We all see celebrities wearing the newest sneakers and assume the process of them getting the shoes is easy, but that's not always the case. Many entertainers and pro athletes use resellers as a proxy to make sure they stay laced in the latest in-demand footwear. That’s where people like Yuanrun “23Penny” Zheng and Andre “Croatian Style” Ljustina come in. They’ve been supplying customers from all walks of life with hard-to-find sneakers for years, establishing themselves as two of the biggest independent resellers online in a burgeoning, billion-dollar industry.
Ljustina, a visible presence in Los Angeles’s nightlife scene, got his start around 1999 through message boards and eBay. Along the way, he built a name as the guy who had early access to key products, which led to him becoming the connect for everyone wondering, “Where’d you get those?” Jadakiss, DJ Clark Kent, DJ Greg Street, and the late DJ AM were a few of his earliest celebrity customers.
Similarly, Zheng has sold sneakers to a strong list of entertainers and professional athletes since 2011. Just as it takes connections with stores and other sellers to get shoes, it was his connection to people in the music business and sports world that established him as a go-to guy for celebrity shoppers. “I’d say in year two, when I had the opportunities to network with some of the behind-the-scene people who were kind enough to connect some dots for me locally in Atlanta,” he says. “I started dealing with a few local rappers and a handful of athletes.”
When asked to recall the first big celeb he worked with, Zheng says it all started with R&B singer Lloyd, who he met through a mutual friend. At the time, Lloyd was recognizable with videos in rotation, performances and public appearances on the regular. And Zheng was helping him stay laced in fresh footwear. “I interacted with his stylist so I’m sure some of the sneakers ended up in a few video shoots,” Zheng says.
One of Ljustina most notable deals took place around 2006 with a growing rap superstar. “The Supreme Blazers came out and at the time, Supreme barely made anything in size 13 and 12,” he recalls. “All those Dunk Lows, the Blazers, the Dunk Highs with the stars especially, were impossible to get in big sizes. When those Blazers came out, it was kind of the thing to have a 12 and 13 in those. I get a call from my boy and he's like, ‘Hey, someone needs a 12 in all the Blazers.’ I was like, ‘Alright, well, I have them kind of already sold and they're heavy. Who's this for?’ And they're like, ‘Kanye West.’”
Ljustina never dealt with West directly. An intermediary picked them up instead, which left him wondering if he was actually dealing with the artist. “I thought it was probably just some fucking dude that wanted it and was just claiming it, but then you see [Kanye] on either The Tonight Show or Letterman, wearing the red or the black ones,” Ljustina says. “And then right after that he came out in a photo shoot wearing the opposite color. It was pretty interesting. It was like, ‘Oh, shit, those are the ones that just came from me.’"
Most shoe buyers always want to strike the best deal possible. Entertainers and athletes are no different in that regard. Even if they have the means, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not looking to save a few dollars when they can. Zheng recalls a moment shared with an NBA All-Star who wanted the hook-up. “I met James Harden and sold him some shoes at Sneaker Con when he first got to Houston,” he says. “He haggled a little bit and asked me to ‘show him some love.’”
Not all stars are so easy to deal with. Some become used to receiving freebies and perks to the point where they just expect to be given items. But for people like Ljustina this is big business, so you gotta pay to play. He recalled a time where a young rapper visited Project Blitz and thought his fame would get him a discount. “The guy comes in running his mouth, talking about how this store and that store has given him like $3,000-$4,000 worth of shit for $200,” he says. “Just so he can go around taking a bunch of pics looking like he's the homie… Dude's like that are like total trash to me.”
All that aside, Zheng shared that most celebs know they’re not just paying for shoes; they’re investing in convenience and a service. Not only are they getting a sought after pair of shoes, they’re also bypassing the exhausting chase that goes into acquiring them. Resellers handle the heavy lifting. “Most athletes are pretty good and I usually ask them for the price ceiling (the most they’d pay) so I won’t be spending time chasing something that I can’t get for a certain price and profit a little off the top,” he says.
When it comes to what they buy, the requests can reach expensive heights. It’s part of what comes with dealing with people who are spending as if they were playing with Monopoly money. Pro athletes with the means don’t mind paying top dollar to acquire rare kicks for their collections. That means resellers have to be able to get their hands on items that may have been produced in extremely limited quantities.
“I'd say some Jordan Player Exclusives that we end up selling went for some ludicrous amounts,” says Zheng, when asked to name some of the more expensive purchases proxied for clients. “Also, a Jordan x Kobe pack, that was pretty expensive and no one else really had another one for sale to compare prices at the time. I still get some crazy asks from time to time, but the internet simplified a lot of that in the recent years, and, as aforementioned, [knowing] the budget helps.”
It’s not always about the hype for big name buyers, either. Ljustina explained how certain artists have nuanced tastes when it comes to what they buy. “A lot of people don't give them credit, but Drake, Travis Scott, Tyga... it's cool watching the way they pick up stuff,” he says. “Drake's favorite shoe is the Jordan VIII, and one of the first ones that he ever wanted was a fresh pair [of] Aquas. It's the coolest thing. A lot of guys will come in and right away be like I want Off White, Box Logos, and Yeezys or whatever’s hot right now.”
He goes on to say, “Travis Scott used to always come in. Even before the albums I met him in Toronto a few years ago at a burger joint. Since he came in, one of the first things [he bought] was Mocha 3s. That's a cool, obscure color, it's not out there, like some super-hyped stuff. It's something that he actually wanted.”
Ljustina had a similar down-to-earth experience with a celebrity couple. A chance run in at the Agenda trade show led to Roc Nation's Emory Jones bringing Jay Z and Beyonce by Project Blitz. Ljustina says, "I was talking with Emory about Air Maxes and pulling out one of my vintage Air Force Ones for Jay Z, the ivory snakeskins from 1996, which he wore at the Clippers game after. Beyonce was getting one of the HyperAdapts, a black one. We actually had a really cool conversation about New Balances. Emory and I were talking about how New Balances were big back in the Maryland.I had to bust out the 1300 JP and Emory's eyes lit up ’cause he knew what those were about. He was reminding Jay like, 'Dude, remember this?' And then they were like, 'Oh, my god, yeah!' They both ended up taking a pair of the 1300 JPs. They got a lot of other stuff but those are the three most notable buys with Jay, Emory, and Beyonce that day."
Regularly dealing with high profile clients does lead to authentic relationships being born. Perks may include dinner when both parties are in the same town or even tickets to games. Or, it can come down to smaller things, like interacting on social media to stay connected between transactions. “I’m in a great spot with the slew of clients [I have],” Zheng says. “We have a good rapport and have good energy. We crack a few jokes here and there on Snapchat or Instagram.“
Through it all, most celebrity resellers are able to remain grounded even while dealing with the rich and famous because every buyer is treated like a potential star. Regular customers help drive the business just as much as the big names.