Words by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree

Photos by Drew Ruiz / @Firstn15th_

“I don’t collect sneakers.”

I’ve been hearing that sentence a bunch of late, usually from people I know have a few hundred pairs of sneaks or the type of cats that are copping pairs every weekend. I know—you rock them and they’re not being stashed away. That being said, why has that word “collect” become so taboo among the most hardcore sneaker connoisseurs? That’s one of the questions I was hoping to answer last Saturday when I arrived at the San Diego Sneaker Swap held at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley. Accompanied by my friend, photographer Drew Ruiz, we hoped to meet some new people, check out some sneakers and clothes while conducting a few interviews and snapping shots.

The set up was straightforward: big ballroom filled with tables around the outer walls and center of the room. The vendors varied from people with their own sneaker or clothing shops to ordinary civilians simply moving and trading some of their product. There was a DJ, cupcakes, raffles and rapid neck snapping. Upon arrival, there was a line of ticket holders waiting to get in, many of them with boxes of sneaks in their hands. Many of these people hoped to unload these pairs or trade for a grail they longed for via a vendor or another attendee inside. Everyone waited patiently and there was a friendly energy throughout the building. After about five minutes inside, we knew we found what we were looking for.

***

When Jeff Malabanan comes to events like this, it’s hardly about nostalgia. He’s here for business and his team has $20k on hand with a goal to spend it all on product. The co-owner of RIF L.A.—the hottest sneaker spot in SoCal—it’s Jeff’s mission to ensure his shop has a stockpile of the most sought after sneakers around. RIF’s inventory attracts customers from around the globe, a must stop for anyone traveling through L.A., particularly NBA players.

According to Malabanan, countless NBA players who visit Staples Center each year make it a point to stop by the shop hours before their games. Local NBA players, such as Lakers guard Nick Young, can be found at RIF on the regular. Because of his unique clientele, Jeff is on the hunt for big sizes, anything that catches his eye 13 and above. While many NBA players have access to merchandise accounts with their shoe and apparel brand, most can’t find a lane for the hottest sneakers, as they are limited to a few styles.

“Some of them might be able to only get Kobes,” Malabanan says. “So they want the stuff that doesn’t hit all the other stores and Niketown. They’re not going to get DB’s, they’re not going to get Bins or older Jordans, like the early 2000s Js, Nike doesn’t have those anymore. So they will hit up RIF L.A. I’m looking for up to size 16 if I can find them.”

Two hours into the swap, Jeff spent $5,000 on a carload of sneakers, and he was simply warming up. RIF is trying to stock up their shop for the holidays.

“Starting with Black Friday, that’s our busiest time of year,” he explains. “That’s when everybody wants to waste their money. Right now, nobody is really buying.”

He doesn’t come into events like this with a hit list or a set of goals—it’s all feel. “A lot of people in L.A. are selling the same shoes, but out here I see more of a variety, so we want to get a lot older Nikes and a lot older Jordans,” he says. “There are a lot of collectors out here.”

While Jeff was in the building I had to tap into him about the Yeezy 2 Red October release, possibly the most anticipated sneaker drop of all time.

“Yeezys are the most in demand pair of sneakers in the history of sneakers,” Jeff says. “The red Yeezys are releasing in January, and there will be people offering stores $2,000 cash up front just to hold a pair. The thing is, they are going to release for $400, and the same night you can take those and sell them for $3,000. That just shows how crazy the demand is. You have Kanye rocking it at every show he’s at and these kids look up to Kanye. If another rapper came out with a shoe, not many people would cop it.”

***

Fifteen-year-old Jordan Clark had his mom drive him and his friend Tyler Whitlock, 14, down from San Louis Obispo, a five-hour trek to San Diego, for their first ever sneaker event. Both kids were on the hunt for rare sneakers. Jordan brought $550 with him, money he saved up for a full year through allowances, his birthday and hustle—a talented dancer, he teaches classes to his peers to earn money of his own. He had a massive smile, exposing a fresh pair of braces, as he clutched his new pick-ups.

