Detroit’s sneaker scene is all grown up and ...

Detroit’s sneaker scene is all grown up and cashing in

On October 18, 1984, a Chicago Bulls rookie stepped onto the court at Madison Square Garden for a pre-season game against the New York Knicks. Michael Jordan, then just 21, turned quite a few heads — for his shoes as much as his skills.

The black sneakers with red accents and tell-tale swoosh violated NBA policy and earned Jordan a $5,000 fine each time he wore them. But Nike was happy to foot the bill all season, and in April 1985, the Air Jordan I was released for sale.

Jordan’s impressive rookie year and the controversy over the fines made the sneaker an immediate hit, selling 30 to 40 times more pairs in the first year than Nike projected.

Sneaker historians and collectors (known as sneakerheads) see the Nike Air Jordan I as the catalyst for the growth of sneaker culture. StockX founder and CEO Josh Luber, whose Detroit startup is essentially a stock market for sneakers, believes a combination of exclusivity and overall value are what kept the shoe going through several generations.

“As the sneaker community exploded, Jordans have been a sort of currency,” Luber said.

Michael Jordan Dunk GIF by NBA - Find & Share on GIPHY

While they’re popular as ever, Jordans are just the tip of the iceberg. In Detroit, a smallish but vibrant sneaker scene — intersecting the sports, music and art worlds — is past blowing up and is working on growing up. Area sneaker shops, influencers and designers have nurtured a culture with more flair than what you’ll find waiting in line at the mall for the latest shoe release, and StockX is creating an alternative to waiting in that line at all.

According to Roland “Ro” Coit, co-owner of Royal Oak sneaker boutique Burn Rubber, Detroiters’ style has evolved, with people focused less on what’s hot at any given moment.

“The consumer is more educated, the seller is more educated and it’s so much more to go around,” said Coit. “Most people around here are copping what they like, not just making their decisions based off of hype.”

The industry has evolved, too, giving the fanatics and tastemakers near-limitless options for their footwear, thanks to people like Eric “El Cappy” Lowry. Lowry, a Detroit-based artist, has been customizing sneakers since the early-2000s. He’s worked on shoes for rappers like A$AP Rocky and Bun B, as well as Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert.

Lowry got into sneakers when Nike infiltrated skateboarding culture with the SB Dunks, and soon began collecting.

“I made myself a pair of shoes in the beginning, a pair of [Nike] Dunks,” he said. “I was my own advertisement. I’d wear my customized shoes and people would like them, and it turned into me customizing their shoes.”

While Lowry alone is a small player compared to the major companies in the global shoe industry, a litany of artist editions, special collaborations and limited runs have all helped fueled a sneaker resale industry. This unregulated secondary market has topped over a billion dollars in sales.

It’s that niche that Luber has tapped into, forging a connection between Detroit’s tech world and sneaker culture. Luber began Campless in 2012, a self-described Kelly Blue Book for sneakers. That idea evolved when Luber began to think about ways to expand Campless beyond data collection.

Luber believed that if a person could understand the value of one pair of sneakers, they could amass a sneaker portfolio, much like the stock market. A chance meeting with Gilbert — whose son was buying and selling shoes on eBay — led to the development of StockX.

“If we understood after pricing and we understood portfolio pricing, then perhaps we could actually operate as a stock market,” said Luber.

For the uninitiated, it might seem strange to have a portfolio of shoes — but their value can climb above your average used car. In 2015, rapper Eminem teamed up with Carhartt and Jordan on an exclusive Air Jordan 4 (so exclusive, only 10 pairs were made). The shoes were auctioned on eBay to raise money for a local music school. The most expensive pair went for just over $30,000, and currently, there’s a pair listed on StockX with an asking price of $10,000.

Luber sold Campless to Gilbert, and they jointly opened StockX’s headquarters downtown in 2016. The site currently averages 7 million monthly users and roughly $2 million in daily sales. Last year, they surpassed eBay in sneaker sales. The company added 200 employees in the last six months and shows no signs of slowing down.

They’re tied into the local scene too, working with artists like Lowry on special editions.

“Detroit is a part of our DNA, we would not be who we are and where we are if we were based somewhere else,” said Luber.

Catch Luber in action as he gives a Techstars Startup Week Detroit keynote on the future of digital retail, 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Alex Washington is a westside Detroiter, cheap wine connoisseur and Detroit rap aficionado. She works in marketing and runs the blog 11twenty3.com.


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Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit