It’s taken a long time for sneaker retail to catch up to the digital age.
Following its official launch at ComplexCon, new online sneaker retail platform Zen is aiming to change the sneaker industry’s approach to digital spaces and bring it up to speed with the resale networks that have taken the market by storm.
It’s an open secret that sneakers have evolved over the years to be much more than just a simple choice in footwear. Sneakers are now cultural touchpoints and, more recently, financial assets. Zen founder Karim Wazani, an industry veteran and long-time professional sneakerhead, believes sneaker retailers must catch up to these changing times and capitalize on the consumer behaviors currently defining the streetwear and sneaker marketplace.
“I’ve used the tagline ‘the evolution of e-commerce,’” Wazani explained, when asked to describe the new platform in an interview with ComplexCon. “While there’s been innovations in the sneakers themselves, and even some of the stores have kind of evolved, there really hasn’t been huge changes made to the websites that handle this kind of product. And we really wanted to change that.”
One of the main ways that Zen expects to accomplish that goal is with real-world activation, despite not having any plans to open physical stores. Since the retailer’s soft launch in 2018, it has gained a reputation for hosting giveaways of some of the sneaker world’s most desirable silhouettes—even the Nike Mag, which has commanded a resale price point as high as $50,000.
At its official launch during ComplexCon in Chicago this past weekend, Zen’s booth featured a giant sneaker hologram, another feature in the its plan to evolve sneaker retail by incorporating technological elements, including VR and AR, throughout the Zen experience.
“Rather than just having a bunch of shoes visible to a customer, we want to take the time to tell the stories behind the product, to really kind of celebrate the aesthetics of the product by having different functionality and ways to look at product—having some AR functionality and things like that,” Wazani told Complex.
“We’re looking for physical experiences as well as kinds of digital experiences because we think that in order to be successful, in order to really interact or engage, you have to exist in both worlds,” he continued. “So we’re creating a lot of partnerships and [doing] things like concerts and community outreach like that where we have a more physical presence than a more traditional kind of commerce engine would.”
Wazani said he wants his platform to encourage consumers and fans of sneakers to become active participants in the culture, something that resale has been able to capitalize on with great success.
However, instead of encouraging sneakerheads to think of their passion as a business, Wazani and Zen want to empower that consumer to contribute to the platform and sneaker culture as a whole by encouraging the sharing and creation of original content, something Zen is also actively doing.
Before launch, the platform collaborated with Complex on a web series called “Sole Origins” that profiled the most legendary sneakers in the history of the category. Wazani said that this experience gave his team the ability to interact and learn from some of the greatest sneaker designers in the game, refining their understanding of the forces that come together to create hype for a product.
However, it is Zen’s approach to one of the most controversial elements of the sneaker industry that may end up making the difference. Zen is powered by a proprietary bot-fighting raffle system that picks winners by size and selects real human winners based on information like credit card details and IP addresses.
This fight against automated bots, coupled with the resale-oriented mindset, likely will be Zen’s greatest challenges, post-launch. But the newcomer has planted its flag firmly on the retail side of the market and is going to great lengths to prove it.
In an interview with Highsnobiety in February, Wazani revealed that his company had rewarded sneakerheads with 350 pairs of some of the most valuable, high-profile sneakers on the market at the previous year’s ComplexCon, under one condition: they had to wear them out of the convention center in full view of the public, guaranteeing they could not be sold for resale.
“Ultimately our goal is to get grails on people’s feet,” Wazani explained to Highsnobiety. “We want people to wear and interact with the shoes that they love so much, rather than the burden of selling them to someone else.”