Vedant Lamba, a streetwear and sneaker reseller based in the Indian city of Mumbai, was 17 when he bought his first pair of limited edition kicks – the infamously hyped Adidas NMDs – for £120 using his pocket money.
“I wore them and I felt like a god,” Lamba, now 22 and the founder of streetwear store Mainstreet Marketplace, told VICE. “When I found out that these shoes had sold out everywhere, I googled to see if they were available [outside official stores]. That’s when I learnt about the resale value of shoes.”
The sneaker resale industry, which essentially involves buying limited edition shoes (a practice known as “copping”) at retail prices, then reselling them for a higher price, is projected to spike to a global valuation of $30 billion by 2030.
India is the second-largest global consumer of footwear. Here, the idea of buying shoes as collectors’ items or with the goal of investment, instead of simply pragmatic footwear, is just taking off.
“Indians love status displays, like gold or property,” Lamba pointed out. “Shoes are the same thing.”
One of the first on the scene, he attributed the growth in the Indian reseller industry to a subculture built on flexing and exclusivity. For a country that loves its displays of wealth, status and power – Indians even travel to show off – the “hype” sneaker collecting culture is finding a natural home, despite a cultural chasm.
“The Indian sneaker scene is very celebrity-driven,” Likhit Sreenivas, a 17-year-old student who began his resale and sneaker exchange business at the age of 13, told VICE. “For example, people were paying up to Rs 800,000 ($10,000) [after seeing Bollywood celebrities wear] the Air Jordan Dior, even if most buyers didn’t know anything about Jordan, but because of Dior’s name.”
Sneakers like Nike Air Jordan or Adidas Yeezy are often released through “drops,” where a limited number of pairs are made available at retail price only within a short window of time. Often, resellers find access to exclusive kicks at retail price by using “plugs” – connections to people working at official Nike or Adidas shops in countries like the U.S. or Dubai. Others rely on friends and family flying in from countries that have stocks available at retail prices to avoid paying custom duties.
“Ninety percent of [limited edition] sneaker releases are now available in India, but not for the general public,” Anchit Kapil, 34, a co-founder of sneaker and streetwear marketplace CrepDog Crew, told VICE. Kapil explained that this is because resellers often establish direct contact with retailers, which isn’t usually possible for an ordinary buyer. “The actual probability of any end user getting a [limited edition] shoe is like 0.1 percent, even if you spend two days in a queue or five hours in front of your computer.”
To increase their chances of getting into that 0.1 percent, new kids on the scene are strategically investing in systems like bots, an automated, often controversial tool that alerts them and increases their chances of scoring shoes at retail prices.
These bots automate the checkout process, saving the user's shoe preference, size, and credit card payment information. This way, users can speed through the checkout process the instant a sneaker is released.
“I had to buy Nike bots for my business,” admitted Ishan Chauhan, an 18-year-old reseller from Delhi who started an Instagram business called Kicks4Value. “They don't guarantee shoes, but do increase your chances.”
Many smaller resellers who are just getting into the game also regularly take part in raffles, where older resellers or sneakerheads hold a bingo-style event and each participant buys a ticket for a fraction of the shoe’s sum.
Taking stock of the situation
The limited access to exclusive sneakers has in turn created a stock market-like situation, with the shoes transcending fashion statements to emerge as an asset for Gen Z.
“Each shoe is a stock, but the only difference is that once sold, they get consumed, and at each rotation, there is a depletion of the stock which [drives up] the rate really fast,” said Kapil. “If 200 pairs are sold today, 180 might come back into the market, but 10 percent is gone off the table. So the inventory has gone down and the prices, up.”
Though stock trading has itself emerged as a side hustle for young people, industry insiders pointed out that the sneaker game, which is heavily built on its cultural aspects, is more relatable. Plus, in this case, you can actually wear and show off your stock.
The result of all the hype, and the value it commands, is thousands of aspiring teenage resellers trying to elbow their way into the game in hopes of making it big on the scene, even though many are only just learning the ropes.
“So many kids getting into it clearly shows the market is super hot, and everybody wants a chunk of it,” stressed Kapil. “They’ve heard their friends making money off of it, so they also want to jump into it. But without experience, they are hit hard with the reality and may get into a fix.”
While the sneaker resale industry has helped many young resellers establish a name on the scene and even earn big, it also comes with a dark side. The lack of access and information available for relatively new resellers makes the industry ripe for everything from counterfeits to ponzi schemes.
