Nothing can screw up a product's planned roll out more than an unintentional leak. The music industry has dealt with this issue for some time. Artists sales numbers have been blamed on their albums getting placed on the Internet days, weeks, or months before they were set to go on sale. In a more serious light, Julian Assange has gained international notoriety for his website, WikiLeaks, that makes sensitive and private information — often with political ramifications — public. Something similar is going on in the world of sneakers, too. Nearly every limited-edition product or pair of Air Jordans gets shown to the Internet before the slated release date or the brands and retailers have had a chance to preview the sneakers themselves. The medium of choice is usually Instagram.
Most of these leakers remain anonymous. They're often known for their account name, maybe where they're located, and little else. No one is exactly sure of how they obtain their images or production samples of sneakers. But one thing is for certain: There's something going on that the sneaker industry isn't too fond of. When it comes to giving early and unauthorized looks at the latest ASICS, Saucony, Diadora, and New Balance sneakers — which are often in collaboration with sneaker boutiques — there's no one's name that brings more agony to the hearts of footwear executives than Gucci Paul, a.k.a. Mr. Leaker.
Someone from France contacted me and said: 'You're destroying people's work.'
Paul, who will only reveal that his real name is Paul S., is a 38-year-old who lives in Essex, England, and doesn't work in the sneaker industry. Some believe that he's out committing devious acts — hacking computers and phones to obtain the early images that have built his social media following. That's not the case. "I got people who work for shops, labels, and brands or whomever who contribute the information to my account," Paul says. "I got people who tell me, 'You can post these images but please keep my name confidential.'"
According to Paul, he started the Instagram account because of his love for sneakers, which he says is very strong and real. The "Gucci" in his name came from his obsession at age 18 for shoes from the Italian luxury brand, and the name stuck. He then moved onto trainers, specifically Nike Air Max 1s, but became disappointed with the quality decreasing over time. Eventually Paul got into the brands that he now obsesses over, and there was a point where he started to shoot the breeze with a few guys who worked at several stores in Europe.
"They would say to me, 'Have you seen this?'" Paul says. "And I said to them, 'Can I post those sneakers on Instagram?' They agreed because I promised not to tell who gave me the pictures."
That's how everything started, and it started to continuously grow. More people would contact Paul and share early information with him because he wasn't going to attribute any of the pictures to a source. He would just post the images and leave it at that.
In the three years he's been on Instagram, Paul's now on his fourth of fifth Instagram account by his own recollection, and he keeps getting his pages disabled by Instagram. The reason is that people are reporting him to the social media company because he's sharing images that he doesn't own. "By my second or third account, I was getting direct messages that said, 'You need to take this down,'" Paul says. "At first I was taking things down, but then I realized that I shouldn't because the images are everywhere."
That still hasn't stopped people from threatening Paul and bringing forward serious accusations. He admits that the idea of using legal action against him has been raised, and that's part of the reason why he's become frustrated with how large his presence has become. His latest account, @guccipaul_mrleaker, is now private and his bio reads, "I only accept "OPEN" accounts that don't have brand links, sorry."
Some have gone as far as accusing him of ruining the work that shops are doing with their collaborations, and that's why he feels misunderstood. "Someone from France contacted me and said, 'You're destroying people's work and you're not giving them the opportunity to post it up and show it the way it should be shown,'" Paul says. "They've got it completely wrong. I'm not doing it because of that. I'm doing it because I love shoes. I don't get money from the shops for posting their stuff. There's no financial gain."
It's not just the smaller, lesser-known boutiques that have their sneakers leaked by Paul, he's become infamous for posting Ronnie Fieg's coveted collaborations months before they're set to be released or officially teased by Fieg. Paul says he's posted multiple versions of Fieg's work, from production samples to actual release media, and he's never heard anything positive or negative back from him.
The network that supplies Paul's Instagram account runs deep, but he never looks to solicit people to give him images. Everything he posts is passed his way. "I get stuff from guys close to the factories in Vietnam. They hit me up to show me samples. That's where a lot of it comes from," Paul says. "I've also got guys in the U.S. that got ASICS and Nike accounts, and they send me pictures of the catalogues."
As one could expect, this doesn't make the brands too happy. Although Paul admits that he's received support for leaking images of smaller brands, namely KangaROOS, the folks over at ASICS don't feel the same way about him sharing their private information with the Internet. "One of the guys from the brand was messaging and saying, 'You need to take these pictures down,'" Paul says.
It's difficult to gauge whether Paul's Instagram account is beneficial or detrimental to the sneaker industry as a whole. Realistically, it's a splash in the bucket of all the sneakers images shared on the Internet. But those in the know realize that it's a valuable resource to see what's coming for the future and to plan accordingly — whether that's a kid who's saving up for the next release day or an editorial outlet that's trying to get the scoop on what's coming out. (For the record, Complex prefers not to post any of Paul's leaked images and would rather wait for official confirmation from brands on their future collaborations).
But if Paul's not the one posting these leaks, someone else is going to. The hunger for early information on sneakers is real, and it's given people a way to grasp a quick glimpse of Internet fame. At least with Paul, there's a genuine appreciation behind what he's posting, even if it's blowing up somebody's spot, one leak at a time.
Matt Welty is a staff writer at Complex. You can follow him on Twitter here.