“What’s so great about the Yeezy shoe anyway?” That was the conversation in the Rivet office about a month ago when Kanye West’s culture-consuming Yeezy Boosts were popping up on sneaker year-end best-of lists left and right. Of course, looks are subjective, but we just couldn’t understand the hysteria over two grey lumps of material that seemed to offer few features outside of the celebrity cache of owning a Kanye West-produced shoe.
Indeed, it’s telling that most of the hype around the product has been about its exclusivity and high resale price, rather than its design or comfort. By August 2015, hunger for the ultra-limited shoe had become so ravenous that one eBay user listed a pair of black Yeezy Boost 350s for a cool $20K. While just one extreme example (the sale ended without a buyer), Boosts listed by other resellers on the auction site regularly demand above $1,500.
Part of West’s Yeezy Season 1 collection of unisex apparel and footwear, the Boost line encompasses the Boost 350 running shoe (originally retailing for $200), the Boost 750 hi-top (originally retailing for $350), and the Boost 950 duck boot (originally retailing for $585). But the shoes are hardly the rapper-turned-designer’s first foray into the world of footwear. He’s previously designed exclusive sneakers for the likes of Bathing Ape and Louis Vuitton.
Before hitching a ride with Adidas for his current collection, West was working with the company’s archrival Nike for the much hyped Air Yeezy, which arrived in 2010 and, much like the Boost line of today, reached resale prices of more than triple the sticker value. This was followed by the sequel Air Yeezy 2, which to date still commands resale prices into the thousands of dollars on eBay.
Though arguably out of reach for much of West’s twenty-something fanbase, it’s clear that the hype for the Boost is not unprecedented, and is in fact part of a long love-affair the hip-hop community has had with their sneakers, stretching back to mentor Jay-Z’s S.Carter line for Reebok in 2003, all the way to the original Air Jordan in 1985. It was a pair of shoes that became intrinsically linked with the burgeoning hip-hop scene of the time, setting the stage for celebrity-endorsed brands to come.
By 2015, a funny thing was happening. Athletic wear, long a staple and symbol of cool among rappers from Run-DMC to Missy Elliott, was having a major comeback in fashion, merging with high end ready-to-wear to create an entirely new category – athleisure. Catching the zeitgeist at exactly the right moment, Yeezy Season 1’s sporty, minimalist designs spoke to a new, fashion-oriented consumer outside of the realm of hip-hop, and the Boosts in turn became the must-have item among a new breed of people who wanted to look like they were ready for the gym, but who were not ready to actually go there.
The Boost quickly became a publicity boon for Adidas, who after years of slagging behind Nike was on the comeback trail with several new hits. The Boost was the most liked sneaker on Instagram in 2015, helping Adidas amass over 78 million likes on the photo-sharing platform, receiving nearly double the number of likes as rivals Nike and Vans. With continuous “drops” throughout the year (including new styles and color variations), and with help from the Kardashian-Jenner media machine (wife Kim and her sisters all posted snaps of their Boosts), the Boost was a triumph in digital marketing. The sneaker essentially sold itself, with little in the way of traditional marketing on behalf of Adidas. Truly, it was the shoe that Instagram built.
But while buzz is one thing, profit is another. Did the Boost hype actually translate into a huge windfall for Adidas? According to Matt Powell, sports industry analyst for the NPD Group, there’s almost no chance a shoe produced in such small quantities – Adidas has manufactured approximately 20,000 Boosts – could have any significant impact on a company of Adidas’ size.
“They’ve signed [West] more for the hype and bragging rights than real dollar sales,” said Powell. “The number of pairs that they make of these shoes is really, really small, and so they don’t have much of an economic impact on the Adidas business. Nike last year made 500 million pairs of shoes, just to put the number into perspective. 20,000 sounds like a lot, but it’s really tiny. Most retro Jordans are 150,000 pairs to 500,000 pairs, so these are really very limited.”
As basic economics teaches us, perceived scarcity leads to stronger demand, and so it’s no surprise that a limited edition sneaker by a world-famous rapper is being resold for thousands of dollars. Among fashionistas, they’re simply another passing trend. Among sneakerheads, an investment to flip later, not something they’re actually going to muddy up. Almost everyone knows they’re paying high-end prices for a pair of high street shoes, the question is why?
“It’s really not anything special in terms of the shoe,” said Powell. “There’s no technology in it, the materials used have been used in other shoes – what drives the customer to buy it is the fact that it’s rare.”
What is clear is that West and Adidas have succeeded where too many celebrity brands in the past have failed. By side-stepping traditional channels and targeting hyper-segmented audiences through social media, and relying on old-fashioned word of mouth, the Boost was able to make a huge splash with minimal effort. This guerilla style of celebrity branding has already been adopted by others, including West’s sister-in-law Kylie Jenner, who’s Lip Kit sold out in minutes after a meticulously planned Instagram launch.
“Too many other celebrity brands failed because [companies] tried to make them into too big a business,” said Powell. “Part of what makes these shoes desirable for kids is that they’re rare, and so when they don’t seem to be rare, all of a sudden nobody wants them anymore.”
With news that retailers will start receiving larger quantities of Boosts next month, Adidas and West must tread carefully if they wish to avoid ending up as just another passing trend. Over a decade ago, Jay-Z’s S.Carter sneaker arrived on a wave of hype similar to the Boost, but quickly sank after Reebok produced too many of the shoes and killed the market for them.
West himself has been contradictory as to where he places himself in the high/low of fashion. While he once claimed that he wanted to “democratize” fashion and make clothing for the masses, his $600 sweatpants say otherwise. Ultimately, the Boost may likely be little remembered for its quality or design, but rather for the hole it left in consumer’s wallets.
“I think they’ll be remembered most for what they sold for on eBay [laughs],” said Powell.