd pair here and there. But with an influx of celebrity collaborations and social media frenzies, it soon started to become clear just how much money there was to be made from buying and selling trainers. “Reselling was definitely not a thing back then, but it was becoming a thing,” Tahsin says. “There was a lack of shoes on the market. In 2012 or 2013, you could literally bring in anything and it would sell.”

This was all part of a curious trend in clothing, in which brands discovered that they could earn more money by making few products. Companies like Supreme discovered the benefit in releasing only a few of each item, to make people want what they couldn't have. This drove up their own brand image, creating a form of luxury based on scarcity rather than price. Having a lot of money was no longer enough to ensure you were getting your hands on the most covetable clothes and trainers. Which created a market for resellers.

“I had all types of people hitting me up,” Luke says. ”Celebrities, athletes, all of them asking me to source them rare and exclusive footwear and clothing.” This was the golden era of resale, when a few members of the old guard of sneakerheads dominated the market and you were guaranteed a hefty profit as long as you knew your stuff. “There was one pair which came out in 2009, the Patta Air Max 1s,” Tahsin, now in his thirties, remembers. “You could go into an outlet and pick up a pair for £70. There were literally shelves of them, and people weren't interested.” Today, they’re worth a £1,000 a pair.

Nike's occasional collaborations with much-hyped streetwear brand Supreme are amongst the most coveted trainers on earth. These Air Max 98 Snakeskins originally retailed for £135. Today, their value has increased by almost 400 per cent.

How do you define ‘hype’?

Here’s how reselling works: traders will split their time between trawling eBay, sifting through charity shops and vintage stores and sneaker conventions, or entering ‘raffles’ where a few randomly allocated participants get the chance to buy a pair of the most ‘hyped’ new releases (it used to be that you could queue up for these shoes in-store, but queue-jumpers, brawls and stampedes put a stop to that around 2014). For guys like Tahsin and Luke, having an encyclopedic knowledge of trainers was once enough to get you ahead. In Tahsin’s words, “There was no hype back then.” Nowadays, though, ‘hype’ is everything – even if nobody can tell me precisely what it means.

“You can’t define ‘hype’ as a thing. What's hype for one person may not be hype for the next.” I’m speaking to Felix Giles, someone who knows better than most what’s hype and what isn’t. He’s built something of a second-hand clothing empire on the social shopping app Depop, and turns over upwards of £25,000 a year just from selling streetwear. The fact that he’s 18 years old and studying for his A-Levels makes this all the more impressive. “I do Economics, and I heard a couple of my friends talking about Supreme,” he says. “It sounded like there was a bit of money to be made. So I decided to try it out.”

If you're over 21, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of Supreme, but you've definitely seen its white-on-red ‘box logo’. Slathered on t-shirts and hoodies, the brand has become such a juggernaut that it can now shift fire extinguishers, boxing gloves and bricks (yes, bricks) for enormous mark-ups, so long as they've got that all-important logo. They’re the literal definition of hype in these circles – which means, for streetwear resellers like Felix, anything from Supreme is almost guaranteed to turn a profit.

“Aside from sneakers, Supreme is the main money-maker brand in terms of streetwear,” he says. “That’s because there’s an incredible amount of hype, and a limited supply. Most Supreme products will sell out in less than a minute, and some in less than 10 seconds. That means there's a huge secondary market for people who couldn't get it the first time round, and are willing to pay even more than what it originally retailed at.

Left: Tahsin holds a pair from Nike's collaboration with Japanese high-fashion label Sacai. The shoes are notable for having double-everything – two logos, two sets of laces, even two tongues. Originally priced at £140, they now sell for around £400. Right: A version of the Air Max 1, released this year to mark Air Max Day on 1 March. The tongue badge reads: "Have a Nike Day".

