I read with interest the WSJ article, Meet the Sneaker Collectors Who Intentionally Buy Fake Shoes. It seems there are a lot of Nike and Adidas fans who try to buy limited run sneakers via legitimate channels but are stymied. Unable to afford them on the resale market, where a pair of $150 shoes can top $650, knockoffs are their only option. Only they’re not knockoffs exactly. A new category of clones has cropped up, known as replicas, or “reps”, and they’re made with the same premium leather, to the same exacting standards, at factories in the same country as the originals.
Replicas aren’t quite up to snuff on day one, but discerning buyers more or less pitch in, critiquing prototypes in online forums like Reddit Repsneakers until a shoe is deemed indistinguishable from the original. Unlike knockoffs, they’re far from cheap. Buyers are willing to match Nike’s and Adidas’ list price for the replicas.
Pictured: Recent post from u/Raise1nce on the r/Repsneakers feed
According to the WSJ, many buyers now “question the whole idea of authenticity.” What’s more, there’s a whole generation of people who “grew up illegally downloading movies or streaming reams of music for less than the price of one CD.” In other words, buying products in less than kosher ways is all a bit normal. They’ve been buying this way all their lives.
Nike and Adidas could kill the replica market simply producing enough units for everyone to buy, but would ubiquity diminish the value? If Nike produced millions of pairs of Travis Scott Nike Air Jordans would they be just as prized? What is value, anyway? Can desire be quantified by a price tag?
I realize this runs contrary to what most economists will tell you. To economists, value is derived from factors like supply and demand, usefulness, or the price people are willing to pay, but these factors are flawed. For instance, it’s not always true that the price drives value. Clearly, sneaker fans are willing to match Nike’s price for Air Jordans when buying reps, but can those clones command a 3x price boost in the resale market? Besides, price can often be the victim of market hysteria, as the collapse of the Dutch tulip market demonstrated back in the 1600’s.
If you’ll suffer me the ability to put on my philosopher's hat, I posit that none of this actually drives value. The first factor in value is function. Does this product allow me to accomplish the task for which I purchased it? If yes, then that it is a contributing factor to its value. If so then it has function.
The second factor is quality, which can be closely tied to function. Will the product last? Will it continue to serve its function over time? Clearly, quality has a huge impact on value, as people consistently spend more for high-quality products. A tool made out of wood and steel is more valuable than one made out of plastic and aluminum. But once again, quality alone cannot determine value given that the quality of replica Air Jordan often compares with the original, looks nearly identical, and lasts just as long.
The third, most important factor of value, is art. In my opinion, artistic value is the most important, but least understood factor. In my view of the world, value can be equated to overall impact, and art has impact. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and creative works can be seen as expressions of beauty. Not all art is inherently valuable to all people, but to those who hold it in high regard, art commands a hefty price.
It could be said that brand, itself, then, is a form of modern art.
Where does art drive its value? If no one ever saw the Mona Lisa, would it still be worth the same as it is now? Does the fact that everyone in the world has seen it change its value? Do we perceive it to have greater value because of its renown?
Another factor of artistic value comes from its creator. It’s the creator of art that allows it to have any value whatsoever, as the artist brings the artwork into being. There are two ways the creators impart value. The first is the inherent and unintentional ways a product is affected as a result of the creator making it. These are things that are so tied back to the creator that you can’t separate it from the art. It’s who they are combined with their skill level. The second way is intentional; the specific goals the creator sought to achieve for the art.
I should make clear that I’m using the term art to describe any product manufactured, whether that’s a fine artists painting a masterpiece, or Adidas designing and producing sneakers. As Phillip has often cited “everything you interact with is designed”; if that is true then by nature of design being creative and art being from a creator - everything is inherently art.
Why do I believe that the value of art is so tied to its creator? When we think about art and why we like it -- and why its impact on us increases (or decreases) over time -- it all comes down to how well we know the creator. Since most of us will never meet the artist -- very few NikeAir Jordan customers will meet the rapper Travis Scott who collaborated on them -- we get to know them through their creations, the stuff they made and we interact with. Viewing, listening to, using, interacting with, deploying, wearing or tasting their stuff exposes us to the intentional and unintentional goals and traits of the creator. The more we know the artist, the more we appreciate what they produce, which is why we research artists and purchase coffee table books about fashion and home designers. And not for nothing, it’s why design museums the world over collect and exhibit everyday consumer products like typewriters and mass-produced dishes. Artists speak to us through the stuff they make.
The argument against this is: Does this mean that all art is valuable? Is a child’s painting as valuable as a Rothko? My answer is yes if the former was created by your own child. Moreover, plenty of lesser-known artists create amazing work, but their art is dismissed because we don’t know the artist. If we did, we’d appreciate their art so much more (and pay more for it).
Image from the Rothko exhibit in the National Gallery of Art
© 2019 National Gallery of Art
What does this mean for brands? Brands who tell stories build the value of their art to a new audience. By relating to, and appealing to, the viewpoint of the consumer a brand can create value out of thin air. Does the product solve a problem? Does the product look good? Is it durable? Is it functional? Then it has value. All the more for whichever business acronym or abbreviation currently rules the day as a descriptor for those whose tastes are tied to their subgroup’s culture: CARLY, HENRY, or otherwise.
In the same way that a child’s piece of art is more valuable to those who care about the child, a certain few may find that the product from a brand solves a problem in such a way that they’re willing to pay more to acquire it. If that product is scarce or hard to obtain, or available in limited quantities, then by virtue of economics the demand outstrips the supply and its economic value is driven up.
I wouldn’t worry that much about copies. First, knockoff sneakers are hot at the moment because there is a thrill in being perceived as owning something that is scarce. They offer a subversive connection back to the original art. If Nike didn’t exist, neither would the reps.
Likewise, reps will never be as valuable, both tangibly and intangibly, as originals because they’re not as connected to the creators, even if they have the same artistic component to them. It’s why a $150 pair of original Travis Scott Jordan 6’s can fetch $1,320 on Stadium Goods, while a $150 pair of replicas can’t. Reps just don’t connect you back to the artist in the way that the authentic article does.
Pictured: an authenticated Air Jordan 6 Retro “Travis Scott” on Stadium Goods
If brands want audiences to value their products they will no doubt benefit by focusing on the quality and craftsmanship of the product, but they’ll find that others will value the product even more if they invest in telling that story. The story connects you to the artist.
The story connects you to the brand. That's how you make your product more valuable.