In a world where your sneaker brand is only as valuable as the number of teenagers willing to sleep outside for product, Nike and Adidas have built their rosters of designers, rappers and influencers with the goal of not only selling shoes in stores but having their footwear become highly coveted items in the sneaker aftermarket.
The catalyst of this shift? None other than the ever-polarizing designer/rapper/"genius" Kanye West. Although West's two Nike sneaker designs were well-received, he was reportedly unsatisfied with his deal with Nike and, in late 2013, later announced he was joining designers Yohji Yamamoto and Alexander Wang on team Adidas.
Nike seemingly took note, adding designers Public School and Riccardo Tisci to its roster, but as successful as their releases were, they could not replicate the hype and frenzy caused by the Adidas Yeezy Boosts from 2014 through 2016. That is until October 2016, when a man on his first trip to Nike headquarters decided to take a knife to a pair of Air Force 1's.
No, the man wasn't dangerous and security wasn't called; it was Virgil Abloh, the founder and head designer of Off-White. Abloh is a 38-year-old Ghanaian-American from Rockford, Illinois.—a little under two hours outside of Chicago. Legend has it a young Abloh skipped his final critique at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002 to take a meeting with Kanye West's former manager John Monopoly, offering him what Abloh now only offers to brands with the biggest of bags: taste (and merchandise designs, but mostly "TASTE").
After years of working on various projects as Kanye's creative collaborator and trying his hand at streetwear (you remember Pyrex Vision, right?), Abloh went on to found Off-White, "a fashion label rooted in current culture at a taste-level particular to now." Or at least that's how the brand describes itself on its "about" page. A very fitting description considering that no collaboration in sneakers is more sought after by the current culture than Nike x Off-White.
In a never-before-seen move by Nike dubbed "The Ten," the sportswear giant allowed Abloh to tinker with 10 of its iconic silhouettes: the Air Jordan 1, Nike Air Max 90, Nike Air Presto, Nike Air VaporMax, Nike Blazer Mid, Converse Chuck Taylor, Nike Zoom Fly SP, Nike Air Force 1 Low, Nike React Hyperdunk 2017 and Nike Air Max 97.
"It showed that when push comes to shove, Nike understands how to really catapult their collaborators into the stratosphere," Lawrence Schlossman, brand director of Grailed and host of fashion podcast Failing Upwards, tells B/R Kicks. The decision to give Abloh 10 sneakers to put his fingerprint on was bold, but it showed trust. Surely, if anyone could be a formidable foe to Kanye's Adidas empire, it would be his understudy.
However, unlike most designers Nike let sit behind the wheel, Abloh's team used this opportunity to do more than simply make a new colorway—it actually restructured the sneakers. Moving swooshes, adding exposed stitching and zip ties, writing signature Nike words like "AIR" on the midsole; the goal wasn't to make cool-looking sneakers, it was to show you what's possible. "Yes, we're making a desired product, but by making a trip to your local store, and using tools you have at home, you could also make this shoe," Abloh told Nike in August 2017.
Everything about "The Ten" felt new, from the limited number of shoes to the release. On November 20, 2017, Nike and Off-White released nine of the sneakers (the Converse Chuck Taylor excluded) between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. via the Nike SNKRS app, predictably causing an online frenzy.
Because of the general public's peaking interest in sneakers over the last few years, a sneaker selling out is basically the equivalent of a song making the Billboard Hot 100 chart—an unspectacular accomplishment. The true test comes after all of the pairs have left the official retailers' stockrooms and make their way onto sites like Grailed and StockX, where rare and highly coveted sneakers can be marked up with impunity.
The response was incredible. Some fans were willing to pay six times the retail price for the sneakers; the Off-White Nike Air Presto, which retailed for $160, resold at an average price of $1,040 on StockX and $877 on Grailed in November 2017.
Nike played it smart, not rushing to respond to the demand with higher quantities. Instead, it sat back as Abloh increased the hype even further, gifting numerous personalized pairs to his A-list acquaintances. He wrote "Mayer" on the midsole of the Air Max 90 for guitar virtuoso/jawn procurer John Mayer, "Kim" on the Air Jordan 1 for Louis Vuitton menswear designer Kim Jones (whom he would later replace), Air "Canada" for rapper Drake—the sneakers were simply inescapable, dominating the Instagram feeds of sneakerheads and civilians alike. "The fact that there was all this hype and they had the right people wearing them [made people want them more]," Schlossman says. "I saw Frank Ocean at Panorama and him wearing customized Prestos moved the needle for me."
However, after letting the original 10 breathe during the winter, Nike went back to the well for spring 2018. Starting on March 3 with the European exclusive release of a white Off-White Jordan 1 followed by leaked images of possible new offerings, the Swoosh x Abloh tandem has shown few signs of slowing down. A Nike x Off-White soccer collection? Sure. A New Zoom Fly colorway? Why not?
With the continuation of the Nike x Off-White collaboration, one can't help but wonder: Is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
Only time—and resale market values—will tell.