After their invention in the late 1800s, sneakers became a pop-culture staple by the 1970s and ’80s with models like the Adidas Superstar, Puma Clyde, and Nike Air Force 1. But it wasn’t until the release of the Air Jordan in 1985 that sneaker fandom became an international obsession and evolved into a disruptive shoe market. 

Resellers all over the world feed sneakerheads’ voracious appetite for shoes. Some act like speculative investors, stocking up on inventory as a bet that prices will rise, sometimes yielding enormous profits. Others sell their own, re-imagined versions of the popular shoes, making up part of a growing segment of the market characterized by both creativity and controversy. 

Take for example Naady, who sells his re-imagined versions of the Air Jordan 1 under his independent clothing label, Global Heartbreak. Along with his childhood friend Teeb, Naady has been designing their customized sneakers.

 “My father owned a clothing brand since I was a little kid, so when I grew up, I just became a sneakerhead. I wanted to customize my own sneaker,” Naady tells Reason. 

While at first glance the shoe might look like an Air Jordan 1, a closer look will reveal the differences—from original colors and details to a unique logo. Instead of the famous Nike Swoosh, Naady’s shoes have a broken heart pierced by a needle. 

In today’s decentralized, makers’ economy, Naady was able to contract directly with a manufacturer in China to produce his inventory despite running a small, independent clothing label.

“I’m sending ’em a file of exactly what I want. I ask the manufacturers to send videos of the whole process from scratch. You could get a good sneaker for about $65. We sold a hundred shoes at $150. We didn’t even triple profit. I don’t like to break pockets. I want the people from where I’m from to be able to purchase it. We made money back, but it was more so about pushing the art,” Naady continued. 

Although Naady and Teeb don’t produce enough shoes for Nike to take notice, the sneaker giant has been cracking down on derivative designers like them. The most prominent lawsuit is against the trendsetting Japanese fashion brand A Bathing Ape (BAPE for short). 

“BAPE was most known in sneakers for making the BAPE STA, which is a version of the Air Force 1 that replaces the Nike swoosh with a shooting star logo across the side. If you look at the shoe and you know anything about sneakers, you know immediately that’s based on the Air Force 1,” explains Brendan Dunne, editor of the leading online sneaker magazine Sole Collector and co-host of the YouTube sneaker show Full Size Run. “You don’t have to be a sneaker obsessive to see the things that these models have in common.”

Nike sued BAPE over the design in January 2023, calling the BAPE STA a knockoff of the Air Force 1 and arguing that BAPE was infringing upon Nike’s intellectual property and trade dress. Ultimately, Nike asked the court to stop BAPE from selling the shoes. 

“This action from Nike comes amid a wave of recent litigation where they’re trying to swat down all these makers who create these shoes that look a lot like Nike shoes and are very much based on the success of Nike shoes,” Dunne adds. 

Dunne believes that Nike has begun to aggressively crack down on derivative shoes because there are “more of them than there ever were before.”  But the reinvention of its popular shoes might actually be a good thing for Nike.

“We usually think that copying destroys incentives to innovate. But in the fashion world, copying is actually what creates the incentives to innovate,” says New York University Law professor Christopher Sprigman, who co-authored the book The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation.

“Copying helps set trends. Trends sell fashion. Copying is what helps kill trends. Copying is what helps set the trend that comes next. So, the fashion cycle runs, and the fashion industry’s successive waves of innovation depend on copying,” Sprigman adds. 

“I feel like from an artistic standpoint, everything comes from something. Nothing’s truly original. Yeah, this is something you’ve seen before, but it doesn’t take anything away from it being personal to us,” Teeb explains.

Yet, there is a big difference between sneaker derivatives, such as BAPES or Naady’s designs, and replicas, which attempt to mimic Nike’s models by remaking them exactly as the originals, argues Sprigman.

Most sneakerheads dislike illegal replicas, but “reps” are often so much more affordable than the real thing, that many sneaker lovers buy them anyway.

“A lot of the money spent these days on replica sneakers has to do with recreations of shoes that are not authorized by the companies but still look exactly like and feel exactly like or as close to exact as possible,” says Dunne.

Nike has the legal right to go after replicas, according to Sprigman, but believes that trying to stop these counterfeits is fruitless and also a form of class bias. On the contrary, Dunne believes that it’s still in Nike’s best interest to take legal action against knockoffs and replicas but “feel[s] like Nike’s battle against bootleg makers is a game of Whac-A-Mole more than anything else.” 

BAPE is still selling sneakers, and the company has filed for dismissal of Nike’s lawsuit. A handful of other cases have been dropped or settled out of court, with derivative designers agreeing to stop selling their products. 

While it is not clear if Nike’s legal campaign will succeed in shutting down this creative segment of the sneaker market, artists like Naady only see their businesses expanding, continuing to use popular shoes as inspiration for their designs.

Photos: AP Photo/Joe Holloway Jr., Tonya Wise/London Ent/Splash/Newscom

Music: Artlist: Luc Allieres—Struttin/Mansij—Cortado/ZAC—Cautious—Instrumental Version/Tamuz Dekel—Blue Beings/Steven Beddall—I Need You—Instrumental Version/Phury—Fifth Avenue

  • Video Producer & Editor: Kevin P. Alexander
  • Graphics: Adani Samat
  • Audio Production: Ian Keyser
  • Camera: Sebastian Lasaosa Roger
  • Additional Camera: Carlos Morales

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