The Russ Report: Why Retro Sneakers Aren't Actually "Real"

With so many reissued sneakers, what's actually considered a "real"?

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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“What is real? How do you define 'real'?” — Morpheus in The Matrix.

You know what the biggest problem in sneakers is? No, it’s not resellers, or online releases that sell out in a matter of seconds, or even bots. It’s words. That’s right, WORDS. Some, like “limited” or “exclusive” or even “collaboration,” have been rendered nearly meaningless by overuse. Others, like, say “OG,” never really meant anything to begin with. (Unless you’re referring to the Ice T album, please stop.) But the ones I have the biggest problem with are the ones related to “real,” including “replica,” fake,” “variant” and the like.

The rest are mere replicas. Authorized replicas to be sure, but replicas all the same.

What is real? To me, the definition, as it is applied to sneakers, is too wide. Take the Air Jordan III as an example. Originally produced in 1988, it was first re-issued in 1994, then again in 2001, and countless times since. What is a “real” Air Jordan III? To me, it’s the original version produced in 1988. That’s it. The rest are mere replicas. Authorized replicas to be sure, but replicas all the same.

Think about it. The newer versions of the Air Jordan III, even the ones produced in 1994, just six years after the originals, weren’t the same at all. They didn’t use the same materials, weren’t made in the same factories (none of which are actual Nike factories anyway, at least in the sense that they’re owned and operated by Nike exclusively), and didn’t use the original molds and patterns. Forget the Jumpman replacing NIKE AIR on the back, even the ‘94 and ‘01 versions are visibly different from the 1988 originals. It may not be obvious to a casual observer, but an obsessive would know.


This isn’t just a Jordan thing either, although Lord knows I wish retros of the III and IV and V would go back to the NIKE AIR branding sported by the originals. Hardly any retro sneaker is indistinguishable from the original. Which is fine. Manufacturing methods have changed, as have the quality of materials available to manufacturers. In order to make something exact—if it’s even possible—the price would be prohibitive to all but the most discerning consumers. See for example the $300 New Balance 1300s. There is a market for this stuff, it’s just not a mass one.

But back to terminology. Even if we want to call retros replicas we can’t. Not really. The word has been stigmatized by sellers of outright fake sneakers—the unauthorized replicas—who will do anything to make their own products seem legitimate. The word, unfortunately, may be past the point of rehabilitation.

Here’s what we can do, though. Even if we don’t call retros “replicas,” we can treat them like it. Which basically means WEAR THEM. Anyone who’s been in this sneaker thing for more than a couple of years should realize that anything that’s retroed can (and probably will) be re-retroed. Collecting retros seems like the ultimate in silliness, especially when you think of them as replicas. Do stamp collectors collect reprints? Can you be considered a jersey collector when your closet only contains Mitchell & Ness?

Maybe think about this before you pay resale prices for a retro, too. That next restock might be right around the corner.