About once a week, Matt heads to eBay.com.au and runs a search for whatever sneaker is currently topping the resale market—at the moment, it’s the adidas Yeezy Boost 350. With an eye sharpened by hundreds of hours spent examining replicas, he picks out the listings for fake sneakers and sends messages to the sellers, requesting that they take them down. If they don’t (and they never do), Matt reports the listings to eBay. They’re usually gone within a few hours.
Who is this fake sneaker highway policeman? An adidas hired gun, maybe, or a kid who was burned by fakes and has now made it his mission to banish them from the ’Bay?
Matt, 18, is the co-founder of /r/repsneakers, Reddit’s biggest replica sneaker subreddit. “I pretty much exclusively wear fakes,” Matt says. Of his 35 pairs of sneakers, he says only 10 are real. Along with /r/repsneakers’ thousands of subscribers or “repheads,” Matt is part of a growing community of sneaker collectors who, tired of rising resale prices and impressed by increasingly high-quality fakes, have begun to openly and proudly collect replicas—fake sneakers.
This feature originally appears in Complex's October/November issue.
You don’t have to look far to find out how sneakerheads feel about fakes. Pop into any thread on NikeTalk or run a search on Twitter for “fake sneakers,” and the overwhelming consensus emerges: Those who deal with fakes can’t be trusted.
“You date a guy who wears fake sneakers and you expect him to be real with you,” @Iam_apeteslimz tweeted. “How can he be real with you when he can’t be real with himself?”
Then there’s @SoNotLightSkin, who took the comparison to the barbershop: “Your barber got on fake sneakers you shouldn’t trust him with your hairline.”
Though replica collectors are treated like outcasts in the mainstream sneaker community, they share at least one common belief: disgust at sellers who attempt to pass fake sneakers off as real. And from “legit checks” to eBay vigilantism, repheads have become the watchdog for the sneaker-collecting community at large. How did that happen?
Matt, a university student in Melbourne, Australia, started collecting replicas in February 2014, when the “Red October” Nike Air Yeezy 2 sold out within minutes of its release. The bounty for the coveted shoe quickly climbed to $10,000 on the resale market. Matt was already into sneakers, but he was also a teenager with little money, working at KFC when he wasn’t in school. So he went online and started researching replicas.
The replica “Red Octobers” Matt bought for $170 from a seemingly sketchy site with one review turned out to be pretty good, and he was happy with them. But he also noticed that he had happened upon an entirely unregulated fringe market with no public accountability. Websites hawking replicas had long, inscrutable domain names and sellers with no reviews wanted payment via services like Western Union and Moneygram (widely used platforms like PayPal have strictly enforced policies regarding counterfeit products). And given that counterfeit goods are by definition illegal, there was no mechanism in place to guarantee that a random seller with no reliable contact information wouldn’t just disappear without so much as an order confirmation in return.
“It was scam city, basically,” Matt says.
“Everyone in the subreddit is very adamantly against selling replicas as real, because that's lying.”
—Ryan, Fake sneaker collector
Thinking he could make a contribution to the limited body of information available on replica sneakers, Matt searched out the most reputable of the sites and began to buy pairs regularly. He would then post about his purchases on Reddit’s burgeoning /r/sneakerreps subreddit where the membership still hovered below 100. He wrote 1,000-word reviews, took extensive photographs, and even began weighing the replicas so that people could better compare them to the real ones.
The stitching on a pair of replica “Tiffany” Nike Dunk SB Lows, Matt wrote in one early review, displayed “virtually no widows peaks” (a common hallmark of fakes where the shape of the stitching sharpens into a point, rather than maintaining a smooth curve), and “it even has the production date on the inside of the tag dating back to 2007.” The one flaw, he noted, was the size of the “NIKE SB” on the tongue tag.
“My main goal,” Matt says, “was really information. It was to inform the general sneaker-buying public—either those who wanted these fakes because they couldn’t afford the real ones, which were a lot of people, or those who just didn’t want to get scammed into buying a fake pair.”
Ryan, 18, grew up in Queens, N.Y. He was a serious sneaker collector before discovering reps. But with demand growing and resale prices following suit, he found that he often couldn’t get the sneakers he wanted. When he came across a high-quality pair of replica “Black/Red” Air Jordan Is selling for $150 online—shoes with a resale value that easily surpasses $600—he fell down a “rabbit hole” of research. Like Matt, he found like-minded consumers on Reddit, eventually becoming a moderator of /r/sneakerreps and a second community he and Matt created about a year ago, /r/repsneakers.
The irony of Matt’s and Ryan’s stance, as well as the culture of the replica community, is their apparent commitment to honesty. Authentic sneaker collectors, as evidenced by the tweet comparing rocking fakes to cheating on your girlfriend, tend to see the possession of fakes as inherently deceptive. But to Matt and Ryan, there’s nothing dishonest about wearing fakes as long as you tell the truth.
“I feel like it just comes down to the age-old motto: Wear what you want, wear what you like,” Matt says. “Whether it’s fake, whether it’s real—I don’t think anyone should be judged on what they wear.”
Matt and Ryan speak almost religiously about the importance of being open about the fact that they wear replicas. They always admit their sneakers are fake when they receive compliments and, incredibly, neither has ever received a negative reaction in person. The most common response, Ryan says, is “Where can I get a pair?”
