Chopping It Up is a series where we talk about issues and subject matter that would naturally come up just as if you were in a chair at the shop with your barber – or in the comfort of your own home getting a house call. We hope you enjoy the playful and chill but also serious things we touch upon.
If you’re in the NYC sneaker game, you’ve probably come into contact with Yu-Ming Wu at some point, whether you know it or not. The co-founder of Freshness Mag, Sneaker News, Sneaker Con and Stadium Goods has been doing this for decades. His multiple publishing platforms as well as businesses have helped raise the popularity of sneakers and the culture surrounding sneakers and streetwear since their founding. While Sneaker Con’s physical events have been affected by COVID-19, that hasn’t stopped the business from thinking ahead. The same goes for Stadium Goods and the consignment industry. Yu-Ming took some time out of his busy schedule to chop it up with us on these topics and more.
I remember the early days of Sneaker Con in the various venues of New York before it was moved into the Javits Center (where the capacity still wasn’t enough to hold all the sneakerheads attending). The first event I attended was in June 2011 in the basement of Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua on the corner of W. Houston and Sullivan streets. The line stretched down Houston at least three or four blocks with easily over 1,000 people carrying sneakers and all sorts of other goods – this was only three years removed from the first-ever Sneaker Con held at a comedy club in Times Square in 2009. The growth of the physical event in NYC and around the country to a global phenomenon is still amazing for someone like me to observe – it’s probably even more amazing in first person view so I asked Yu-Ming about it.
“The church event was one of the first few that we held. We had our first event in March 2009, in a Times Square comedy club and like 600 people showed up along with 20-30 vendors max. We had some interesting people. Being friends with Stash, I got him to come and display some of the stuff he had and sell some of that stuff,” he reminisces. “Over the years, we’ve touched so many people around the globe. For us, seeing some of our vendors go from reselling and spending some money to reinvest and then slowly start their businesses, it’s been extremely incredible to see how some of these teenagers have become businessmen. They learned the ropes for themselves,” Yu-Ming says proudly. He continues, “A lot of these guys are teens, some are adults obviously, but mostly teenagers. They’ve made a lot of money with our events. We used to have guys who drove from Chicago to New York or from Chicago to Florida, 15 hour drives, just to do one of our events and go home with A LOT of money. Some of these guys have nice cars, big houses and great families today and continue to be in this business but not have to do that leg work,” he explains.
Everyone pays their dues with the initial legwork. Yu-Ming continued to explain how Sneaker Con helped spawn the career of influencers and how sponsorships have also come up hand-in-hand with the audience growth – famous YouTuber qiasomar started off being a fan, buying a ticket and waiting in line like everyone else. “Early on he was just a fan of sneakers and came, bought a ticket, waited in line and got in. Eventually, we realized who he was and one of our sponsors, Crep Protect, brought him on as an influencer and people went wild for him. He was a staple of some of the Sneaker Con’s from a few years ago. He’s too busy now to do events. I wouldn’t say we made him, he made himself, but he was one of those guys that came to Sneaker Con and realized he could get some really good content there,” he says. On the topic of Crep Protect, he adds, “They’re another company that was an early sponsor. They were a small player and now they’re this global brand of sneaker cleaning and all goods related to sneakers.” Summing it all up, Yu-Ming believes Sneaker Con helped a lot of kids grow into businessmen: “We see a lot of kids, teens 12 to 16 years old, learning life skills at Sneaker Con and becoming really good businessmen because they learn to negotiate early on.”
I wholeheartedly agree with his comments as I’ve seen some of those people come up myself and took part in the negotiations at one point myself. Obviously with COVID-19 changing our lives starting back in March, Sneaker Con had to cancel their physical events for everyone’s safety. Yu-Ming and I spent some time talking about how social media luckily is in place to help keep customers engaged and how they plan to get back on their feet after a vaccine is available.
“For us, seeing some of our vendors go from reselling and spending some money to reinvest and then slowly start their businesses, it’s been extremely incredible to see how some of these teenagers have become businessmen. We see a lot of kids, teens 12 to 16 years old, learning life skills at Sneaker Con and becoming really good businessmen because they learn to negotiate early on. ”
Although Yu-Ming is no longer involved with the digital side of Sneaker Con (social media and .com), he credits Instagram for helping the brand get off the ground initially and stay connected with its audience through this pandemic and over the years. “We built a lot of Sneaker Con on Instagram. We were one of the early adopters – not day one – but once we figured out where all of our audience was, we decided to go heavy into our ecosystem – we built a large following that way. Today, we’re at 3.3 million followers. A lot of our early success was thanks to IG,” he starts off saying. Continuing with: “We didn’t do digital marketing, no advertising at all. We just kind of relied on social media platforms that I had access to – Sneaker Con and Sneaker News obviously – but also getting friends behind our events. That’s how we built this audience and continue to message them to keep them in the loop on what we’re doing. I’m not part of Sneaker Con digital but I think that’s where we’re keeping the audience that we’ve built engaged.” He adds, “that’s where they can go on and continue to be part of the Sneaker Con ecosystem. That’s one way we’re keeping things moving and keeping our name in the minds of resellers, consumers, customers and vendors that we have.”