Kabir Singh, a young reseller who started his business last year at the age of 17, learnt this the hard way.
Last October, the budding sneakerhead decided to start an exclusive members-only WhatsApp group called Grailed, where people paid a subscription fee of Rs 10,000 ($134) to avail of exclusive sneaker deals.
Through this group, Singh grew close to Sanchit Gupta, a 27-year-old reseller, and began looking to him as a mentor. Months into the business, Singh, impressed by Gupta’s enviable sneaker collection, decided to allow him to use his chat to make drops, and even paid him a premium as a commission. Touting impossibly low and lucrative prices for limited edition pairs, Gupta was soon able to establish a palpable presence on the scene.
“Initially, he was able to deliver the drops he promised, and that helped him build trust,” Singh told VICE.
“But while I was away preparing [for a school exam], Gupta took over Rs 10 million ($134,000) from people in the chat for shoes. However, most of them didn’t receive the shoes they were promised,” he alleged.
According to Singh, Gupta not only ran off with the money, but also publicly accused Singh of scamming the buyers.
“He told everyone that I was responsible for what happened, and people started threatening to hurt me if I didn’t pay him [Gupta],” claimed Singh. “It got so bad that I couldn’t sleep at night. My parents had to get involved and give him Rs 1.5 million ($20,000) to stop [spreading lies].”
Apart from the financial hit, Singh worries that his name is now inextricably linked to a scam, thus jeopardising his potential future in the industry.
A 20-year-old New Delhi-based reseller who requested anonymity told VICE that he was friends with Gupta and had also paid him for his exclusive kicks. “A reseller told me he had Rs 650,000 ($8,738) stuck with Sanchit since 2019, which he got back only now,” he said. “So that means Sanchit used the money that I and others in the group had paid him, to clear his old dues. I was so stressed, I couldn’t concentrate on my own reselling business.”
Gupta did not immediately respond to VICE’s request for comment.
Fake it till you make it
Another common method of scamming young resellers is through Instagram pages that sell fake versions of exclusive shoes, which many young people buy at lower prices to make a neat profit.
“Many young resellers just getting into the game will get Instagram follows or DMs from these pages that try to sell them fake shoes,” Prabal Baghla, 25, the co-founder of sneaker aggregation platform Sole Search, told VICE. He added that in some cases, these shoes turn out to be “unauthorised authentic,” a term for export rejects, making them difficult to verify.
“I received a fake pair because I was on a budget, but thankfully I was able to verify it before sending it to the customer, which [taught me the] importance of verifying authenticity,” Kavya Garg, an 18-year-old reseller who began his Instagram business Mercury Kicks in June, told VICE.
For others, an oversaturated market threatens to result in losses, despite their deep interest in the industry.
“I got into this business because I love the hype around sneakers,” said Chauhan, who started selling sneakers at the age of 17. He bought a pair of Nike Jordan Lows for Rs 10,000 ($133), but because so many other resellers had stocked it, too, the demand was low and he couldn’t make a profit.
“My motive is to grow my business at the moment but I don’t know if it will be more than a side hustle,” Chauhan told VICE.
In fact, most young resellers feel that the volatility of the hype-driven sneaker industry doesn’t give them enough of a stable footing for a secure future.
“I never saw reselling as a sustainable business,” said Rishubh SV, a 20-year-old reseller from Bengaluru who runs Hypeblr. “I know the money is good, and it might be good even 5 to 10 years down the line. But I don’t see this sustaining forever."
Older players are also concerned about how Gen Z’s entry could affect their business.
“A lot of these new kids coming in have taken money from their parents for the initial funding, and they panic [when shoes don’t sell fast] and undercut the prices, thereby bringing down the whole market,” said Aryan Ahuja, a 19-year-old fashion student who has been a reseller for 5 years.
Kapil suggests getting into the business “if you have the money to back it up,” which for many young people often translates into parents willing to help them recover any potential losses. Lamba also emphasises knowing one’s risk capacity and taking only “as many risks as you can afford.”
Despite all the daunting difficulties, India’s burgeoning sneaker scene is putting the country on the global map.
“For many of us, it’s more about the community and culture than the money,” said Baghla. “When we got into this game, the sneaker scene had a lot of gatekeeping, but as we see more people getting involved, the access to sneakers for everyone is slowly opening up.”