Understanding The Enduring Appeal Of Air Jordans, With Help From A Serious Collector

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“Jordans are, and will always be the top crème de la crème of sneakers,” Aflamu Johnson tells me. “You can wear Jordans to a wedding.”

We’re sitting in my living room, and Johnson is fully fanning out on Air Jordans. The man knows what he’s talking about, too: He estimates that his private shoe collection is worth over 70,000 dollars.

“That’s crazy!” I blurt out when he tells me.

If I’d known more about the sneaker game, I might not have been so shocked. For many sneakerheads, the spiking value of a collection is part of the appeal. It’s the snazzier version of keeping gold under your mattress. Sneakers, Johnson tells me, are an investment. He shares an anecdote of a man who sold his sneaker collection for over 150 grand, and used the cash for a down payment on an apartment.

It’s a true tale: In 2015 a man in China was indeed able to buy an apartment in Beijing with the profits from his shoe collection. If Johnson ever gets in a jam, he’ll be covered.

“Just in case something happens,” he says. “I know that I have money in the closet.”

Going into my conversation with Johnson, the world of sneaker collecting was one I knew nothing about, besides the lines I’ve seen snaking out of the big streetwear stores on Fairfax or La Brea. Every time I pass those sun-baked hypebeasts, I think the same thing: “Who waits in line for sneakers?”

The answer: a whole lot of people, including Johnson. He began seriously collecting Jordans about 15 years ago. Before then, he still always had about 10-15 pairs in his closet to wear, but it wasn’t until he started to actually make money that he was able to invest in some serious collecting. Now, he says, he wears about four pairs, and keeps the other hundred or so pairs in his closet. His dream is to one day have a study, where he can give the shoes a place to shine. He imagines shelf after shelf of shoes, under glass, with little lights that shine under them, and professional labels. An entire room devoted to shoes is a serious statement. But that’s how much Johnson loves his kicks.

“Before I moved in with my girlfriend,” he tells me. “I had a shelf that had about 40 shoes on it, the way you have books on display. You would walk into my house and there were the shoes. I put them all in Ziploc bags so it was like, fresh. I had them all labeled and marked so you could see what I had.”

His current living situation keeps his shoes relegated to the closet… for now. But when I ask if his gigantic collection ever causes relationship problems, Johnson says no. His girlfriend always knew what she was signing up for.

“When you walk into a guy’s house, and he’s got his shoes on display, you’re like cool, it’s kind of a package deal,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like the dishes. You’re like, oh this is your kitchen? Oh dishes. Oh this is your house? There’s shoes on the shelf. Displayed.”

That’s not to say that Johnson’s girlfriend treats each pair of Jordan’s with the same grave seriousness as he does. She’s down to tease him a little about his obsession.

“I’ll literally buy them and put them in the closet,” he says. “Sheila’s like, ‘You’re never going to wear those!’ I say, ‘I know. They’re my babies.’ I like to pull them out and look at them and put them back in. Boom.”

Johnson usually spends the retail price for sneakers. That’s how you end up with pairs doubling, tripling, or quadrupling their value. Though, he says, there’s one shoe, his dream shoe, that he’s willing to spend way more for.

“It’d be the Back to the Future Air Mags,” he says. “They’re the Marty McFly’s, the ones that Marty McFly wore where the laces laced themselves. I waited in line for those, but of course I didn’t get them. Now, they’re like 10 grand.”

He pauses for effect. “If I had the money, I would spend 10 grand on those shoes.” Aflamu then shakes his head. “I would buy them and they wouldn’t even be in my size. They didn’t make a size 15.”

* * *

On a June Saturday, in front of specialty sneaker store, Undefeated, in LA, a string of people were lined up on the sidewalk. The crowd was in good spirits as they waited to get their hands on the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 in “Zebra”. The shoe was a hot ticket. The last time it was released, it was one of the fastest selling Yeezys ever. As I approached the line, I immediately noticed the style on display.

Everyone looked like a poster child for the streetwear community. Supreme logos were peppered through the crowd. I saw more than one Anti-social Social Club t-shirt. Most people had already been waiting in line for several hours but there was a sense of anticipation rather than annoyance. Slowly, the line was moving, and as the victors emerged triumphantly from the store with their new sneakers, the buzz began.

While watching the line, I met a man named Corbin, who had won a raffle for the chance to purchase the Yeezys. When he came out of the store, he was thrilled — literally beaming over his purchase. He’d never won a raffle for the shoe before. While many would be selling their purchases, Corbin shook his head when I asked him if he planned to do the same.

“These are for me,” he said. “I’ve never had a pair of these before so it’s kind of monumental.”

Corbin told me that he’s collected sneakers since he was a kid. It was a hobby passed down from his father who he said collected sneakers too. So… will he wear them?

“Oh, I’ll wear them,” he said. “Like I said, these are for me.”