Further elaborating on the strategy for the future of Sneaker Con, Yu-Ming mentions their partnership with Endeavor, the parent company of many high-level agencies. “Sneaker Con partnered with Endeavor, which owns IMG, WME, UFC and a number of other global event companies, modeling agencies, etc. We sold a piece of our company to them to help keep moving things forward. We do our China events with them. They’re helping us with some of their capabilities in order to continue the conversation online digitally whether it’s through events or selling.” This partnership move is nothing new in the sneaker business as major names have partnered with players that have more capital and resources over the last decade – think Supreme and Carlyle Group, GOAT and Flight Club, and of course Stadium Goods and Farfetch.
On the topic of Stadium Goods, we shifted our conversation to the consignment industry and specifically to the strategy and changes SG had to face during the early days of the pandemic and what lessons they learned. “The interesting thing about COVID is it definitely affected how the world interacts with each other. It created a new way of doing things with consignment. Before, people would just bring their shoes, wait in line, and get their stuff consigned. Today, you make an appointment. Because of this, we’ve really forced people to use our internal system – to enter all of the information for the things they’re going to bring including the items and pricing. So when they come to us, they no longer have to wait in line, they just drop off a box with the items.” This new strategy is definitely welcome for someone like me who used to wait double parked outside the Canal Street Market Place Center. Yu-Ming laughs and continues, “It used to be anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes of wait because you’re in line with other people to consign and each item has to be checked and priced and you’re waiting for the consignment team to do that. Today, you do all of that stuff at home and we approve it. You bring it in and drop it off and that’s it. It’s like 5 minutes of less for this.”
In addition to minimizing wait times, the pandemic has also forced more people to ship items and for Stadium Goods to expand its warehouses. “I do a lot of shipping to our warehouse, that’s the other way to consign. You go into the Seller’s Portal, enter the information, print the FedEx label, and it gets shipped to our warehouse. I’m doing all of this at home, I don’t have to leave my house. I worked out a system where I enter info, get it approved, print out a label, schedule the FedEx guy to come the next day and then I leave a note on my front door telling him to call me when he gets here. When they call me, I put the package in the elevator and tell him it’s in the elevator and he picks it up from there. I never have to see him and I’m still chilling in my apartment. It’s amazing, I never would’ve discovered this way of doing stuff if not for COVID,” Yu-Ming shares. He continues, “Moving forward, we’re creating more efficient ways of working. That’s how we’re going to see things into 2021 and 2022. We’re opening a Chicago store and consignment center. Let’s just say you have the ultimate grail, like an Air Mag worth $15K, you’re going to be a little careful about shipping that and still want to bring it in. Those occasions are why the store will work.”
“Today we have these influential figures like Travis and Virgil backing the Dunk, all of a sudden I think that’s what pushed it over the edge.”
What about the people that refuse to ship because of costs? Yu-Ming had a response for that too: “Stadium Goods gives you 10 free labels. After that you have to pay and I realized that’s the price of doing business – for me at least. If you purchase a pair of shoes for retail and sell it for a way higher price, paying a little bit for shipping – obviously my margins will be less – but I don’t mind it because I don’t have to do all that legwork. I think moving forward, people will start shipping more. We’ve definitely seen a heavy increase in people shipping things since the start of COVID and we’ll continue to see that. We’re going to continue opening warehouses around the country so that shipping costs aren’t that much. Today we have an LA warehouse so our West Coast guys don’t have to pay that outrageous shipping fee.”
The cost of doing business is shipping. So I was curious to see if the Amazon Prime next-day model or the Mr. Porter and Net-A-Porter same-day Manhattan delivery would be something Stadium Goods would eventually venture into. “I don’t foresee that happening anything soon. For us, I think right now the business of shipping, insurances, logistics, legal as well, it doesn’t make sense. Logistically it doesn’t make sense for us and legal wise we’re worried about the fraud issue as well,” Yu-Ming replies. There goes that idea, at least for now. We continue our conversation by talking about sneakers as a form of art, especially since Stadium Goods has helped break auction house records recently by teaming up to present some extremely rare lots of sneakers.
