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TUESDAY, JANUARY 16, 2007
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A collection of Adidas NBA Superstar shoes on display at the Adidas Store in Portland, Ore. Adidas released 30 NBA Superstar shoes - one for each team - in December. Shoes flew off the shelves.
AP photo by Rick Bowmer
A collection of Adidas NBA Superstar shoes on display at the Adidas Store in Portland, Ore. Adidas released 30 NBA Superstar shoes - one for each team - in December. Shoes flew off the shelves.

That's SHOE business
Sneaker love gains traction as
fanatics get their kicks collecting

By Sarah Skidmore
Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Matt Halfhill is crazy about sneakers. He worked in a shoe store as a teenager, buying shoes on clearance. He has charmed his wife with kicks, buying limited edition pink and red Nikes for her on Valentine's Day. He collects them obsessively, lining the walls of his home with about 500 pairs of shoes.

Welcome to the world of the sneakerhead, where shoes reign supreme.

Collectors range from casual fans of sneaker fashion to those who buy and sell shoes like a cardboard-encased commodity. True fanatics will camp out overnight for the latest pair, buy multiple pairs (in case one gets scuffed) and sometimes even wear them.

Matt Halfhill in the kitchen of his office with some of his sneaker collection in Austin, Texas. Halfhill worked in a shoe store as a teenager and now collects them obsessively.
AP photo by Harry Cabluck
Matt Halfhill in the kitchen of his office with some of his sneaker collection in Austin, Texas. Halfhill worked in a shoe store as a teenager and now collects them obsessively.
It is an obsession that has been gaining traction in recent years, even as sneaker sales have grown only slowly. There are Web sites, magazines, books, movies and radio shows dedicated to sneaker culture. There have even been television shows, like ESPN2's "It's About the Shoes" that included tours of collectors' enormous closets.

"I think people are more aware (of sneaker culture), the general public, because of the media and Internet," said Alex Wang, creative director for Sole Collector magazine and admitted shoe aficionado.

Sneakers have been a part of urban culture for decades.

Run DMC rapped about "My Adidas" in the 1980s, and it remains a part of hip hop culture with famous sneakerhead artists like Missy Elliot and Fat Joe.

But sneaker love has spread. British teen pop star Lilly Allen sings about her "trainers" and rocks them onstage while wearing a posh dress.

Everyone from Manhattan businessmen to Midwestern teens are coming in with a hankering for shoes, store owners say.

"You can tell so much about a person by what they have on their feet," said Andre Speed, 36, at a Portland specialty sneaker store called Lifted. "You might not have the freshest outfit but if you have the kicks, you are going to get the respect."

Shoes can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars depending on their cachet.

"The scene is on fire," Speed said.

Shoe makers are feeding off the energy. They work with artists to develop specialized pairs, such as Puma's electric blue and red trainers designed by Brazilian artist Frederico Uribe. There are stores where people can order styles of their own.

Shoe companies regularly rerelease old favorites and also market updated styles and limited edition shoes.

Adidas released 30 NBA Superstar shoes — one for each team in the NBA — in December. Shoes flew off the shelves.

In February the company will offer several player-specific shoes, like a Tim Duncan pair that incorporates his tattoos into the design and will only be available at the NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas.

Nike celebrated the 25th anniversary of its Air Force 1 last month with a huge party in New York where there were 1,040 different versions of the shoe on display.

One attendee described it as "awesome, out of control awesome."

Visit MTV.com to go behind the scenes of the party as part of a special on the culture surrounding Air Force 1.

Some sneaker designers have become celebrities themselves, such as Tinker Hatfield, Nike's legendary leader of the Innovation Kitchen, who is the star of sneakerhead events.

Adidas has heard from university equipment managers who get calls from sneakerheads looking for shoes that are not available to the public.

"It's absolutely amazing. Even if it's the smallest niche, they'll buy all of them," said Terrell Clark, a spokesman for Adidas USA, based in Portland.

