My 8-Month Search for $900 Sneakers

Ordinarily, this column has rules, an enclosed rhythm: visit store, take in its offerings, offer impressions. But this is not how most of my — or anyone’s — actual shopping is done. It is a longitudinal, polyvalent process. It happens on the couch or on the phone as often as in a store. It is about chasing a specific thing as often as it is about the happenstance of discovery.

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Jon Caramanica
, New York Times

Ordinarily, this column has rules, an enclosed rhythm: visit store, take in its offerings, offer impressions. But this is not how most of my — or anyone’s — actual shopping is done. It is a longitudinal, polyvalent process. It happens on the couch or on the phone as often as in a store. It is about chasing a specific thing as often as it is about the happenstance of discovery.

And it is about failure. So much of shopping is about coming up short. By percentage, most of my time devoted to shopping is unsuccessful: styles that don’t work, garments that don’t fit well, wild goose chases.

Since last fall, I’ve been failing in spectacular, repeated, mortifying fashion in the pursuit of one particular item: Balenciaga Triple S sneakers, in the beige, green and yellow colorway.

But all those disappointments made for an excellent case study on the way we shop today: the collapse between the luxury marketplace streetwear-inspired drops, the ways in which the perfect-information promise of internet commerce is a sham, how the hype cycle has become a series of unnavigable spikes and also a long arc all at once.

A Shoe, but Also an Idea

When revealed in January of last year, at Balenciaga’s fall 2017 runway show, the Triple S looked majestically absurd, the kind of sudden, awkward stylistic jolt that inspires eye rolls and copycats. By now, well over year later, the silhouette has been accepted, scrutinized, absorbed. I was drawn to the style, and also to one particular colorway, which had flashes of early-1990s Nike tennis sneakers.

They were released commercially late last summer. One night in September, I was driving on the Upper East Side — it happens! — and spotted them in the Balenciaga store window on Madison. A couple of weeks later I went back to get them.

They were as heavy as small watermelons and as beautiful as Lalique vases. Each shoe was roughly the volume of my head. The floor pair happened to be my size, and I was surprised that when I tried them on, they didn’t look unreasonably clunky. They had aerodynamic spirit. I looked like a K-pop star.

It seems quaint now, in retrospect, to expect to saunter into the store, request my size, pay and leave. But fall 2017 was a simpler time in luxury sneakers.

From that day, I remember mostly that the sales clerk was tall. With a blend of exuberance and pity, he told me no, the shoes were just for show. They’d sold out. I left my number, hoping for a call. It never came.

When I want something badly, it becomes an unbearable itch. When it involves solving an unsolvable puzzle, good sense goes out the window. I set useless Google alerts, called Balenciaga customer service a couple of times, searched Grailed, eBay and so on. No dice.

By December, I got serious. I called every Balenciaga store in the country. Some snickered, some were helpful, some told me they already had “presold” their restock orders. A couple had unspoken-for pairs, but not the colorways I wanted. Only one store, the SoHo location, said it was planning to restock and simply put them out on the floor.

I stopped in with a friend to sniff around and struck up a conversation with a friendly young clerk named Maya who offered to reach out if my preferred colorway ever came back in stock, which it almost certainly would not.

Still, a couple of weeks later, I got a text asking if I was interested in the all-black version of the shoe — a compromise, but not a terrible one. I headed over on a filthily rainy day to try them on. There were two options: one distressed and one more polished. I went with the more polished one because it felt more versatile and because I thought that might answer the bell that had been ringing in my head for months.

It did not. Contemplating the Triple S-size hole in my wardrobe became a daily habit. I bought a jacket that I believed would go great with the sneakers I feared I’d never get. I griped about them on a podcast, maybe two.

At a party one night in January, I saw Pusha-T wearing the Dover Street Market limited-edition Triple S in my size — you can read the size right on the toe box, one of the shoe’s signature filigrees — and seriously considered asking to buy them from him when he was through wearing them.

Bootlegs and Bots

At a certain point, unable to sate my desire, and long past reason, I decided to investigate the world of bootlegs, in search of a fake that was extremely credible or extremely noncredible.

On Tmall, I found what felt to me like the ne plus ultra of bootlegs: a shoe made in the style and colors of the Triple S, but with “KANYE YEEZY” stitched where “BALENCIAGA” was meant to be. I ordered two pairs (and a third, an imaginative version of the Yeezy 350s) for $230 via a proxy service, TaobaoAge. (Tmall is based in China.)

For about six weeks in December and January, I emailed with the anonymous agents faithfully. They followed up on order updates, letting me know about items that were out of stock or were slightly different than advertised. It was, up until that point, the most reliable and satisfying human exchange I’d had on this whole quest.

