When I left them on that first night at 11 p.m. they were in good spirits. Nurtured by a rainbow color of fabric camping chairs that seemed pained that their pegs were buried in concrete rather in a campground in Big Sur, the group of five didn’t seem off-put by the amount of time they would have to spend outside. I wasn’t weird for asking – that much was clear.
I arrived the next day at around 10 a.m. to find most of the chairs abandoned. Chips and candy wrappers seemed to be the only victims of the first night. What I came to understand is that your place in line is solidified thanks to a certain code or operating procedure (until that final moment when the store actually opens). You can come and go as your please – perhaps sleeping a couple hours in a car nearby or tending to other needs – but very rarely is one’s time spent caressing the concrete for the entire duration of the camp out. But there are exceptions.
Javier, 26, and Julio, 27, were first and second in line – high school friends who shared common interests – who were united under the ethos that you should “trust your feelings” as it relates to how early a person should show up for a high-profile release. For them, that meant 2 p.m. on Wednesday – and they wouldn’t seek shelter anywhere but on the street for the duration. While it may be normal for people to pine for the weekend on Hump Day, for Javier and Julio that would be the day that they could call it quits and retreat from a makeshift home where there were no tulips in the front yard. Instead, their sprawling vista was a trans fat sunrise of neon-colored soda bottles.
“If you had to explain your passion to someone who didn’t understand sneakers, how would you put it?” I asked.
“It’s like sports. I like sports,” Julio said. “Specifically, I like soccer. Manchester United.”
“Right. So would you camp out for tickets to see Manchester United play Manchester City?”
They both shook their heads. “This sneaker right here is like having tickets to El Classico (Real Madrid vs. Barcelona) with seats in the first row behind the goal.” Javier chimed in, “this is a high-level hobby.”
Khaleel, 18, was the youngest camper I encountered. His youthful naivety was evidenced not only by his physical appearance, but by the amount of candy he ate. If Wheaties were breakfast of champions, then gummy bears were Khaleel’s secret weapon. He was relatively new to the world of collecting – as this was only his second time camping out – but his relentless energy was manifested on the skateboard that he cruised back-and-forth on despite running on only an hour of sleep. Every so often you’d hear the top side of a skateboard “thwack” off the street and you knew that Khaleel hadn’t thrown in the towel yet. For him, this was the only way to get the Nike Dunk High Premium SB “Diamond.” He wanted the shoe at a fair price and saw the sacrifice as an ends to a mean, but he knew he wasn’t going to get them for the suggested retail price of $108 USD. $200 USD was his breaking point. That was his point of no return.
To understand the need to camp out is to understand the resale market, and to a certain extent, the markup a shoe undergoes from a Nike SB account. According to a 1995 study by the University of Michigan, a $70 USD shoe from Nike was produced for $2.75 in labor and a total cost of $20 USD. Then, those same shoes would be sold to a retailer (like Brooklyn Projects) at a cost of $35 USD. Finally, the retailer was given a suggested retail price based off factors like rent, personnel and their own operating profit of $70 USD. Of specific note is that over 20 years ago, a shoe store was only making $9 USD dollars in profit for every shoe sold. It was a different time. In demand sneakers weren’t quite a phenomenon just yet. So when the campers were discussing the “acceptable” price to pay for the Tiffany Dunk, it was assumed that they wouldn’t simply be paying an additional $20 USD if you figured in inflation.
The campers faced a store markup, that much was clear. But it seemed relatively minor compared to what they would be endure if they missed out on a chance to buy them the old-fashioned way and were forced to digitally forage. As of Monday following the release, shoes were going for as little as $450 USD and as much as $750 USD on eBay. It’s not that the campers had nothing better to do, it’s that their actual time was literally valuable. While most I talked to promised that they were keeping their pair, I suspected that the lure of a quick flip for a couple hundred dollars would be the case. Diamonds are forever, but the possession of the Dunks were fleeting.
Mario, 24, was a seasoned veteran of the camp-out process – having been braving the elements for days on end since 2011. With an estimated 110 pair of shoes at home, he recalled that “five years ago a person would only have to camp out for a day,” but those relatively easy to swallow 24-hour periods were long gone. Mario seemed to be a leader. Those around him definitely respected him and his inviting and calming demeanor. He talked about things like “mutual respect, good energy and not being competitive” as tenets of how people should approach camping out.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we don’t want a raffle.”