NPD Group, a market research firm, estimates total U.S. footwear sales were nearly $42 billion in 2005, up 9 percent from the year before. But of that, athletic shoes only grew 3 percent.

Industry analysts say sneakerheads make up a small but crucial part of the shoe industry.

"There is incredible value for how it exists for the company as a tool for them to take a pulse for what kids will see as hip and relevant," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You are always trying to find the Pied Piper for the industry."

Shoe collectors dictate what will be hot and what will be bought.

Cutting edge

"Nike gets really great fashion and trend ideas from these kids, who are really cutting-edge," said John Shanley, a clothing and accessories industry analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group. "They can capitalize on (that) down the road from a mass production mode."

So shoe companies are compelled to reach out to sneakerheads.

They offer "quick hit" shoes, which might have a hundred or so pairs, and pop-up stores, which open for a day or week to sell a limited edition shoe and then disappear.

"It's always changing," said Dave Ortiz, co-owner of popular New York store Dave's Quality Meat. "As long as people have feet, they are going to have shoes. Walking around barefoot is not going to come back into style."

Shoe experts point to a mix of popular culture, nostalgia, technology and disposable income as drivers for the increased fascination with sneakers.

"It's hard to explain to a regular person," Wang said. "There is always a memory or a story with a sneaker, even if you aren't into it — you had sneakers at one point."

Originals like Adidas Shell Toes or Puma classics remain strong. Anything related to Air Jordan, which revolutionized the industry with its mix of style, technology and an iconic player, remains hot more than 20 years after its debut. And some U.S. East Coast stores say they are seeing a lot of Vans heading off their shelves lately.

"That is the good thing about sneakers in general," said Wang, who prefers running shoes from Asics and Nike. "Everyone has a preference."

Collectors say they have a hard time specifying why they love their kicks so much.

"My wife thinks I'm crazy," said Halfhill, who runs a Web site called nicekicks.com. "She does complain to me to stop talking about shoes all the time."

But it has been a financially lucrative obsession for some. They say they could make a down payment on a house or pay off a car loan if they sold their collection — not that they would.

Collecting sneakers is no different from collecting baseball cards or Barbie dolls, said Wang, who grew up watching basketball and worshipping Michael Jordan.

"It's just another hobby."

And sneakers are his.

Tips on buying running shoes

If you're trying to trim down after all those holiday treats and toddies, you may want to hit the ground running. To get the support you need for a high impact activity like jogging, you'll need the right pair of running shoes. Here's how to find a shoe that fits:

  • The No. 1 mistake people make when purchasing running shoes is buying them too short. You should have about a half inch of space from your longest toe to the end of the shoe. This means you'll probably end up with running shoes that are a bit larger than your regular shoe size.

  • Shop at a specialty store where a professional can fit you. Ill-fitting shoes can cause any number of serious joint and back problems.

  • You need to know how your foot lands. One way to tell is to examine the bottom of an old shoe and see where the sole has worn away. If the sole has worn away evenly you have a neutral foot; if it's worn along the instep you pronate; and if it's worn along the outside edge you supinate.

  • If you have a neutral foot, you don't need a shoe with special cushioning.

  • If you pronate you need a shoe with good motion control, firm support around the ankle and a straight or semi-curved "last" (which simply refers to the overall shape of the shoe).

  • If you supinate you need a shoe with high arch support and a curved last.

  • Don't buy shoes that need to be broken in. They should be comfortable right away.

    n Look for a sole that's split in two to provide a smoother transition from heel to toe.

  • Don't shop at stores where you can't return shoes after a few wears. If they're not comfortable, a reputable store that stands behind its products will let you exchange them for another model.

  • Shop at the end of the day when your feet are at their largest.

    Anna Wallner and Kristina Matisic host The Shopping Bags on Fine Living TV Network.
    Contact them at www.fineliving.com.

    Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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