Rubber souls

A knock-down, drag-out sneaker battle
August 9, 2006 4:14:02 PM

BURNING RUBBER: Brian “Chef” Spar shows off his kicks.
Somewhere deep in the two-acre Connecticut Expo Center, Dipset hip-hop phenom Juelz Santana is on stage catcalling a shorty from his hit, “There It Go (The Whistle Song).” Despite a couple of violated car alarms angrily wailing nearby, I can still hear Santana’s trademark “Aye! Aye! Aye!” as about 20 people painstakingly box up unmatched sneakers, each worth at least half a month’s rent. Among the valuable single shoes is a Nike high-top Dunk that its owner, Peter Fahey — the 24-year-old founder of the traveling shoe exhibition Sneaker Pimps — estimates is worth $5000. It’s one of 50 pairs designed for the 50th-birthday party of graffiti legend Futura.

This is the tail end of last month’s Funkmaster Flex Custom Car & Bike Show, which has spun off both a Spike TV series (Ride With Funkmaster Flex) and an ESPN2 show (All Muscle With Funkmaster Flex). As the marquee-name big-dog DJ of New York City’s Hot 97, whom the New York Times anointed the “evangelist of hip-hop car culture,” Flex has hosted tricked-out-vehicle exhibitions for years. But this time Flex is also sponsoring the International Sneaker Battle (ISB), a nascent kicks-collecting competition conceived by 22-year-old Hot 97 sound engineer Mike Daurio (a/k/a Michael the Executive), and inviting along the independently produced roving shoe-art installation, Sneaker Pimps.

Sneaker events are sort of like street proms — everybody plans their outfits days in advance. I hitch a ride here with two ISB judges: Lori Lobenstine, founder of; and Jeff Cavalho, the Arlington-based co-host of the sneaker podcast Weeklydrop. (See “Life, Love, and Sneakers,” News and Features, February 17.) When we first get to Hartford, Cavalho and Lobenstine both change from “beaters,” shoes they don’t mind dirtying, into spotless unworn kicks. Cavalho’s Weeklydrop co-conspirator (and third ISB judge), Rob Heppler, has even loaned one of his male friends a pair of Nike Lu Pele Dunks so that the kid won’t look stupid. Malcolm Pascotti, a teenage paying customer from Philly, shows up wearing a pair of size-13 Nike Dunk “P-Rod Mexican Blankets,” a limited-edition style designed for superstar skater Paul Rodriguez. It’s only the second time he’s worn them; last time he busted them out for an SAT-prep course.

Given the ISB’s name, you’d think the competition would be heated and fierce, its onstage contenders so nervous they could puke — like Eight Mile with shoes instead of freestyles and the crowd pelting losers with Miss Piggy–headed Adidas. But that’s not the case in Hartford, where on the farthest side of the Expo Center across from the main stage — on a temporary platform that will support a beauty contest, a dance contest, and one-song cameos by Juelz Santana, lady lyricist Remy Ma, and up-and-coming rapper Papoose — eight sneaker-battle rivals stand behind their meticulously arranged footwear like ship captains manning their helms. They are waiting for a handful of judges who will rate sneaker collections on a scale of one to 10 and declare winners in categories such as Best Display, Best Custom Pair, and Best Jordan Pair. Since there are only eight competitors, the total prize money distributed among the winners will be $1500. (At the premiere ISB last month in Edison, New Jersey, about 60 contestants vied for $8500.)

There are red Nikes with illustrations of the Thundercats. White-and-blue-trimmed high-top Nikes autographed by Patrick Ewing that are so thickly cushioned they look like moon boots. And corn silk–blue Nike Air Force 1’s painted with red flowers by the graphic-design firm Rebel Aire. (On official ISB scoring sheets, one footnote reminds critics: “Always take into consideration shock value, crowd reaction, and fan favorites.”)

Brian Spar, a 31-year-old Connecticut-based contestant, is displaying a collection of Nike Dunks worth thousands of dollars. A bald former mortgage broker who now resells sneakers for a living, Spar maintains a sneaker Web site called Gourmet Kickz. Not only does he insist on being called “Chef,” but his ISB station is restaurant-themed, complete with two heavily made-up waitresses in itty-bitty black skirts, aprons, and high-heels serving up shoes on trays. Asked how much this is all worth, Chef sighs. “It’s a house that fits into a closet. Or two.”

With hardcore collectors, Nike is still the hottest, most coveted brand. Executive organizer Daurio knows this, which is why he’s deliberately rocking a pair of shiny blue-and-black Adidas with red stripes. “Flex has told me, ‘Anybody can make a [Nike] Air Force 1 hot. But if you take [a brand] that’s not as official and make them hot, you’ll get so much more respect.’ ”

Peter Fahey, owner of that $5000 Futura shoe, says that in his experience touring with Sneaker Pimps — the three-and-a-half-year-old exhibition of rare shoes tied to a chain-link fence that’s been shown 70 times around the globe in cities such as Boston, Jakarta, and Hong Kong —Nike worship is even stronger overseas. “They don’t really care about Adidas in places like China, they only care about Nike. Here they care about everything.”

By six o’clock, the judges have determined the victors, so Daurio gathers everyone together on the far stage. Samuel’s baby kicks win Best Jordans. The Thundercats land Best Custom-Themed Pair. Chef wins Best Display, which gets him $200. And Mark Johnson, a/k/a Malicious, gets Best Overall Collection, which is tantamount to first prize, earning him $400.

Daurio seems pleasantly surprised that he’s pulled off the curious feat of christening sneaker champions. As he said earlier in the afternoon, “If I came home with an eight-foot-high trophy, my mom would be like, ‘That’s so cool: an eight-foot trophy for sneakers!’ Where the hell else you gonna get that?”

Camille Dodero, who once called Vans “toenail stinkers” on the Weeklydrop, can be reached at .

On the Web
International Sneaker Battle: //
Weekly Drop: //
Female Sneaker Fiend: //


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