Los Angeles — Kevin longed for a pair of Adidas’ “pirate black” Yeezys, a charcoal-colored edition of the ultra-hip sneakers designed by rapper Kanye West.
But the 22-year-old Los Angeles-area resident couldn’t just walk into a store and buy them. The limited production shoes sold out shortly after their release, and resellers online were charging upward of $1,500, seven-and-a-half times the original retail price.
So the assistant high school football coach did what more and more collectors are doing to satisfy their Yeezy fix: He had a replica pair delivered to his doorstep from China.
“If I could readily buy a pair of Yeezys at the store right now I wouldn’t buy fake ones,” said Kevin, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition his last name not be published to avoid jeopardizing his relationship with illegal sellers.
Kevin’s entree into the world of replica shoes was through the user-generated website Reddit, where collectors share photos of copycat shoes and contact information for sellers. They coach counterfeiters on how to get minute details correct like the proper length of a sock liner or the right amount of fuzz on a suede patch. With each batch of bootlegs, the replicas become increasingly difficult to distinguish from their authentic counterparts.
“Why pay over $1,000 for Yeezys when you can get a pair that looks the same for $120?” he said.
It’s a question vexing brands and copyright holders the world over. The rise of high-end fake Yeezys may represent a tiny fraction of the $460 billion knockoff goods industry, but they provide a snapshot into how widespread counterfeiting has become in the digital age — all to the delight of collectors who are so devoted to the shoes they’re willing to undermine the very brand that makes them.
The shadow sneaker trade shows the tools of globalization aren’t restricted to multinational brands. The replicas Kevin wears are re-created expertly in China, marketed on social media, sold over reputable e-commerce sites and delivered discreetly by international couriers. And customers are more than willing to pay over $100 a pair for the fakes knowing it often takes an expert to spot the difference.
“When I’m in the city I like to pay attention to what people have on their feet and I’ve never seen more fakes ever in my life,” said sneaker designer Jeff Staple, who has collaborated with brands such as Puma, New Balance and Nike, for which he created the riot-inducing “Pigeon Dunks.” “There’s no shame in the game anymore.”
Not since Michael Jordan left his imprimatur on a line of Nike high-tops more than 30 years ago has a pair of sneakers had a bigger impact on popular culture or inspired more high-end counterfeits.
With its recognizable “primeknit” fabric and chunky soles embedded with proprietary “boost” cushioning, the Yeezys have transcended the niche world of streetwear and crossed into celebrity territory thanks to the Kardashians, the Hadid sisters and, of course, West, one of the most closely followed musicians in the world. Hash-tagged endlessly on social media platforms like Instagram, the Yeezys helped launch an improbable coup in the fashion world by making Adidas seem cooler than Nike.
Nike remains the dominant athletic footwear brand in the U.S., commanding 37.7 percent of the industry’s market share by revenue in July, according to NPD Group. But that’s down from 39.5 percent the same time a year ago. Adidas, the second biggest brand, has seen its market share grow to 11.9 percent from 7.3 percent in that period.
Winning West’s endorsement was a victory for Adidas. The rapper originally worked with Nike to release his namesake shoes (Yeezy is a derivative of his nickname, Ye), but severed ties with the company in 2013. When Adidas put out its first pair of Yeezys in 2015, it sparked a frenzy that has contributed to the company’s share price nearly doubling since then.
Collectors and resellers camped out in front of specialty sneaker stores days before new Yeezy releases. Tech-savvy buyers downloaded bots that would scan online retailers for Yeezys the moment they became available. The shoe’s success even inspired other pop star and clothing brand tie-ups like Rihanna for Puma and Beyonce for Topshop.
“They are the ultimate; the top sneakers,” said Riley Jones, a sneaker expert who has written for Footwear News, Sole Collector and Complex. “A lot has to do with the slow rate Adidas puts out a new style. It keeps people hungry.”
By comparison, Nike’s decision to make more of its Jordans available dulled enthusiasm for the shoes.
“Today, anyone can walk into a Foot Locker and buy a pair of retro Jordans,” said Josh Luber, co-founder and CEO of StockX, a stock exchange and marketplace for collectible sneakers. “Not only are they not selling out on the secondary market, they’re not selling out at retail.”
The popularity of Yeezys and shoes like them have fostered the growth of an entire secondary sneaker industry that authenticates and resells hot shoes, led by StockX and the Los Angeles area’s GOAT, which has raised $37.6 million in venture capital.
But the clamor and high prices have also alienated a community of sneakerheads who don’t have the means — or desire — to pay Gucci prices. For them, the only alternative is getting replicas. And sooner or later, they find their way to a Reddit forum called Repsneakers.
When Kevin stumbled upon the Repsneakers forum in 2015, there were 3,000 subscribers. It has since ballooned to more than 56,000.
“When I started, there was only one post every few days,” he said. “Now you can’t keep up even if you wanted to.”
In the past, those seeking counterfeit sneakers had to navigate a slew of foreign sites that inspired little confidence. Repsneakers emerged as a place to seek out and share the best on the market.
It’s a community buoyed by a sense of righteousness — as if they’re turning the tables on a hype-addled industry exploiting their addiction. Unlike ordinary sneakers, which are produced and sold in the millions, each Yeezy style is believed to amount to just 40,000 pairs. That scarcity fuels a secondary market, which is where members of the forum direct their scorn.
“The sneaker world in its current state is being controlled by people who (use) bots. These people aren’t buying to wear, they’re buying to make profit, which then drives the price up for people who genuinely want to buy to wear,” said a Repsneakers subscriber named Spencelord. “I appreciate people are making a living from doing this, but I don’t want to support it.”
Instead, members of the forum take their business to China, the source of the majority of legitimate sneaker manufacturing as well as 85 percent of the world’s counterfeit goods. Sellers can be found on Instagram or on Repsneakers, where they go by names like Amy, David and Edith. Connections are forged over Skype, WhatsApp or WeChat, China’s dominant social media platform. Money moves through PayPal or Western Union. Buyers post pictures and reviews for fellow subscribers to inspect.
“The right shoe’s curves looks much better than the left shoe,” a comment reads. The replica Yeezy review details how the shoes were packaged (”double boxed with bubble wrap”), how they fit (”go half size down”) and the quality of customer service (”Eric is great”).
Other posts deal with the stigma of wearing knockoff shoes and how to respond if caught, better known as being “called out.” Like a support group, the Redditors tell each other to hold their heads high.
“As repheads we know every single little flaw with our shoes and while we think they do, I promise nobody is going to see that the color is off or the suede is too high … Just rock your shoes,” read one post.
The holy grail for collectors is a perfect replica, known as a 1:1 in the parlance of Repsneakers. But the quest for that perfect ratio can elicit eye rolls too. One member felt compelled to write, “As stupid as this might sound, I feel the need to remind you guys that we’re buying replicas.”
Another subscriber uploaded a purported microscopic close-up of a replica Yeezy with its primeknit fabric in disarray. The post turned out to be a hoax, but the point was made: Armchair experts need to stop nitpicking about their replicas and just enjoy wearing them.
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