17 September 2019
An Air Jordan is displayed at a shoe store in Los Angeles. A knock-off pair on Taobao goes for US$600. Photo: Bloomberg
An Air Jordan is displayed at a shoe store in Los Angeles. A knock-off pair on Taobao goes for US$600. Photo: Bloomberg

Sneakerhead sub-culture looks to China for knock-offs

Most people don’t buy counterfeit goods from China on purpose, but “sneakerheads” aren’t most people.

For background, sneakerheads collect and trade sneakers like normal hobbyists collect coins or stamps.

Not just any sneaker, mind you, but rare or limited-edition versions of shoes like Air Jordans, Air Force Ones and Nike Dunks.

The problem with limited editions, of course, is that there aren’t too many around to collect or trade. For example, only 72 pairs of the Air Jordan 4 UNDFTD were released in 2005, which makes a pair extremely rare, and to sneakerheads at least, well worth US$13,000 or more.

Which makes replicas from China the next best thing. A current listing on Taobao for Air Jordan 4 UNDFTD, complete with a “Michael Jordon autograph and certificate of authenticity”, goes for US$600, not exactly cheap.

When asked why anyone would pay that much for a fake pair of shoes, sneakerheads will take great pains to point out the difference between real and fake replica sneakers — and that “real” replicas are well worth the price.

Evidently, there’s a six-tier quality grading system, ranging from “regular” (avoid at all cost) to “perfect” (looks good until you get up close) to “authentic” (unauthorized productions of the real, retail shoe). What you get in between, from good to best, are shoes made from materials and patterns that get closer and closer to the real thing.

It’s a good bet that unauthorized productions of real, retail shoes come directly out the back door of Yue Yuan, the world’s largest manufacturer of sport shoes, located in southern China. The company reportedly makes one-fifth of all the athletic shoes on the planet, including brands like Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Asics and New Balance.

Yue Yuan, a Hong Kong-based company with 2013 revenue of US$7.6 billion, was hit by a strike in April when 60,000 workers walked off the job over benefits and pay, leaving all seven of its gigantic Dongguan factories idle.

The 10-day work stoppage cost Yue Yuen about US$27 million, including lost profit and additional air-freight costs, said Bloomberg. I’m also thinking it cost the company a few wheelbarrows full of pricey shoes purloined by entrepreneurial strikers.

Despite the thriving market for replicas, sneakerhead purists pooh-pooh the idea of collecting fakes which, to them, include unauthorized productions.

“The whole thing of sneaker culture is community, waiting in line at the store for the next limited-edition shoe,” said one sneakerhead who did not wish to be identified. (I’d be embarrassed, too.)

“Each shoe comes with its own hype, and if you’re lucky enough to get a pair, you feel like a celebrity.”

For me (I am not a sneakerhead), the idea of owning a pair of replicas sounds perfectly fine.

So, in the interest of getting to the bottom of the story, I thought I’d order a pair of replica sneakers on Taobao — in part because I’d look cool if they fit, and partly because you never know what you’ll get when you order online from China.

I chose the Nike Air Yeezy II for my experiment. The latest version is called “The Red October” because it’s all red. The shoe is an official collaboration between shoemaker Nike and American rapper Kanye West, and when it launched in February, it sold out immediately at US$245 a pair.

Just to get a benchmark, I checked current prices on eBay, and just about fell out of my chair. The average price stood at US$10,000, hopefully for the genuine item.

Thankfully, prices for “The Red October” on Taobao for replicas of varying degrees of imperfection ranged from a bargain US$65 to an astronomical US$4,500. Being prudent, I picked a pair for US$150.

I’ll let you know another time if I got fleeced.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business