Sneakerheads are passionate individuals who have elevated the humble sneaker from mere footwear to a symbol of identity, status, and artistic appreciation. They form a vibrant community driven by their love for sneakers, constantly chasing rare releases, exclusive collaborations, and the stories behind each pair.
The term ‘sneakerhead’ emerged in the 80s and was originally coined to describe individuals obsessed with collecting sneakers. It has since evolved into a phenomenon that transcends traditional notions of fashion. Sneakerheads are not just consumers; they are enthusiasts, connoisseurs, and storytellers, deeply connected to the history and culture surrounding their beloved kicks.
One of the largest sneaker collections in the world belongs to three sisters in Florida, US, and is valued at more than $2 million. Ariana, Dresden and Dakota Peters inherited the collection from their father Douglas almost a decade ago and have now more than 6,000 pairs of vintage, rare prototypes and limited editions.
‘Our father started the collection about 30 years ago. He began collecting with the Nike Air Force 1s. It started as sheer love for the sneaker and grew to an art-like appreciation,’ explains Ariana, in an exclusive interview with Friday.
Around that time, Dresden, one of her sisters, came up with the idea to bring the collection to Instagram.
‘Sneaker culture was certainly a thing, but it wasn’t what it is now. I coined the name Chicks with Kicks and posted the first pair, which were the Fujiyama Air Force 1s. From there, we dove into expanding the collection,’ she says.
The first pair they purchased was a Converse Dr. J brand new Game shoe from the 1980s.
‘We collect what we feel is timeless in value. We do not follow trends. Although we appreciate them, it’s not something we invest in.’
Ariana’s sister Dakota says their collection is made up of mostly of one-offs, vintage, players editions, and ‘pieces we feel are overlooked by the public’. Over the years, they picked up shoes that caught their eye or had a story to tell and the collection expanded. ‘We stopped counting at 6,000 pairs.’
On the home turf
When it come to matters of strong fashion and luxury culture can the UAE be far behind?
The country has witnessed a surge in the number of sneaker boutiques, concept stores, and high-end retailers that cater to the demand for exclusive sneakers. These stores often collaborate with renowned sneaker brands and organize special releases, events, and pop-ups, creating excitement and buzz within the sneakerhead community.
The UAE has also become a popular destination for sneaker conventions, exhibitions, and sneaker-related events. The Dubai Sneaker Week and Sole DXB are notable events that attract sneaker enthusiasts from around the world.
One of the most notable sneakerheads in Dubai is Ali Khalifeh, a Lebanese expat who founded Youbetterfly. Touted as UAE’s first consignment store and marketplace for premium sneakers, streetwear, and collectibles, the brand has three stores in the country and is gearing to open one in Johannesburg, South Africa, later this year.
Among his cherished possessions from childhood is a Jordan Playoffs 13 which he bought in 1997 with the pocket money he saved up throughout the year. ‘Coming from a modest family background, it was unimaginable to spend $80 for just a shoe. But I wore them everywhere– from parties to casual outings,’ he recalls.
Though a sports enthusiast with a keen interest in basketball and boxing, Ali went on to study Computer Science at the American University of Beirut. In 2011 he came to the UAE after landing a job as a software engineer in the FMCG industry. But even as he was busy writing code his passion for sneakers was also growing and slowly but steadily he began building his sneaker collection.
‘All my salary and bonuses would go into sneakers or apparel or collectibles,’ he says. ‘I was just buying and building a network.’
Initially, he never thought of it as a business opportunity. ‘But soon I felt a gap in the emerging sneaker world here and decided to look at this more seriously.’
Studying the trends and meeting customers and experts in the field, he quickly hit the road running building his sneaker collection. In fact, so passionate is he about this style of footwear that even on his wedding day, he switched to his favorite sneakers in the midst of the function as ‘I wasn’t feeling like myself in formal shoes’, he recalls.
In 2018, he set up the flagship store of Youbetterfly in Al Qouz. With his computer science background, he built its website himself and used the power of social media for networking.
‘I was testing the waters. I did not have much stuff, but I was pretty sure that nobody in the region had the kind of stuff that I did,’ he says, proudly.
His business model does not deal with brands but rather individual resellers. They could be anyone from fellow sneakerheads, youngsters, people with unwanted gifts or even businessmen looking for a good bargain.
On the personal front he has around one hundred shoes, some of which he is saving to display on special occasions like the opening of his new branch.
Among them are the Chinese New Year Nike (limited edition with only 5,000 pieces) and the Lebron James King shoes. One of the highlights of his collection is a staggering number of Air Jordans that he has from every period. ‘Micheal Jordan and (boxing legend) Mohammed Ali are my idols,’ he says. ‘Youbetterfly was coined from their signature quotes ‘I believe I can fly’ and ‘Float like a butterfly’.
The avid collector
With around 70 pairs of sneakers in his personal use, Emirati Saeed Al Halyan is one of Ali’s most loyal customers. His first pair was an Adidas Originals collaboration with Alligator Records in 2008. ‘Back then I had no idea about collaborations. The colours of the sneakers grabbed my attention. Since it was exam week, my family told me they would get it for me if I did well. And I did!’ he says.
Over the years Saeed’s collection has grown as he got hooked on the stories behind each sneaker and the variety of artists they represent whether it’s a collaboration or prototype.
His favorites include Jordan 1 High Rookie of the Year (his first AJ1), Jordan 1 High Bred 2013, Yeezy 700 Wave Runner (speaks for itself) and The New Balance 9060 Sail (his go to sneakers)
Instead of just packing away the sneakers or keeping them on display stands, Saeed prefers wearing them and making a statement in them.
He uses different sneakers depending on where he is going. ‘If it’s for a quick walk in the mall, definitely I would wear something comfortable and what fits my style. ‘If I am going out for lunch or dinner, I would step up the sneaker game a bit to match the vibes and make sure the whole look would describe me as a sneakerhead.’
What sets a sneaker design apart from the rest is its uniqueness and simplicity. ‘More than a fashion statement, it should be able to resonate with the identity of the wearer,’ says Ali.
He says that a lot of people initially just visit his store and want to know the stories behind the sneakers. ‘I talk to them, and we exchange stories of the sneakers and their legacy. More than a business this is a human interaction exchange for me that I enjoy.’ For enthusiasts who want to start their own collection, Ali advises to ‘know what you are doing. Follow the trends and market updates diligently because at the end of the day, you are spending money and someday it will be a good investment.’
Ariana has a slightly different take. ‘Have fun, don’t follow trends unless you’re interested in wearing them personally,’ says Ariana. ‘Be able to differentiate a trend from a legend. Most trends won’t hold their value over time. A shoe that holds substance, a true story, will most likely appreciate over time.’
Saeed claims that at some point you do get caught up with the trend and since new shoes drop every week, it becomes a hassle to stay up-to-date and getting hold of every sneaker you like. ‘However, it comes to a point of realization where you have to choose what you want within the financial aspects.’
Ali believes that he has just scratched the surface and there are a lot of things that can be done to enhance the street culture and fashion in the region. He is in plans to start a Youtube Channel which showcases trending themes and BTS clips from his collection.
‘I don’t see any sign of it slowing down especially with more people jumping on this wave of sneaker collection. I believe the culture is evolving in many different directions which mostly cater to different individuals and styles. Big brands are collaborating with local enterprises to make their presence felt by the masses. Last year Adidas teamed with Ravi restaurant to drop their signature shoes. I am sure we can see more collaborations like that in the future.’