Sneaker collecting has become a global phenomenon, with enthusiasts all over the world seeking out rare and exclusive sneakers to add to their collections. In the Arab Gulf region, this trend has taken hold as well, with a growing number of collectors and enthusiasts seeking out the latest and greatest in sneaker fashion. In this article, we will explore the trend of sneaker collecting in the Gulf through the eyes of five prominent collectors: Qatar-based Osman Ahmed, Saudi-based HRH Prince Faisal Al Saud, Kuwait-based Tareq Q and UAE-based Nader Al Mahri and Rami Afifi. Through insights from these leading collectors, we will gain a deeper understanding of the sneaker trend in the Gulf and what drives this growing community of enthusiasts.
Cultural trend inspired by sports
The majority of them were drawn to sneakers because of their association with particular sports or culture. HRH Prince Faisal Al Saud was influenced by basketball and hip hop throughout his life, and sneakers are a huge part of both these cultures. Tareq Q's initial interest in sneakers came from his love for the game of basketball and his idolization of Michael Jordan. Nader has been into sports since he was 6, playing street football, joining a professional handball club, and watching basketball, tennis, and football on TV. “I was first drawn to sneakers through the hype of the Reebok Pump, from then on it was skateboarding that got me into them. I loved skateboarding and the fashion surrounding it and as a skater I needed shoes that not only looked the part, but were functional on a skateboard too”, added Nader.
Some also have a strong emotional connection to their sneakers, either due to nostalgia or personal attachment. Nader was first drawn to them by a pair of "Le Coq Sportif" sneakers that his father brought back from his travels “then in 1996, he got me a pair of Air Max 95 Neon and that piqued my interest in sneakers”, continued Nader. As for Osman, the narrative is usually around memory and nostalgia from the 80/90s, with his cousins as his biggest influence.
When it comes to selecting sneakers to add to their collections, each collector has their own unique criteria. Osman's collection is split between sneakers he collects to wear and those he collects to own but not wear. For the latter, he selects sneakers that have a strong narrative or concept. Brand is also a factor, although he has recently started to explore brands beyond Nike, Reebok, and Adidas. Rami, on the other hand, used to look for sneakers that stood out, with bold colorways and unique materials. He was particularly drawn to the Nike SB line, which featured wild designs and concepts. Despite being a collector, he also enjoys wearing and using his sneakers, as evidenced by his well-worn pair of Nike SBs that he hunted down extra pairs of.
For Tareq Q, design, comfort, and storytelling are the major factors that drive his sneaker purchases. He seeks out sneakers that tell a story, whether it be through their design or their history. Nader has become more selective in his collecting, preferring to go back and buy sneakers he couldn't get when he was younger or that were released before he was aware of them.
Commitments towards the lifestyle
The impact of collecting sneakers on the personal lives and identities of the individuals varies. They have definitely become the go-to reference for advice in sneaker purchasing. For some, it has led to the creation of an online platform to share their passion and knowledge, while for others it has opened up doors to collaborations with well-known brands. Not only did @soleqtr become a platform to showcase his personal collection, Osman had also given advice through that platform. Nader also became the sneaker expert amongst friends and family and had attributed his collections to making genuine friendships and connections worldwide. “All of that mixed with my knowledge of street/urban culture have brands reaching out for my advice on certain campaigns, to be featured in campaigns, to help out with casting for campaigns, to create content for and around sneakers, to lead projects and produce campaigns for big brands. (Nike, New Balance, Asics, Level Shoes and Dropkick)”, said Nader. Rami also prides himself on collaborating with brands like Adidas, Nike, thegoodlife, Concepts, Amongst Few, Level, Frame, That Concept Store, Vans and New Balance with some occasions when Rami had the chance to dabble in artworks.
