By 9:35 on a recent Friday night, Dominique Thomas had been camped outside the Niketown store in South Miami for two full days. Thomas, who goes by the street name DK the Line Pimp, had flown in from Denver and was first in line to buy the $100 Cowboy Air Max 180s, which were scheduled to go on sale at 10 that night. Just 140 pairs of these limited-edition sneakers--a hunter green, lizard-skin design with a light pink Swoosh--were manufactured, and they would be sold only at the Miami store and only that night. As a snaking line of mostly young men waited for the doors to open, Thomas, 21, reflected on how much getting the shoes meant to him. "Shoes run my life," he said. "Without shoes, I don't exist."
Once part of a secretive urban subculture that began in New York City in the 1970s, sneaker freaks like Thomas have come out of the closet, rising up not only across the U.S. but also around the rest of the globe, from Berlin to Tokyo. While many are driven by nostalgia for the classic Adidas or Pumas they wore as a kid, others amass the shoes not to wear but to save and admire like a stamp or baseball-card collection. "It's the thrill of the chase," says Carra Crehan, 26, who works at a New York City sneaker boutique called Laces and says she has 200 pairs of sneakers--all insured--that she stores on racks in her kitchen and living room.
Such breathless collecting has helped prop up the slow-growth $15 billion athletic-shoe business. Makers fuel the frenzy by releasing limited runs of anywhere from a few dozen to 1,000 pairs of vintage and new styles in distinctive color combinations. Some are embellished with laser-engraved designs and lace badges, decorative metal clips attached to the laces. To ensure that these "quickstrike" releases maintain the allure of exclusivity, makers skip large retailers and instead sell to boutiques like M.I.A. Skate Shop in Miami's South Beach; Sportie L.A. on Melrose Avenue; and A Bathing Ape, a shop in Manhattan's SoHo district owned by Japanese designer Nigo, who himself owns 3,000 pairs of classic kicks. Miamian Gregory Fago, 41, who has more than 270 pairs of shoes, spent $5,000 on 34 versions of Nike Airs from the 1990s that were rereleased in January. "When you walk into a room, people look at your feet first," says Fago.
Shoe exhibitionism is gaining even more traction with websites for sneaker aficionados like hypebeast.com and kix-files.com and magazines like Sole Collector. Designers like Stella McCartney and Gwen Stefani are stepping in with styles created especially for women, and a slew of customizers is establishing a following by transforming off-the-rack sneakers into one-of-a-kind works of art. There's even an online petition at operationmcfly.blogspot.com for a public release of the moon-boot-style Nikes Michael J. Fox wore in Back to the Future II.