“I bought a pair of Jordan 7 Oreos and the Space Jam 11s along with some hats and shirts,” he says. “I paid $200 for the Space Jams and $100 for the Oreos.”

His passion for sneakers began in elementary school. “When I was in fifth grade, I found these really nice Nike Vandal hightops that were made out of basketball leather,” Jordan says. “Ever since then, I’ve been collecting. I just love sneakers, they’re amazing.”

Taye Bray was walking around the swap with a pair of Air Jordan 11 Gamma Blue joints tucked under his arm when Drew pointed him out to me. Scheduled for a December 21 release, we were both surprised to see a fresh pair here and immediately went over for a look. When we asked Taye if we could photograph his Gammas, he didn’t hesitate, opening the box and letting us have at it. Drew, being the gentleman he is, wasn’t comfortable grabbing at another man’s deadstock sneaks without permission and hesitated to hold the shoe so he could photograph it, but Taye insisted, and when he pulled it from the tissue paper, we were immediately surrounded by savages.

“Hey man, how much you want to let those go for?”

“I’ll trade you man, if you’re looking for a trade.”

The pitches came from every direction as I tried to figure out how Taye was able to get his hands on a pair so early.

“I just got these a week and a half ago,” he says. “My buddy gets early release Jordans and asked if I wanted them, so I paid $380 for them, got it out the way so I don’t have to stand in line.”

Taye was hoping to trade his pair for a pair of Space Jams that he covets, if not he plans to sell.

“The Space Jams are the only ones I don’t have, I’ve wanted them since 2010,” he says. “The store that I was supposed to get them from had gotten robbed, so I didn’t get them.”

***

Lamarae Dangerfield is one of the founders of the SD sneaker swap, teaming up with 9Five Eyewear for the production. He and his team had been working on the event since May, a month after they held their first ever swap in April. “Our goal with this was just to bring the community together and give them a good opportunity to network,” he says. “Whether that’s through shoes, music or whatever your niche or hobby may be.”

Dangerfield believes San Diego’s sneaker and streetwear scene is slept on and hopes events like his and others will bring attention to the city.

“We do have a culture here,” he says proudly. “We like to model ourselves almost like an H-Town sneaker summit as in this is for the city. We specifically named it the San Diego Sneaker swap because it’s about San Diego. We would love to grow this to more than just sneakers. I would love for brands like Nike to come and show new products here or set up a signing here with an athlete, similar to what Comic Con does with their actors. I think people would love to see that.”

Many of the tables featured sneakers sprawled out on the tops and more merchandise directly behind the seller. Dante Rowley, owner of local sneaker consignment shop Rosewood, teamed with Freehand Profit, an artist that cobbles together sneakers and gas masks into works of art, for an ill display. Rosewood served as one of the sponsors of the event, a spot that functions as an art gallery and sneaker shop, so naturally he and Freehand Profit have collaborated on a few art shows. The gas masks sell in the $2,000-$3,000 range and at the last show they put together, five masks were sold.

“We get emails about them all the time,” Rowley says. He fell in love with sneakers at age 10 and SLAM Magazine was a big part of his early obsession.

“When you guys did all the kicks in the back of the magazine, I would circle all the ones I wanted,” Rowley explains with a smile. “When I was in high school, my goal became to own 365 pairs so I could rock a new one every day. After I hit it, I realized I needed to unload some, so I did and made money and then bought more. I did it over and over again and said I might as well open up a real business for this.”

Harley Pineda, a local sneaker collector, had one of the best tables at the event thanks to an amazing display of baby Js in a huge acrylic case that was originally intended for Beanie Babies. “These are all OG, 2c hard bottoms, the smallest size you can get for hard bottoms,” he says with pride. “When I had my son, I decided to take pictures of him in the original Jordans. The collection started to grow and it became a goal of mine to collect one through 14 of the original colorways. They had to be OGs and size 2c. Some of them are different than the adult ones and I like that, it’s unique.”