However, balancing the financial demands of this niche passion can be challenging, and setting a budget and being selective in purchasing choices is important. Nader had interestingly observed that the price of sneakers have drastically increased meaning his budget cap from 6 years of “AED1,600 for 2-3 pairs of sneakers” no longer applied. But that does not stop Rami, who saw it as a motivation to work harder, “it was amazing because the desire to build my dream collection forced me into getting a better job, working harder and building relationships that I treasure to this day.” All of these collectors have learned the importance of being selective and financially conscious when it comes to their collections.
Tareq emphasized, “budgeting and setting a monthly cap to how many pairs usually helps with the financial demands.” HRH Prince Faisal further added his approach, “the trick is to realize that you don't have to buy every single shoe that's out there. Identify the stuff you like and narrow your scope down to those particular attributes” and he credited that mindset of being financially conscious to all aspects of his life too. Osman candidly admitted “during the banking crisis of 2008, I lost my job and sold most of my collection to sustain not working for a year.” Previously during his early years, flipping sneakers on eBay was his income to support his hobby. He too believed that collectors must be selective as the industry has been extremely saturated with products.
Phenomenon and plans of their collections
It seems that the featured collectors agree that sneaker culture has had a significant impact on the broader fashion industry, not just in the GCC but worldwide. Nader witnessed that sneakers are “more acceptable than they used to be back in the late 90s, the 2000s and early 2010s.” They mentioned the rise of collaborations between sneaker brands and luxury fashion brands (Adidas x Chanel / Air Jordan x Dior / Adidas x Prada / Nike x Louis Vuitton / Gucci x Adidas), as well as the increasing acceptance of sneakers in formal settings such as weddings and fine dining restaurants alongside national attire such as ‘thoub’ and ‘kandoora’ with Osman witnessing senior leadership to sport sneakers on official visits.
However, some also note that the abundance of collaborations and hype around certain releases can make it feel overwhelming and exhausting. “I think this is why sneakers that serve a particular function (hiking shoes) or ones that are exquisitely constructed (New Balance Made In) are the ones that have stood out the most in the market,” said Rami. He further added that his preference is for Converse Chucks and even the dreaded dress shoes (loafers) because they're so much more “understated”.
HRH Prince Faisal has witnessed profound appreciation over the years saying, “in the beginning, I felt like people only like sneakers because of trends but more and more people are educating themselves on what the sneaker world has to offer.” Additionally, there is a desire for more local brands and designers to emerge and collaborate with larger brands in the sneaker industry, which is seen as a missed opportunity for those brands to not engage more with the region's market. Overall, they believe that sneaker culture has become a major player in the fashion industry and is here to stay in the GCC.
The collectors have different plans for their collections and engage the public with it. Despite having over 100 pairs of shoes, Rami aims to reduce his collection down to 20 pairs and sell the shoes he doesn't wear to other collectors or donate them to people in need. "Covid was a real reality check where I realized that I was just as happy in a pair of Birkenstocks as I was in some Jordan 1s and in fact, Birkies are more comfy!" said Rami. He also noticed he is out of space to store his collection. However, he expressed his desire to collaborate with Nike on a Nike SB in the future.
HRH Prince Faisal hopes that his collection can help educate and inspire future sneaker collectors about the world of sneakers and its positive impact. Tareq hopes that his two sons will inherit and appreciate his collection, and he hoped to curate more projects like he did in the sneaker museum in Riyadh last year to inspire others. Nader sees himself as a sneaker-head rather than a collector, and he loves to wear his shoes and share stories, knowledge, and information about sneakers with others, including how to customize, restore, or get involved in the sneaker community.
Osman plans to showcase his collection in an exhibition at Liwan Design Studios and Labs in Qatar in late 2023 as part of a program called "For the Culture," which aims to educate people on sneaker culture, including customization, restoration, design, and collecting. “Follow @soleqtr and @liwan.qa for information about ‘For the Culture’ workshops and talks in May and for the announcement of the exhibition in Q4," said Osman.
– Marsya A. Abdulghani