The record-breaking Air Jordan 1 “Shattered Backboard” PE’s that were game worn and signed by MJ himself which sold for $615,000 was a jumping point. “Yea, the original pair, we sold those for $615,000! They were Gerard’s pair. I definitely think that’s a new level for sneakers since the first auction we did. There have been auctions for sneakers in the past obviously, on eBay and at some smaller auction houses. But this one was big,” Yu-Ming says with a smile you could feel through the phone. In terms of sneakers as art, the entrepreneur continued, “100% I consider sneakers to be mass produced sculptures. Some of them are one-off sculptures, maybe something made for MJ to put on his feet, but also these are sports memorabilia artifacts as well. It’s not just sneaker collectors, it’s a whole wide spectrum of collectors that consider sneakers an artifact – and they’ve been trading in the circle for a very long time.”
He then threw it back to old school joints and started talking about the Upper Deck Hologram program. “Upper Deck very famously had their signed and authenticated Hologram autographed sneakers for a long time. If you wanted an MJ signed sneaker, you could get it from upperdeck.com. I don’t know if they’re still around with the hype around sneakers now but for a long time you could get those for $10-$30K. That’s still a lot compared to normal sneakers but compared to $615,000, it doesn’t seem like that much right?” So he says that aspect of collecting has been around for a long time and I remember living through that era and wishing I had 15 stacks for some PEs. “We crossed paths with these people so I don’t know who the buyer is – it could be a sports collector, it could be a sneaker collector, or it could even be a car collector – that’s the interesting part of it. I’m very happy to have been in the industry so long and for sneakers to get into this realm today.”
Talking about sneakers opened the floodgates for guys like me and Yu-Ming. We’d spend the next 20 minutes or so just talking about luxury trends, the return of Nike SBs, quarantine pickups and the next major trend. On the luxury side he kept it simple saying, “High-end sneakers have been around for a very long time. Collaborations will continue to happen and I foresee more luxury and athletic brand collaborations very quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if Louis Vuitton is the next one to do something with a potential athletic goods brand. We can imagine it could be Nike but who knows.” Nike SB and the Dunk’s return to prominence can be credited to Travis Scott, trends coming back every decade or so and amazing collaborations. Yu-Ming agreed with me on this and cited Travis wearing kicks like the Wu-Tang Dunk and Paris SB for the rise of the prices as well as Virgil Abloh doing the crazy Futura x Off-White Dunk for one of his shows. “Today we have these influential figures like Travis and Virgil backing the Dunk, all of a sudden I think that’s what pushed it over the edge. Because if you remember the last time this happened, there weren’t these guys. There wasn’t really a celebrity that could’ve put in on the map during that time.”
His quarantine pickups also included some major Nike SB heat. “I got the Chunky Dunky Dunks and I got the Travis Scott Dunks. I’ve had a long relationship with the Nike SB brand going all the way back to buying my first pair of Supreme Dunk Lows AT Supreme after waiting in line for 15 minutes during a restock. I called in a favor with those. One of my good friends who owns a store, that I’ve never met, basically no questions asked and he hooked it up for me and my lady. We also got the Grateful Dead Dunk set as well. Those were big moments for the last few months.” After talking about Dunks for so low, Yu-Ming shifted into what he thought might be the next trend.
“I can say this, I’ve been keeping an eye on Drake and what he has on his feet and I can see that the Air Force 1 – even though it’s high in interest today – that will potentially be a breakthrough. If you keep an eye on videos being shared, some of the random videos of him getting in and out of cars feature a lot of AF1s. That could be the beginning of the AF1 being the next crazy thing. We recently had the Off-White Air Force 1 MCA sample with the Dunk laces so I think that’s a teaser. With Drake wearing a bunch and if we see Virgil and Travis on the AF1 thing, I think that’s the next big deal.” Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing AF1s get their shine again, as they’re the unofficial sneaker of NYC. Cocaine whites never go out of style. Make sure to chop it up with Yu-Ming post-COVID at a Sneaker Con event or any industry function. Also, congrats on being a father! Stadium Goods opens its doors in Chicago today officially at 60 East Walton Street. Their Market Center is located nearby at 1719 North Damen Avenue.
Photos via Krista Schlueter/The New York Times, Matt Peng, The Source, Christie’s, David X Prutting/BFA.com, Stadium Goods