Not everyone in the line was buying the Boosts for the love of the shoe though. Another man, Steven, had been waiting for two hours. He was absolutely planning on selling them the minute he got his pair. “They cost $250,” he tells me, “And they can probably go for a couple of thousand.” Two thousand dollars? It suddenly made a lot of sense to me why you’d stand in line for a pair of sneakers. I was half tempted to get in line myself — jump into the sneaker world and begin turning a profit. Plus, it seemed fun. There’s a camaraderie that was felt through the line. People called out to others they knew, greeted them with handshakes and hugs. You create a family of sorts, going from big sneaker release to big sneaker release, waiting for hours in a line at 7am with others.

“It’s a real culture when you’re there,” Johnson tells me, when we talk about my experience. “You’re with the guys and talking about the upcoming releases …it’s kind of like a family, and when they finally open up … There’s excitement just talking about them, but when you get them, everybody’s taking photos, hitting the gram, and tweeting stuff out that you got them.”

* * *

Of course, you wouldn’t see Johnson in a line for Adidas. For him, there’s just no other shoe in the universe like a Jordan.

“Adidas, I’m not really hip on,” he tells me. “The kids really like Adidas because of Kanye with his Yeezys, and those will get to be like a grand. But I can be passing a high school, and the kids look at your Jordans and you’re cool. Even now the kids are rocking Jordans, even though Jordan hasn’t played in the league in years. LeBron’s the best now. You’ll see kids kind of rocking LeBrons, but Jordans are still top. LeBron’s shoe will never be like a Jordan.”

He pauses for a second to consider his own statement. You can practically see the question that’s formulating in his head. Could Lebrons get as big as Jordans? He comes to his own conclusion and answers firmly. “Nah,” he says.

“He’s really a genius,” Aflamu says of Jordan, proceeding to lay out for me the evolution of Jordans, and how the famed black and red kicks, designed by Peter Moore, changed the sneaker game forever.

“Larry Bird and Magic wore Converse,” Johnson tells me. “But they weren’t changing the culture, the way that Jordan was changing the culture with dunking. He was just a smooth kind of cat. Nike was fairly new. Remember Nike was just a running shoe in like 79, 80. Nike wasn’t a basketball shoe. Everybody wore Converse. But Jordan brought that Nike out with the Jumpman logo. It just looked really slick. Really cool.”

Having the best basketball player in the association (and quickly of all time) wear the signature red and black shoes on the court generated a kind of buzz and popularity that couldn’t have possibly been foreseen. Soon, people all of the world were desperate to own a pair of their own.

“Every NBA player, every rapper, any hip hop, R & B guy, they have a Jordan collection,” Johnson tells me. “White or black. Even baseball guys will have a Jordan collection. Boxers will wear Jordan trunks. College football teams will wear Jordan undershirts. And I mean the jump man, the Jumpman logo will be on the shirts forever … like it’s big. It’s big.”

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The love of Jordan’s isn’t going away anytime soon, Johnson tells me over and over. Nor the love of the player himself, particularly not for Johnson, who happens to know MJ.

“I was Michael Jordan’s double for three years in college,” he says, explaining that he would often stand in for Jordan as lighters set up for Nike commercials.

“It was pretty tripped out,” he says. “I used to hang with him. We’d have steaks together at lunch. What was funny was that back then, I wasn’t wearing a lot of Jordans. I didn’t have any. I think what pushed me into making it more of a hobby was that I finally, financially, got to a place where I could do it.”

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Sneaker collecting is like a not so-secret club that Johnson is very much a part of. He notices other sneakerheads everywhere he goes, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s in a work environment where owning the coolest kicks is part of the brand. He’s a comedy writer and actor producing content and videos for Russell Simmons’ comedy channel.

“That’s just a sneaker game,” he says of his work. “The whole building. Everybody’s Jordaned out, so you gotta be on top of your game.”

There’s a bit of competition amongst the men over who has the best style, the coolest shoes.

“It keeps you on your toes,” he says. “Because Russell … Russell always wears Adidas, but when you walk in there, the other guys are always wearing Jordans and the newest Jordans. I notice all the time… and I call them out, I’m like, hey nice Space Jams. Or like those fours! I like those infrared sixes! It’s a certain terminology. It’s like this inner lingo that sneakerheads have. I’ll even know release dates. I’m like what year are those? Are those the Space Jams that came out in 2000?”

Johnson in a Russell Simmons Production.

Talking to Johnson, I understand a little better why sneaker collecting is such a culture. Johnson says he still has several pairs he’ll buy this year — probably 1000-1200 dollars worth of shoes that he’ll invest in. But his true affection is reserved for that first pair that started it all.

“My first pair, my dad bought me,” he says. “They were like a hundred and twenty dollars in 1988. And I think they were like the threes or the fours.”

He smiles as he says this. It was special getting his first pair of Jordans, a rite of passage. The thing I realize about sneaker collecting is that it still fills Johnson with the kind of joy it did when he was a kid. Each pair feels like a dream come true. Most childhood fantasies fade, but for the sneaker collector, growing up doesn’t take away the magic of owning the coolest shoes in the world. If anything, it only makes you more excited, more grateful.

“It’s really fulfilling a childhood thing,” Aflamu says. “You want to do it as a kid, but your Momma’s not gonna spend two hundred dollars a month in shoes. But when you’re grown and you got your money, you’re like, I want to get that childhood thing going. That’s what it really is.”