Supreme, like the big trainer brands, know that the booming resale market merely adds to the hype around their products. “They must do,” Felix says. “They don't make their products with the intention of resale, but if Supreme released another 10,000 hoodies onto the market, the hype wouldn’t be the same. It’s all about exclusivity.” For a company looking to maximise profit, this seems counterintuitive. But it means its products have an air of unattainability, even though they sell at a fairly accessible price. It's a luxury commodity that teenagers can afford, which creates a customer who's guaranteed to buy almost anything Supreme puts out. Even bricks.

It’s the same in the sneaker world - the most hyped shoes are the ones that are hardest to get hold of. That’s why the discontinued Red Octobers only go up in value, and why the recent Nike collaboration with Off-White designer Virgil Abloh – of which only a small amount were dropped during a pre-release raffle – fetch the highest prices today. “If you didn't win a raffle, you weren't getting a pair,” Luke says. “Anyone who did win them was selling them. People were asking for £800, £900, or £1,000. You could just see that they were going to rocket in value. So I bought 10 pairs at resale.” You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to wince at the concept of buying 10 pairs of shoes for £1,000 each, so it’s no wonder that other resellers were calling Luke crazy. “They thought that more would be released and that the value would drop,” he says. “But it was a calculated risk, and it was a risk I was willing to take.”

This is what the whole thing is about. Risk and reward; speculation and accumulation. It’s no different to traditional investment, which is why the stock market analogy comes up time and time again. And while all the guys admit they’ve made bad investments in the past, the good ones far outweigh those. In the case of the Off-Whites, Luke sold them six months after buying them for £2,000 a pair.

Felix Giles, at home in his bedroom, which doubles as his office.

The most expensive trainers in the world

Making £1,000 profit on a single pair of shoes is, to most people, unfathomable. The potential £4,500 markup on a pair of Red Octobers is positively unhinged. Yet both are small change compared to the Nike Air MAG, which you might recognise as the futuristic self-lacing shoe that Marty McFly wore in Back To The Future II. To sneakerheads, it’s known a little more simply as the most expensive shoe in the world. The last time a pair was listed on StockX, they sold for £18,372, and that’s relatively cheap. There’s currently a pair on the site with an asking price of over £60,000.

It’s StockX and its contemporaries which drive the hype machine around shoes like the Air MAG. The site, which analyses trainers like stock market commodities, also provides a marketplace on which sellers can list and sell the most hyped trainers, adjusting their asking price in conjunction with the market trends. Luke is one of the biggest UK resellers on the site. Tahsin, on the other hand, is a prolific seller at Crepe City, which is both the UK’s largest sneaker convention and a bustling Facebook marketplace. Felix prefers Depop, but also uses a number of obscure but enormous Facebook groups in which people trade streetwear. One is called ‘The Basement,’ another ‘Wavey Garms.’ And while their markets of choice differ, all three make a killing on Instagram.

In the internet age, every platform is a marketplace – that’s why more money-minded young entrepreneurs like Felix are seeing an opportunity to ‘flip’ products for an ever-increasing profit. When Supreme release new clothes every week, Felix is first in line. If he manages to buy something online, it will be listed on Depop within 10 minutes, needing only a screenshot of the purchase page as proof. Similarly, anything he manages to buy in-store will be sold on the platform that day. “There's such a big demand for stuff now that it doesn't take too much effort to get rid of things,” he says. “A couple of weeks ago I made about £500 on a Supreme Swarovski T-shirt. And that wasn’t even one of the most anticipated items in that collection – some of the hoodies ended up going for £1,500.”

I ask Luke, as an OG reseller, how he feels about the influx of young, entrepreneurial resellers who are eager to take a piece of his market. “Reselling was always a hobby for me, but most modern sellers don't have a love or passion for the scene,” he says. “It's all about the profit.” Which is when people start to get greedy. That’s where the ‘cooks’ come in.

Felix focuses on selling designer clothing. Left, a Burberry shirt. Right, a hoodie from Stone Island's winter 2017 Supreme collaboration. The logo panel on the chest is made from a special reflective material, which lights up under a camera flash.

