He has no qualms about spending his money on what he calls a "blatant ripoff" and believes the Lotas project has some legitimacy, since Jeff Staple, the designer of the "Pigeon" Dunk it's based on, approved the project. The involvement of Staple, who built a sizable streetwear business off the strength of his Pigeon brand and has decades of Nike work on his resume, did not convince social media of the project's worth.

There, users flooded comments sections under images of the shoes, accusing Staple of sacrilege. How could he desecrate such a grail? Why would he co-sign what was essentially a knockoff of his own shoe? It was not great on optics, especially considering that the most salient criticism of Staple is that he is hasty to accept any footwear project offered to him and slap a Pigeon logo on it.

Actually, according to Lotas, Staple initiated the collaboration, via an Instagram direct message, in June 2020. The two parties never met in person, working instead over Zoom and phone calls.

"I was surprised that they supported the idea," Lotas says, "and it meant a lot to me coming from someone like that, who's been in this industry for so long."

Staple declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing lawsuit. He gave the same response in an interview with reseller Benjamin Kickz posted to YouTube earlier in November but went on to talk about the history of imitation footwear. In the interview, Staple questioned why certain bootlegs, like Bape's Bapesta take on the Nike Air Force 1, are accepted, while others, like any of the imitations Skechers has been sued for, are rejected.

Jeff Staple x Nike SB Dunk Low 'NYC Pigeon'
Jeff Staple's original "Pigeon" Nike SB Dunk from 2005. Image via Sotheby's

"The founder of Nike Inc. is the OG shoe dog bootlegger," Staple said, recounting how the company began as Blue Ribbon Sports, a distributor of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers, and got in legal trouble for applying its logo to Tiger shoes and selling them. "The whole company is built on a bootleg."'

It's a good anecdote for understanding that even big brands bootleg, but it simplifies Nike co-founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight's contributions to Onitsuka Tiger. They were actually informing design and building Tiger's international reach through their sales efforts in America. As with Bape's high-end riffs on the Air Force 1, there was something additive beyond just a transfer of logos. A bootleg finds value when it is able to give as much as it takes.

"You can't build that value without a story," Ari Forman, a designer whose replica Air Force 1s sparked legal action from Nike and the Lorillard Tobacco Company, said on an episode of the Complex Sneakers Podcast in October. "Otherwise, you can only be a flash in the pan and go away. But when you have a story and you have that depth, you can go up and down in popularity and in profit, but you will weather the storm. There's a pedigree, a provenance to the product."

Ari Menthol 10s
Ari Forman's Menthol 10s sneakers. Image via Flight Club

His shoe, the Ari Menthol 10, highlighted the similarities between Nike's Swoosh and the spinnaker logo used on Newport cigarette packs. Forman flipped the former into the latter, releasing a shoe in 2006 that was built to look like a collaboration between Nike and big tobacco. It showed a parallel in the addiction to and consumption of sportswear and cigarettes. He likes to say that he didn't design a sneaker but a statement for which footwear was the canvas. The Ari Menthol 10s, some of which were sold in jumbo cigarette-box-inspired packaging, were dedicated to "the two brands that have taken the most and given the least." They were a solem smirk toward customers willing to consume without question.

"They'll spend their whole lives giving their money away to a corporation who couldn't care whether they live or die," the designer said in the podcast interview.

Forman produced his shoes for $4.50 per pair (Bapes cost $2.25 to make at the time) and sold them exclusively at New York City sneaker stores Clientele, where they retailed for $225, and Alife, where they came packaged with extras that drove the retail price up further. Nike sent a cease-and-desist. Lorillard Tobacco, which made Newports, pounced on him with a lawsuit that ended in a strict settlement and cost him $15,000 in legal fees. The whole endeavor cost him $50,000. He was ordered to buy back the shoes and send them to the tobacco company to be destroyed. Forman wasn't allowed to own the sneaker he designed, or even a picture of it.