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Sneaker sellers wrestle with price spikes after Virgil Abloh's death
Serena Williams shows off her dress and Nike x Off-White sneakers at the Met Costume Institute gala in New York, May 6, 2019. Virgil Abloh’s designs reportedly surged on resale websites after he died on Nov. 28, 2021. Karsten Moran/The New York Times.

by Jessica Testa

NEW YORK, NY.- One late Sunday morning last month, Tia Hall was having breakfast with her girlfriend when a series of alerts popped up on her phone.

“When we have website sales, we have this distinct ding on our phone,” said Hall, who owns Sneak City, a store in Seattle that deals in new and preowned sneakers. “We were eating our oatmeal and then ding ding ding ding ding.”

All of those sales were for Off-White shoes, Hall said. Within an hour, her inventory (about 20 pairs) had sold, including a Nike Air Jordan 1 design priced at $7,500.

By then, Hall had learned what incited the rush: the announcement that Virgil Abloh, designer of Off-White and men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton, was dead at 41 after a private battle with a rare cancer.

In the immediate aftermath, sales and searches for Abloh’s designs reportedly surged on resale websites. But prices also surged, as seen on StockX, the “Nasdaq for Sneakerheads,” where sellers set asking prices and buyers can place bids. While Abloh designed a range of clothes and accessories for Off-White and Louis Vuitton — as well as water bottles for Evian and home goods for Ikea, among other curiosities — the sneakers he released in collaboration with Nike have long been a fixation in the overactive sneaker market.

On StockX, for example, a pair of Jordan 1’s were sold Nov. 28, the day of Abloh’s death, for $10,500; in the rest of the month, the shoe’s price had not exceeded $7,549. (It was originally $190 at retailers in 2017.)

To people familiar with Abloh’s legacy, this came as no surprise. He had been someone who could deftly pull the strings of the hype machine and built the bridge between streetwear and high fashion — and did it all “in limited supply,” said Caitlin Donovan, who oversees handbags, streetwear and sneakers at Christie’s Americas.

“Obviously the secondary market was going to see a huge spike,” she said.

But the surge also raised ethical questions — not just for the large and somewhat faceless middleman platforms like StockX and Goat but also for the comparatively smaller players in the sneaker game watching as prices skyrocketed.

It was a dilemma that Jaysse Lopez of Urban Necessities, a large Las Vegas consignment store that sold more than 300 pairs of Off-White shoes the day Abloh died, first considered a few years ago. He was having a conversation with his wife (and co-owner) about how people can manipulate the market when someone with a loyal following dies.

“I raised the question of, Was it fair for items to jump two, three, four or five times what they were worth before the demise of that person?” Lopez said. “So I basically built in restrictions.”

If his consignors want to change their pricing, Lopez allows no more than a 15% increase without manager approval, a system that was first tested, he said, after the death of Kobe Bryant, another Nike collaborator, when sneaker resellers were scrutinized for profiting off renewed interest in his line.

Lopez also happens to be a collector of Abloh’s work. About a week before the designer’s death, he hosted a pop-up shop with eBay in Detroit, where he displayed “the 50,” a series of 50 Nike Dunk Lows designed with Off-White that took him more than two months and $27,000 to collect. It may have been the first time all 50 had been exhibited in public by a private collector. (He has no plans to sell.)

“I understand that the value goes up, but it also has to be within reason,” he said. “I just think from a moral standpoint that the focus in the first few minutes or hours shouldn’t be on ‘How much can I capitalize off this?’”

At Sneak City, which does not consign but has a buy-sell-trade model, Hall did not modify pricing between hearing of Abloh’s death and selling out of his products, she said (unlike many StockX sellers).

Since then, the store has replenished some of its inventory of previously owned Off-White sneakers, and prices are up.

“That’s the nature of the sneaker market,” Hall said. “When people come in now to sell shoes, we look at StockX as the price reference, and we’ve upped our offers to reflect the market.”

When Donovan at Christie’s learned of Abloh’s death, she initially wanted to remove a large lot of Nike x Off-White sneakers set to be auctioned in December, “out of respect,” she said. (Consigned in October, the lot had an estimated value starting at $60,000.) Ultimately, she decided not to advertise the listing or put it on social media.

Still, people found the listing, and Abloh’s death brought “overnight a huge jump in bidding,” Donovan said. The auction closed Dec. 9 at $62,500.

Tracking the market today, Donovan said the initial frenzy has calmed, but she expects resale value to remain strong. (The heightened StockX prices gradually fell in the days after Abloh’s death, though they appear, from listings of recent sales, to be generally higher than when he was alive.)

“The idea of not being able to have a part of his larger impact in fashion I think made people really want to go out and get a piece of it,” Donovan said. “For some of the bigger pieces, it’s going to stay that way. If anything, as we get farther away from the new designs, it could even go upward.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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