Pineda is still missing six pairs for his baby collection. One of his grails is the OG Royal 1, and he says a baby pair with the box can pull $700.

“1985,” he says with a sigh. “I’ve looked all over the world.”

The swap in SD was the first time Pineda has displayed his son’s collection in public, they were not for sale. He submitted a video of his baby collection to Foot Locker in 2010 as entry for a contest they were running and he won, netting him a free trip to NBA All-Star Weekend. His table was also filled with incredible Jordan OGs he hoped to sell.

A long-time basketball fan, he has moved on to Kobe PEs and Nike basketball PEs, adding he doesn’t have the same attachment to his Jordans as he once did. “I love the shoes, don’t get me wrong, but they are assets now and I don’t like that,” he says.

***

Sneaker events and video games must be the only functions where a room full of guys will ignore all of the pretty women in attendance. Luckily, I’m not one of those dudes. One of the ladies representing at the event was Christie Ripley, stunting in her Ice-T Vans while entertaining me with her friend, Amanda Hank. Ripley was very disappointed in seeing a pair of Uggs at the proceedings. “Uggs are for home,” she explains. “If you bring your girl here, make sure she looks good.” She had plenty of good lines like that throughout the day.

Kimberly Dela Cruz flipped the script and threw on some hot spiked heels and garters while her friend Kathleen Rose stunted on the entire crowd in an icy blue pair of Jordan 4 Eminems. “It’s rare to see girls here because most of the shoes here are for men,” Dela Cruz says. “The girl sizes can be so small, so it’s hard for us to find shoes here, but it’s still cool to see what’s here and talk to people.”

It wasn’t all about the shoes. One of the most unique booths was set up by Lovely Carandang, owner of Sinfully Sweet Creations. She had a phenomenal set up of treats that included an ill Air Mag cake and a Nike SB Tiffany Dunk cake that was just about perfect. But Lovely really stole the show with her Air Mag cupcakes, featuring the replica yellow boxes stacked up high on handmade hover boards!

***

I found the guy I was looking for. His name is Ruben Robles, and he came through as an attendee with a few boxes in tow. I saw him flipping his pairs to a member of the RIF L.A. team and listened in. His prices were fair, and there was little haggling. He moved his sneaks and tucked away his money.

“I’m looking for some DBs and brought a couple pairs with me to pay for them,” he says.  He fit the bill of the type of cat I sought—a lover of sneaks who has built relationships with shops and people in order to position himself for the releases he covets. His relationships sometimes allow him to double up on a rare pair and he will sell that pair a little over retail so he can move on to the next pair he’s looking for.

I ask about his collection, hoping he would say it. He did. “I’m not a collector, I’m a wearer—I don’t like saying I collect shoes because I wear every single pair of my shoes,” he says.

I want to know why the word “collect” irks him so much. “Because of these kids that are out here selling these shoes for $500,” he says. “I’m not about that. I wear what I like. I might double up on a pair so I can make $20 on a pair and put that toward more shoes. It’s about getting more pairs of shoes that I like. I’m not trying to make $200 off a shoe that I know I didn’t put that much time and effort into. A lot of people out here are trying to make a lot of money off of this. I mean, the Jordan DBs sell for $180 or $200 and you have people selling them for $1,000.”

Robles is a part of a Facebook group with friends where information is shared about restocks and releases. “We all try to help each other out, and that is what it’s all about,” he says. “Some of the older guys are getting run out of it, they’re like, ‘I don’t want to buy shoes anymore’ and they’re starting to sell their collections. Again, it’s not about collections, it’s about wearing what you love. For me, I was heavily influenced by Michael Jordan growing up, and I just love the shoes. I love ball, I play ball—this is what I love to do. And it’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

For more information on the San Diego Sneaker Swap, visit SDsneakerswap.com. To view more images from Drew Ruiz, please visit Firstn15th.com.