A raffle is the “yang” to a camper’s “yin.” Due to a number of factors, some stores don’t allow campers. Thus, high-profile shoes are doled out using a raffle process where it’s left up to chance rather than dedication. Under that process, Javier and Julio could be first in line for a ticket, but end up walking away empty handed. And for stores that do allow campers, they use the threat of a raffle as a means to keep the peace. Any indication of tomfoolery could be curbed with the announcement of a raffle no matter who was involved or how long other people had been sleeping outside.
Steve, 25, knew all about the problems that could arise during a sneaker release. Recalling a camp out for a pair of Jordan Royals at Millennium Shoes on Slauson Avenue and Western Avenue, he remembered seeing a guy get stabbed. “[Things like] Where you from, turned into swings, which turned into punches, which turned into what happened.” Steve was a large personality – far less guarded than the other campers – who freely let his passion for sneakers lead every open and close of his mouth. When the conversation turned to what everyone would grab if their houses were on fire, Steve boisterously belted out, “Forget the dog!”
The day of the release brought renewed energy. There was a finish line. Days were now hours – two to be exact – and everyone I had spoken to had a golden ticket. In this case, a ticket with your size on it guaranteed that you were going to get a pair. Yet, there still seemed to be an uneasiness about the whole thing.
When I caught up with Mario, he was in the same mellow mood he was in when I last saw him. I congratulated him about his perseverance, but he informed me that he had missed out on a ticket.
“How?” I asked.
“I let three people I knew cut in front of me in line.”
“I figured it wouldn’t effect me because I knew their sizes. But they ended up being there for other people and I missed out.”
This was the perfect representation of what it means to be consumed by the sneaker culture. Mario had spent nearly 40 hours on the street for a pair of shoes – poised and in position to get them – only to miss out in the last moment. But there he was, still wanting to be a part of the festivities.
“I’m still happy to see my friends get a pair. I came out here to support, ya’ know.”
The last piece of the puzzle was Eli, 23, who added a tiny wrinkle to the sneaker odyssey. I hadn’t seen him before, but as we got to talking, he informed me that he got the chance at the last physical pair.
“I just showed up an hour and a half before they handed out the tickets last night. I was the only one getting a size 11.5.”
“Would you have camped out if you had to?”
I hadn’t set out to seek any life lessons from the campers, but there was no denying that Mario and Eli’s various experiences personify our justification for things. We want what we can’t always have, but at the same time we get what we don’t necessarily deserve.
As the 12 p.m. launch neared, the line remained in tact. Javier and Julio were still firmly in front when they were approached by a guy in a Chase Bank uniform who flashed a ticket at them.
“I have to get back to work. Mind if I cut the line?”
They offered him a cold and emotionless shake of their heads. I pressed them on both his and their thought processes.
“If we had let him cut, there’s a trickle down effect. It’s a shoe game. Eventually, some one down the line will get fucked.” It was as if Javier and Julio were the presidents of this makeshift community who knew that it would be unwise to neglect the middle class.
When the doors opened, people streamed from around the corner as if the scent of leather had awoken them from a concrete dream. I had come for chaos, and this was the closest thing I’d get to it. After Julio and Javier made it inside – clearly the victors – there was no semblance of order. They were sardines in Nikes – pressed up against the door – jockeying for position as the ebb and flow of the pushing took on the look of people on the deck of a boat. Left to right. Left to right. It seemed like an homage to how Nike prefers their logo to be presented. As the line stalled, people would swoop around and attempt to jam in the tiniest slivers.
“Get aggressive,” someone called out.
In the end, Steve, Khaleel, Javier and Julio each got a pair for $183 USD. While Brooklyn Projects declined to comment, they did say on Twitter, “Potential customers don’t bitch about price, policies & talk shit. Remember that. If you don’t like the way we conduct biz move on. Simple. Reselling is not a job or career. Only ones that get mad on hyped releases are resellers. Don’t hear a word from them otherwise.”
As for Mario, the last I saw of him was as he was talking to a guy who had TWO tickets. Welcome to the shoe game, indeed.
*note: While the shoe has been called the Nike SB Diamond Dunk Hi “Tiffany,” the jewelry manufacturer has insisted that their name not be used.
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who can be found @smart_alec_