They arrived, three crushed shoe boxes in a heavily taped cardboard box covered in Chinese lettering. The sneakers themselves were made carelessly, with paint where it’s not supposed to be and stitching that comes apart, but they make me laugh every time I look at them. I wore them to MoMA’s bootleg party in January, and no one noticed.

At around the same time, Balenciaga announced that it would be shifting production of the Triple S from Italy to China. When the 2.0 versions started trickling out, some changes were obvious: The Chinese remake is about a pound lighter per shoe and less distressed than the original. It is itself something of a bootleg.

Although I was still pursuing the Italian originals, futilely sending several notes to one Grailed user who was selling the only pair in my size, I decided on full-scale assault to get a pair of the new versions.

I set up some columns in TweetDeck and began keeping tabs on the thriving underground system of bots and monitors that specialize in grabbing sneakers as soon as they are made available for sale online. I focused especially on the Twitter accounts @Bkantha1 and @BkanthaLinks (now @LINKSZN), which seemed to have the most austere approach, and set up tweet notifications for each account.

A little later, I began following a guy who lives in Hong Kong, seemingly in his late 20s, who has a surfeit of cash, a penchant to vomit hashtags and a nascent interest in streetwear. He would reliably retweet every tweet about a Triple S restock. I set an alert to receive notifications when he did.

My phone quickly turned into an heavy-traffic orchestra, notifications dinging at all hours. More than once, I was rousted from sleep by an alarm, and I instinctually grabbed the phone and looked at the screen through mostly shut eyes to see if it was about the pair I was still craving. Many times I clicked through immediately, only to find that it was already sold out.

Once, when I was up writing at around 4 a.m., an alert came through for a Barneys listing of the black and pink women’s Triple S, and I snapped up the biggest available size, hoping they might fit. When they arrived, I tried them on, and they were like sausage casings. I was worried they’d split if I ever had to run in them. I mournfully returned them.

A week or so before that, I’d set bids on StockX for both the original and the reissue versions of my preferred colorway. StockX is a middleman website for sneaker resale that provides verification: The seller ships to StockX, the company verifies the shoes’ authenticity, then sends them to the buyer.

For a sneaker that’s being aggressively bootlegged — and judging by the pictures on Russian and Chinese web stores, at a reasonably high level — this was a service I would have happily paid for. (It is free when you purchase.)

In March, out of nowhere, someone accepted my totally reasonable, not outlandish bid. I was excited, but maybe a bit wary. A couple of days later, they arrived with a StockX tag dangling from the left shoe. They were beautiful, but they felt a bit too clean, and the stitching of the size number on the left toe box was slightly distressed.

I held them up against the real ones I’d bought at the SoHo store, and they were eerily similar. I searched YouTube for videos offering guidance on how to spot fake Triple S’s — there are oodles for Yeezys and Jordans — but the only ones I could find appeared to have been made by bootleggers themselves. (Nice try!)

I sat on them for a few weeks, slightly skeptical. Eventually, I sold them.

Success. Sort Of.

And then, in early May, the deluge finally came. First, a random late-evening notification led to the exact pair I craved on the Saks Fifth Avenue website, which I ordered and which never came. The FedEx tracking page was a grueling taunt.

At one point, on the day of alleged delivery, I went downstairs from my apartment to meet the FedEx truck, which turned out to be nothing more than a Budget rental truck with an ocean of boxes in the back and two extremely harried workers trying to sort through them, all of this at around 9 p.m. But! On the first day of the delivery misadventure, I got a text from Maya, who said the SoHo store had finally gotten the style in. In a hotel on the other side of the country, I yelped and filled out the paperwork for her to hold them for me. A few days later, back home, I went in and, for $895, grabbed them for real. Conveniently, it was Maya’s last day.

There was no prize for finally fulfilling this arduous task, no celebration. Suddenly, I had the shoes, and I was long, long over them. The months had taken their toll. At some point, my need to acquire had replaced raw aesthetic desire.

It didn’t help that in the public imagination, they were coveted, then memed, then played out, then strangely forgotten. There was a new generation of bulky sneakers, some even more absurd: the Dior Homme B22, the Versace Chain Reaction, the Guccis with the Sega font crisscrossed by bands of crystal.

Also, now, nine months from when I first put a pair on my feet, only to be told they couldn’t stay there, they were suddenly everywhere. They mocked me in the ads on my Instagram feed, and in the ones that trail me across the internet. Here we are! Easily available! I began to resent them, sitting in a box I’d opened only once, on the day I picked them up from the store.

One day last month, though, I was wearing something with a hint of bright green and I realized that I had the perfect sneakers to go with it. Lacing them up didn’t provide quite the same thrill as when I pranced around the Upper East Side Balenciaga store.

Instead, the satisfaction was something different, like wearing something you’ve had for so long that it’s become familiar, a foregone conclusion.

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