This year’s biggest blockbuster sneaker, the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 collaboration orchestrated by the late Virgil Abloh, is a superlative collection in multiple categories. The shoes set a new record for opening day bids at Sotheby’s, the auction house offering their first release. They are the boldest footwear project of Abloh’s, marking the first formal partnership between Nike and Louis Vuitton. The Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s have also been extreme in their exclusivity, so far completely unattainable for anyone without a personal connection to one of the involved parties or house-down-payment money to buy their way in.

The only ones available for purchase so far, 200 pairs in a colorway made just for the Sotheby’s auction, went for an average of $126,500 per pair. There is scant info about a promised commercial launch for the other versions of the shoes—Louis Vuitton has said only that one is coming exclusively through its stores at prices aligned with the $2,000 starting bids from the auctions. In addition to those batches there is the completely separate group of friends and family pairs, a boldly colored group given only to artists, athletes, entertainers, and friends of Abloh.

The friends and family Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s are definitely an extremely limited run of shoes, but there aren’t reliable numbers for just how limited they are. That less than 100 people have posted them suggests they’re even rarer than the Sotheby’s pairs, although it’s difficult to determine how many were produced that haven’t been shown off in public.

Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 Friends & Family Red
The red pair of friends and family Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s by Virgil Abloh. Image via Elliott Cox on Instagram

Sarah Andelman, who founded the defunct Parisian fashion boutique Colette, was the first person to post a pair on Instagram. DJ Khaled sat courtside in the cherry red version, his feet atop a monogrammed Louis Vuitton pillow. Samuel Ross, the designer of A-Cold Wall who worked under Abloh, posted the black pair to his social media. LeBron James walked the NBA tunnel in the same colorway.

These non-commercial versions have filtered out, just barely, to the secondary market, their original recipients quietly trading the most elusive of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s for hefty chunks of cash. In doing so they’ve raised familiar questions about the morality of capitalizing in the sneaker resell market after a collaborator’s death.

Paul Givelekian, a New York-based Air Force 1 collector and reseller who goes by @pgknows on Instagram, bought a purple pair from someone who’d received them for free from Nike. Like the small number of other people and stores who’ve acquired pairs from the chosen few gifted them by Louis Vuitton or Nike, he is unwilling to name who they came from or how much he paid. Doing so could jeopardize one’s access to top-tier Nike product. Though the gifted sneakers are a sensitive subject, Givelekian is not surprised that some people have been willing to cash out on them.

“End of the day,” he says, “some sneakers don’t mean as much to one person as they do to another.”

Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 Low
The Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 colorway made for the Sotheby's auctioned won't be released anywhere else. Image via Sotheby's

Givelekian had supplied sneakers to Abloh before his passing, and thought he might be on the list to receive a pair of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s after the designer asked for his size in an Instagram message last year. When they didn’t materialize he chased them down, reaching out to 15 to 20 people to make offers and regularly posting on social media that he’d buy any pairs on the market. A yellow pair eluded him, as did a green one from a source in Paris. He wants to complete a full set of the colors and then flip them for a price higher than what he paid.

Resellers can be cagey when discussing market value and actual prices on rare sneakers because doing so directly affects their investment in them. Givelekian suggests the going price for the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s from the friends and family set is upwards of $50,000, although he paid significantly less than that. (Two brothers who operate a resell operation under the name English Sole were offering a $1,000 finder’s fee for anyone who could help them get a pair—they eventually secured the yellow.) Consignment shop Justin Reed recently had a red pair in a size 10 listed at $50,000 and a blue pair in a 10.5 at $60,000 that are both marked as sold out now.

Promoting the shoes for sale on Instagram prompted some backlash for Justin Reed, as people rushed to call the store out for selling an item intended for friends and family of the late Off-White designer. There, commenters wrongly assumed the store’s owner had been given the sneakers rather than merely listed for sale another person’s pairs. “We we’re [sic] not gifted this pair,” read a response from Justin Reed, “we are a consignment shop.”

The response was a reminder that certain aspects of sneaker reselling are still taboo even as the practice has become mainstream in the past decade. When underground rap icon MF DOOM died in 2020, there was a scramble to buy his Nike SB Dunk High from 2007 before prices went up. Secondary-market footwear profiteering in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death provoked a similar reaction—some stores and resell markets even decided to temporarily pause sales of Kobe sneakers.

A pair of blue Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s with LV monogram pattern underneath the insole
The Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s have a monogram pattern underneath their insole. Image via Untied LA

“I personally hated Kobe resell once he had passed away, and it made me sick as a lifelong Kobe fan,” says one of the owners at Untied LA, another consignment shop that had a blue pair of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s for sale. “So I understand where people are coming from.”

Any past reticence around reselling sneakers in the wake of a collaborator’s death did not preclude the sale of their pair of Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s. The blue they acquired, they say, is already on its way to a new buyer for a deal close to six figures.

“It’s just how the game works and that’s the business aspect of it,” the owner of Untied says. “To some people, a pair of shoes aren’t worth five or six figures…I’m glad to say the pair is sold and is going to a serious collector with a lot of heat, true passion for sneakers, and it probably will never end up on the market again.”

The secondary market movement of the friends and family Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s has not generated a reaction nearly as vocal as the sneakers sold post-Kobe Bryant’s death did. This is partly because so few people aside from their original owners have them—Givelekian, English Sole, Untied LA, and Justin Reed are the only prominent names that have posted pairs that weren’t obtained straight from Nike or Louis Vuitton—and partly because the Air Force 1s arrived under different circumstances.

They were distributed posthumously, unlike the MF Doom and Nike Kobe sneakers in question, which released while their namesakes were alive and spiked in price only after their passing. There’s been no visible blitz to inflate the market value for the friends and family Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s connected directly to Abloh’s death because the sneakers weren’t revealed until after it. The Louis Vuitton sneakers weren’t intended as a commercial product, so there’s been no overwhelming sentiment that the most connected resellers are denying the public pairs.

Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 Spring-Summer 2022
There's still no concrete info about the commercial launch of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s. Image via Getty/Dominique Charriau/WireImage

How do those closest to Abloh feel about the sneakers changing hands? Joe Holder, a trainer who worked with the designer on his Off-White x Nike projects, says nobody has tried to buy his yellow pair of the friends and family Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s. Holder won’t sell the shoes but also won’t condemn people that have.

“That is the fascinating thing about this process,” he says. “It is of course an individual decision, I personally wouldn’t, but it pushes the boundaries on the discussion of streetwear, which Virgil was always about.”

Holder hasn’t worn his personal pair yet and is uncertain if he ever will. For him, the sneaker is less a sneaker and more a totem marking the many hours, text messages, and intimate moments he shared with Abloh. He sees the Air Force 1s as a vessel for Aboh’s ideas and a reminder of what he made possible for the future.

“Of course it is emotional, as he was kin to me,” Holder says, “but there’s something special about seeing ‘living relics’ and I hope people continue to discuss his work but also engage in his logic. It is so much bigger than the clothes, man, and I don’t think it should be reduced to that.”