Tye Engmann pulls up to the soccer stadium in a puffy green jacket, zipped to the top, and sweatpants. His brown hair is covered by a retro Chicago Bulls snapback. His facial stubble is hidden under an N95 mask.
After noticing me in the back row of the bleachers, Engmann jogs up the stairs two at a time. On this mid-October day, he’s quick to sit down and lean against a cement wall, fold his arms, and face towards the pitch. His New Balance shoes—a style I don’t know, and one that I’m too afraid to ask about for the risk of seeming like the novice sneakerhead I am—are propped up on the bleacher in front of us.
He looks, talks, and acts like your ordinary twentysomething. But he’s far from ordinary in the realm of sneakers.
Engmann and I went to the same high school in Port Moody, B.C. While I graduated in 2016, he did three years later in 2019. I first heard about his business, Curated Van, through my sister, who attended our same high school (graduating in 2018) and went on a Europe trip with Engmann.
“He’s very humble,” my sister told me in a recent phone conversation. “Like, he doesn’t like to flaunt his popularity much.”
Since entering the sneaker business six years ago, at the age of 14, Engmann’s Curated Van company has garnered quite the following. His Instagram account has over 30,000 followers, and he’s sold Air Jordans to celebrities like Kevin Hart and NBA stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Devin Booker. Lil Yachty even gave him a shoutout in a Complex Closets episode last year.
Engmann sold his first pair of shoes to Booker in the summer, right around the time the Phoenix Suns were competing in the Finals. Engmann had recently purchased a pair of 1985 Air Jordan 1 “Kentucky’s,” a style of the shoe in a dark navy and white colourway. Unfortunately, the pair was a size 15, which was a little big for his average buyers. So he posted a photo of them on Instagram and tagged Booker.
“I saw another picture of him wearing 1985 Jordan’s, and I said, ‘Hey, DBook. Heard you’re into 1985 Jordan 1’s,’ and people just spammed the comments and he ended up liking the post,” Engmann says. “I sold them before the Finals. He was supposed to wear the shoes I sold to Game 7, but [the Suns] didn’t make it to game seven.”
While Booker didn’t have the chance to show off Engmann’s shoes last summer, the NBA star did strut the “Kentucky” Jordans in a September 2021 cover of Slam Kicks.
“People, when they sell shoes, clothes, can be money hungry. I think building the relationship with everyone has benefited me to expand and develop the following that I now have.”
It’s easy, even under the N95, to see the pride Engmann has for his shoe business. When I dive further into asking the process of how he gets in touch with such stars, whether he talks with them directly, he hushes a bit. He darts his eyes elsewhere, his voice quiets—although there’s nobody else in the soccer bleachers—and he repeats himself, as if he’s in disbelief, or embarrassed to be caught talking about himself. After all, we are sitting in a soccer stadium because Engmann (politely) turned down my request to meet at the spot where he keeps his shoes.
Engmann always enjoyed collecting shoes as a kid, but originally, he just wanted to make enough money to bolster his personal collection. So, he started buying generic shoes—adidas Ultraboosts for example—and painting them, a process where he would physically paint over the original shoe colour to the style of his liking. Eventually, he flipped those shoes, and used the money to buy vintage sneakers for himself.
“I still remember when I bought my first shoe. That was after I did all the painting. I was so proud of myself,” Engmann says with a chuckle. “It was a 1985 Jordan 1 ‘Chicago.’”
As his personal collection of vintage sneakers grew, Engmann noticed a demand for old-school shoes. There were not a lot of people selling retro Jordans, or Air Jordan 1s in particular, so he started to siphon off his collection with the goal of filling that demand and becoming a reliable source for loyal sneakerheads. He launched a website in 2020, started collecting more and more vintage sneakers, and marketed pictures on Instagram.
“The majority of the shoes I sell are the 1985 Jordan 1’s, which is the first shoe that MJ ever released,” he says. “It’s pretty much the shoe that created the whole ‘sneaker culture.’”
When the 1985 Air Jordan’s were released, Nike expected to sell just 100,000 pairs in the first year. They ended up shipping 1.5 million pairs of the $65 kicks in six weeks. The Air Jordans transformed shoes from an overthought, to fashion accessory. “The shoes looked at once timeless and like they were sent from the future,” Justin Sayles of The Ringer wrote in May 2020.
