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Once a sneakerhead, always a sneakerhead

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The story of shoe collecting in the Philippines.


WORDS MICHAEL ANGELO S. MURILLO | PHOTOGRAPHY JONATHAN BALDONADO

In a country as basketball-crazy as the Philippines, it’s unsurprising that sneaker collecting is a “thing.” As a kid in the 1990s, Antonio Aguirre, Jr. remembers Cash & Carry in Makati City as the go-to place for copping the signature shoes worn by NBA players like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, and Scottie Pippen. In the early aughts, Vince Carter and his Nike Shox caught fire. “Not many would line up though. Weeks would pass and the shoes would still be there,” said Mr. Aguirre, who is also known as Mr. Sole Slam, an influential sneakerhead who founded the brand Sole Slam and ran the largest sneaker convention in the country, credited with further cultivating the local sneaker scene.

People started queueing around 2009-2010, when Kobe Bryant was winning championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in a pair of Nike Zoom Kobe V. It was also around this time that LeBron James was in the news for his very public breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers—remember “The Decision”?—in favor of the Miami Heat. The controversy added to the desirability of the LeBron 8 “South Beach,” which, with its pink-and-teal colorway, screamed Florida.     

While basketball was the takeoff-point for sneaker culture in the Philippines, Mr. Aguirre witnessed a shift around 2014, which he attributed to Europeans and their love for running shoes. “They aren’t really into basketball shoes like the Americans,” he said, adding that the Japanese preference for big, chunky, colorful shoes has also made inroads among Filipino collectors.   

BONDED BY PASSION
The sneakerhead community, according to Mr. Sole Slam himself, is bonded by the thrill for searching and acquiring coveted shoes. “I started collecting seriously when I was 28 years old,” said Mr. Aguirre. “What got me into the sneaker scene was the Jordan IX OG. It was a white pair of shoes that Jordan did not wear due to his retirement from basketball in 1993.”

Mr. Aguirre met up with an online seller who was willing to part with a pair for Php9,000. “I saw he had other stocks of shoes,” he said of the moment he was bitten by the shoe-collecting bug. “Two days after I ended up buying 17 pairs of shoes from him in one go and it opened a can of worms.”

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In a futile attempt to curb his initial appetite for kicks, he told himself that he would limit his collection to Air Jordans (I to XXIII). “Just to satisfy the itch,” he said. Then a friend asked him if he wanted a Kobe, a LeBron, maybe Asics running shoes? At its peak, Mr. Aguirre’s collection was composed of 1,257 pairs of shoes. That Imeldific number has since been whittled down, with great effort, to under 400 pairs.

While Manila is the hotbed of the collecting scene, as it is the site for releases, there are also collectors in Baguio, Pampanga, Bacolod, Davao, and Cebu. “It’s basically everyone and anyone. Some people may be in suits all day but come the weekend they love to wear their sneakers,” said Mr. Aguirre. “People who work in offices, from entry-level to top-management people, they are into sneakers. It bridges the gap among Filipinos. I have a friend who sells fish in the market who, because of sneakers, became friends with a guy who is part owner of one of the biggest construction companies in the Philippines.”

TITAN, SOLE SLAM, AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Fueling the growth of the sneaker scene was the establishment of concept stores dedicated to catering to the needs of sneakerheads, foremost of which was Titan 22. Founded by a group of basketball practitioners and aficionados led by former Philippine Basketball Association player and now coach Jeffrey Cariaso, Titan 22 opened shop in 2010.

“Titan created the scene for basketball shoes through its exclusive releases,” said Alf Co, 30, who started with a pair of Jordan XI “Concord” and worked his way up to more than a hundred pairs of shoes and counting.

A year after Titan 22 opened came another key development in Philippine sneaker culture: the inaugural Sole Slam convention in 2011. “Sole Slam was inspired by an event that I saw in the States called Dunkxchange. It was in downtown San Francisco and it really opened my eyes,” said Mr. Aguirre. Dunkxchange or DxC is a buy, sell, and trade sneaker show that incorporates elements of hip-hop music, fashion/streetwear, and art.

Mr. Aguirre took what he learned from DxC and brought it to the Philippines. The first Sole Slam convention was a huge success. “It garnered so many eyeballs. We were expecting 500 people but we had 2,500. The crazy line of people caught the eye of the media” said Mr. Aguirre. “Our mission was to cultivate the culture, which is why I brought big names from abroad as well for the event because I wanted knowledge on, and passion for, sneakers to spread and be shared,” he added.

Sole Slam’s run lasted until 2016. After nine editions, Mr. Aguirre felt that the convention accomplished what it had set out to do. The spirit of Sole Slam lives on in social media, where collectors both old and new can congregate (you can find him on Instagram at @mrsoleslam). Said Mr. Co: “Social media, be it Facebook, Instagram and others, has done a lot to spread the culture in the country. From 2010 to 2012 a lot of sneaker groups came into existence and it all started to move forward. They were helping each other to grow the scene. Since then it has become easier to collect.”

COLLABS
The sneaker game has evolved beyond the basketball court, embracing big names in entertainment and fashion. In 2018, people are talking about Yeezys, the shoes of Kanye West; and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White collab with Nike. Every major shoe brand seems to have a partnership with a rapper: Nike has Drake; Adidas, Kanye; Under Armour, A$AP Rocky; Puma, The Weeknd and Rihanna. “It’s music partnering with the shoes. Collectors in the Philippines are taking note of that,” said Mr. Aguirre.

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Virgil Abloh x Nike

These exclusive drops—although there are levels of exclusivity—do find their way to the Philippines, eventually. “After Japan, I think the Philippines is a close second in terms of sneakers. But being a developing country we don’t get special treatment when it comes to the really rare ones. They call it ‘Tier 0,’ those are like 100 pieces released in Japan, Hong Kong, sometimes Korea and Singapore. But we have resellers here and they find ways to get those shoes from Europe and the United States,” Mr. Aguirre said, adding that the Philippines has a strong secondary market. “Resellers are doing big business. Resale makes the scene expensive but people still turn to it for the rarity of the sneakers. This is apart from the fact that resellers do pre-order as well which makes it more convenient.”

Mr. Co, who used to be a reseller, agreed: “For collectors, retail is the first choice but, if for one reason or another, they can’t get what they want, they turn to resellers even if the price is higher.”

For both men, shoe collecting goes hand-in-hand with knowing the stories behind said shoes. “Before, it was quantity over quality; now, it’s the other way around,” said Mr. Aguirre. “It’s not just about how many pairs of shoes you have but how passionate you are about sneaker knowledge. It’s like collecting comics, you should know the history.”

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To neophytes who want to get into the scene, he advised: “Buy what you want. Don’t buy what the other person wants. Buying what the other person wants means that you’re a headless chicken. You don’t want to be like that. You want to have your own cultivated taste that represents you. “And, yes, buy at your own pace,” Mr. Aguirre said, adding: “Once a sneakerhead always a sneakerhead.”