Last year, Matt walked into the Nike outlet store in South Wharf, outside Melbourne, wearing his unauthorized Yeezys. “Wow, I love your Red Octobers,” he says an employee told him. When Matt informed him that the sneakers were fake, the guy’s response was: “I know. Where can I get some?”
As insistent as they are on openness, they are even more uncompromising in their stance on peddling fakes. While the majority of the sneaker community tends to group all fake sneakers together, replica collectors are quick to distance themselves from sellers who market bootlegs as genuine originals. Talking to Matt and Ryan, you get the sense that they are as angry as anyone about sellers who mislabel fakes as “authentic” pairs.
“Everyone in the subreddit is very adamantly against selling replicas as real, because that’s lying,” Ryan says. “You’re taking money out of someone’s pocket, taking advantage of their ignorance.”
Of course, it’s easy to rail against dishonesty. It’s another thing to do something about it. And that, as it turns out, is part of the mission of /r/repsneakers. Matt calls the subreddit an “educational platform.” Prospective buyers post “legit checks” almost every day, asking experienced replica collectors to identify their purchases as authentic or fake. It makes sense, Matt says. At one point, he was spending hours every day studying replica sneakers. Who better to identify a knockoff than an actual expert on fakes?
When Matt joined Reddit’s first sneaker replica community, /r/sneakerreps, a year and a half ago, it had about 30 subscribers. As of press time, its successor, /r/repsneakers, clocks in at almost 5,000 subscribers—and it’s getting bigger every day. Even in /r/sneakers, where discussion of replicas is explicitly banned, there are hints of interest in the near-flawless fakes being produced today.
A year ago on /r/sneakers, a replica collector posted a warning for members to be on the lookout for very convincing Yeezy 2s being sold for over $600. The top-ranked comment on the post: “If they are so well made that they are literally indistinguishable, LITERALLY: then why not cop em? Prolly an unpopular opinion but they are so well made they may as well be nike’s.”
The comment echoes Matt’s and Ryan’s contention that one of the main myths driving the stigma around replicas is the misperception that they all look like the $30 Jordans being sold on Canal Street. “Fakes are getting better,” Ryan says. “People are starting to realize that you can get the exact same thing,” with the only difference being your private knowledge that the pair on your feet aren’t technically “real.” That, he says, accounts for the “exponential growth” of interest in replicas.
“The demand for fakes is only there because people are sick of paying $700-$800 on a pair of Jordans.”
—Matt, fake sneaker collector
The explanation for the drastic improvement in replica quality is subject to debate. In 2010, The New York Times Magazine reported on widespread counterfeit production in Putian, a city in the Chinese province of Fujian. Counterfeit factory managers there described purchasing blueprints and samples from authorized factories in order to produce fakes. One colluding Nike worker even claimed shoes were thrown over factory walls. But many replica collectors today believe that high-quality replicas are actually manufactured in the same authorized factories that produce the legit sneakers.
The theory, Matt explained to me, is that a brand like Nike or adidas contracts a factory for a certain number of sneakers, and provides the required materials. When the factory runs out of materials, though, it still has the pattern. Replica collectors speculate that at this point, the factory contracts with counterfeit buyers to produce an unauthorized run of the sneaker using substitute materials. (This may explain why one of the most frequent flaws in replicas is slight color variation.)
The other factor driving interest in fakes, replica collectors say, is the ever-increasing price of resale sneakers. With any remotely popular sneaker release, if you’re not among the select few lucky enough to purchase at the retail price, you’re looking at resale—a markup of roughly 25 percent at the very least, and potentially many times that amount. Matt cites the example of the navy “Independence Day” Nike Air Max 90, which were recently listed at Flight Club for $850. “You’re paying $850 for a pair of Nikes that cost $120 when they came out, and probably cost $2 to make,” he says. “The value of a sneaker is what the hype and the market puts on it, not what it’s actually worth. Air Maxes are not worth $850. You can get actual genuine designer shoes made in Italy or a few pairs of good fakes for that kind of money.”
Some sneakerheads are indeed turning to designer sneakers, realizing that for the resale price of a pair of retro-inspired “Royal” Air Jordan Is made in China from relatively low-quality materials, they can buy a pair of lambskin Balenciagas or fresh-off-the-runway Maison Margielas. It seems that some sectors of sneaker culture—from replica wearers to sneakerheads exclusively rocking Italian leather—are starting to rethink the longstanding pricing model in which value is determined primarily by hype, rather than quality.
Of course, the best fakes aren’t exactly cheap. High-quality replica prices approach retail prices, and sometimes even surpass them. A recent run of unauthorized Red October replicas sold for $400 per pair, over 60 percent more than the original retail price of $245. But even at $400, Red October replicas are far more budget-friendly than the authentic pairs that fetch thousands of dollars on eBay.
The expansion of affordable, undetectable replicas could mean trouble for Nike, adidas, and other major footwear manufacturers—not to mention sneaker collectors wary of getting duped. (Both Nike and adidas declined to comment for this story.) But Matt has an easy solution for sneaker executives sitting in the boardroom, strategizing about how to crack down on the clutter of high-quality replicas littering the market. “If you want to really combat fakes, just make more [authentic sneakers]. The demand for fakes is only there because people are sick of paying $700, $800 on a pair of Jordans,” he says. “If you can kill the resale market, you can kill the fake market.”