The dark side of reselling

“Nowadays, people don't enter raffles. They cook.” Tahsin is explaining why, if he started reselling sneakers nowadays, he wouldn’t make much money at all. He gives me an example. “When Adidas drop a new pair of Yeezys, there's a waiting room page,” he says. “When you're in that waiting room, there are ways of bypassing the waiting.” That means, by ‘cooking’ – or, using a specially designed algorithm to bypass waiting in line – these people can purchase five or six pairs of each colour as soon as they come out. “The guys who use the bots are the guys who are really killing it,” Tahsin says. “That’s because they know they can get five or six pairs of shoes, and immediately flip them for £200-£300 profit.”

I have my suspicions that Tahsin is exaggerating about the prevalence of these ‘bots,’ but Felix is first to agree. In fact, he says it’s now so bad that people are paying almost as much for the bots themselves as they are the clothes they enable them to buy. “Some of these bots are so good that people are paying upwards of £1,000 for access to them,” he says. “That’s how far the hype goes. People are willing to pay huge amounts of money just to increase their chances of getting the stuff in the first place.” Felix says there’s also been an increase in the practise of ‘proxying,’ in which people will rent out their time to queue up for the latest releases in place of, or alongside, hopeful resellers. Proxying prices will range from £20 or £30 to upwards of £400, if the release is high-profile enough.

Cooks, bots, proxy buyers. There’s a whole lexicon of threats to look out for in the reselling business – and we haven’t even talked about the scammers yet. Scamming is always a risk when buying goods online from someone you've never met, but it’s something that people still fall for. Even the experts. “Back in 2009, Supreme was really hard to get in the UK,” Tahsin says. “I bought a pair of shoes or a shirt or something off somebody in America, and I must have gifted them the payment for the shirt. They just blocked me. It was only like £60, but it's still £60 of your own money gone. It’s pretty heartbreaking.”

While the stereotype is that fake products are the most common way of scamming people in the resale business, ‘gifting’ is in fact much more prevalent. This all relates to the methods of payment on payment service Paypal - ‘Goods and Services,’ which is protected, and ‘Family and Friends,’ which, well, isn’t. Opportunistic sellers will therefore request payment through the latter, as a ‘gift,’ and novice buyers will go through with it. Once the payment has gone through, the seller will disappear, and the buyer will be left without their shoes and without the sometimes thousands of pounds they paid for them.

A sweatshirt by Supreme. The skate brand is now worth more than a billion dollars.

The thrill of the chase

Even with a saturated market, dwindling returns and an growing cabal of bot-peddlers and money-grabbers, all three of the guys are still making a more-than decent profit. Felix, at 18, makes more than people twice his age in full-time careers. Luke won’t tell me how much he earns, but it’s enough that he’ll happily drop £1,200 on a pair of rapper Travis Scott's Air Jordan 1s when they come out later this year.

Clearly, there’s still a ton of money in reselling sneakers. So, how do I start? “You've got to be more proactive now than you used to be,” Luke tells me. “It's not an easy industry now. Instead of selling two pairs at £100 profit, you have to sell five pairs at £50 profit.” He pauses. “Would I recommend doing it? Yes. But you need to have the time, and you need to have the passion.”

Unless you’re an algorithmic whizzkid or a cold-blooded scammer with a finger over the block button, passion seems to be the only way to get ahead in reselling. Luke has it, Tahsin has it, even Felix has it – although he admits he first got into it for the money, he’s now so into streetwear that his career going forwards is in vintage clothes. Resellers don’t often set out to be resellers. There’s just something so addictive about ‘the hunt.’

“Beyond anything, I just enjoy it,” Tahsin says. “I'm on every online market, in every country, all the time. I'm one of those weird people who can scroll through about a hundred pages and not even realise. My missus will be like, 'You've been on your phone for an hour and not said a thing, what are you doing?' And I'm genuinely just looking for shoes. When you manage to find something for cheap, and then it turns up on your doorstep, it's that dopamine hit. For us, it’s Christmas every day.”

*Some names have been changed


Words: Bobby Palmer
Photography: Joshua Osborne