The popularity of the sneaker soared to new heights in the early stages of the pandemic when ESPN and Netflix co-released a 10-part documentary in April 2020 about Michael Jordan called The Last Dance. Fans, new and old, were galvanized by Jordan’s legendary run with the Chicago Bulls, and reinvigorated by the Air Jordan brand.
In May 2020, an autographed pair of Air Jordan 1’s sold for $560,000 in an online auction. The price set a world record for any sneaker purchase, and attracted bidders as young as the age of 19. StockX, a secondary sneaker marketplace based in Detroit, also reported a more than 100 percent increase in resale value of Air Jordan 1s after The Last Dance premiered.
“If you watched The Last Dance, all the Jordan 1s he’s lacing up are the ones I’m selling,” Engmann says. “That’s when all the celebrities started getting into [Jordan 1s] because then they saw The Last Dance.”
When I ask about the first celebrity Engmann got in touch with for a sneaker purchase, he pauses.
“The first… celebrity that I kind of connected to was, Li, Lil, Lil Yachty.”
Engmann was with his parents when Lil Yachty reached out for the first time. On the patio of his childhood home in 2020, Engmann started to shake while reading the Instagram direct message on his phone. ‘Oh my goodness,’ he thought, ‘I’ll be right back.’
Within minutes, he was FaceTiming with Yachty. Through word of mouth, the rapper found out that Engmann had one of 250 pairs of Ari Menthol 10s in the world. Unfortunately, the pair Engmann had in stock wasn’t Yachty’s size, but the two bonded over their love for the history of vintage shoes. Yachty began inquiring about Air Jordan’s and the two developed a strong business relationship.
Building relationships, Engmann says, has been the biggest key to his growth. While he could post his shoes on an online marketplace at a high price, he’d rather sell to someone at a lower price who respects the shoe’s history.
“People, when they sell shoes, clothes, can be money hungry,” he says. “I think building the relationship with everyone has benefited me to expand and develop the following that I now have.”
That mantra has also played a large role in how Engmann sources his shoes. Though the popularity of Air Jordans has grown substantially in a year, the market is still very niche. With proven selling experience to A-Listers like Kevin Hart and Lil Yachty, Engmann’s expertise and connections have spread through online forums and communities like Reddit—where now people from across the world are reaching out and recommending Engmann as a seller.
“I had this one kid from Alaska post on TikTok, and he said he found this shoe. Everyone in the comments said for him to message me, and then I ended up getting the shoe which was from 1985. His grandpa bought it, and it sat in his grandpa’s closet for 36 years.”
His business fluctuates and it’s hard to give an estimate on how many pairs he sells a week. Some weeks he’ll sell somewhere between 25 to 50 pairs of shoes, while other weeks will be spent catching up by buying shoes to replenish his inventory.
Five percent of his total sales are in Canada, and he mostly sells to customers in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. As he’s dealing with strangers, to keep his family’s privacy, Engmann also doesn’t give out his home address and has a P.O. box to collect his purchases from.
With the success of CuratedVan, Engmann dropped out of university after a year and a semester. Although he got good grades, he was never “a big school guy” and always wanted to work for himself. He tried to balance school and shoe business, taking one university class at a time for one semester, but found the work overwhelming.
Before dropping out, he had to convince his parents, who are both in insurance, about the decision. They knew he had been selling kicks on the side for years, but were wary that his hobby could sustain him financially full-time.
Eventually, their opinions changed when they realized their son was selling shoes to celebrities. But they still encouraged him to attend a local college to earn a business certificate (he’s about a year into the program, and taking courses on the side).
“They’re super proud of me, but just want me to continue to scale it and develop a business plan for five years, 10 years, and make sure I can sustain myself with the business,” Engmann says. “They just want me to be prepared.”
Engmann doesn’t want to own a physical store, but someday would like to own a studio where customers can hang out, shop, and book a time to see his sneaker collection. He also may start co-signing—which, in his words, means selling someone else’s shoes while taking a small cut off the transaction.
But those are all options down the line. Engmann isn’t too preoccupied with the future. He describes himself as a “chill and relaxed guy” who doesn’t feel pressure to uphold his reputation.
He’s still that boy who fell in love with Air Jordans as a pre-teen, simply because he liked them. Now, though, he’s selling shoes to folks from across the world and celebrities who he’s never met in person.
“If you have something and you wanna do it, just do it.”