(Top photo, of Tobie Quainton's Air Max 95 x Atmos trainers, by Jayden Kimpton)
Tobie Quainton has spent eleven years looking for the same pair of Nike trainers. Eleven years. That's 132 months. Or 4,015 days, which is exactly half the time he's spent literally living and breathing on this earth. You could fly to Mars, hang about growing plants a la Mark Damon for a year, fly back down and repeat another four times and you still wouldn't have reached the amount of time this guy has spent searching for an item invented to protect your feet from stepping in shit.
Still, it's a particularly special item. In Quainton's eyes, anyway. The trainer he hunted down for over a decade was an Air Max 95, a Nike collaboration with Japanese sneaker boutique Atmos. It's not what you'd call subtle: stripes of leopard, tiger, cow and cheetah print cover the entire foot. Released in late 2006, it's rumoured only 5,000 were made.
"I must have been about 11 when I first saw them," Quainton explains, "but the internet wasn't a big thing back then. You couldn't press a few buttons and get something delivered from across the other side of the world. You had to find it yourself. But they literally summed me up in a shoe, and ever since then I've been looking for them."
That search ended two weeks ago. When a different but similarly hyped sneaker dropped last year – the Supreme x Nike Air Max 98 Snakeskin – he bought two pairs and subsequently swapped one of those for his beloved 95s (a persistent seller came calling). After years spent scrolling through page upon page of Yahoo! Japan, he got what he wanted, and didn't even have to pay for the pleasure. Surely he was ecstatic to finally get his hands on them? Sated? A little relieved, maybe?
"I dunno – it's an odd one," he begins. "It's like completing something, I guess. A bit like closure. I didn't jump around my house celebrating or anything, but you do get a real sense of achievement."
The Air Max 95 x Atmos trainers on Tobie's Instagram
Welcome to the ruthlessly dedicated world of grails. If the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word "grail" as "any greatly desired and sought-after objective; ultimate ideal or reward" then this takes worshipping at the altar of rare streetwear and sprints, 100 miles an hour, off into the distance with it. It's the one item you want above everything else: unachievable, unobtainable, almost mythical in it's hard-to-find ness. A one-of-a-kind Supreme x Andrei Molodkin "Donald Trump" T-shirt, for example, last seen selling for over £18,000 on eBay.
Not everyone's a fan of the term, though. "Firstly, can I just say how much I hate the word 'grail," says freelance writer Ross Wilson, "almost as much as I fucking despise the term 'bogo' [slang for Supreme box logo]. I can honestly say I don't want anything badly enough to be worried about whether I actually own it or not. The only things that might come close would be items I've already previously owned and subsequently lost or used to death – an old Natas panther SMA skate deck, or an OG Gonz Vision board."
Here, he makes an important point: your grail isn't something you can simply chuck money at. Anyone can hit up a streetwear forum/Facebook groups and drop £500 quid on a black box logo hoodie. It's not about money, really; it's about scarcity. And obscurity. The reason Quainton spent so long looking for those Air Max 95s is because his feet are a size six and UK men's sizes tend to start from size seven and up. As he points out: "When people throw the term grail around for an item that's literally been out for two days and make it seem like they've somehow done something absolutely amazing [in buying it]? It's not the same calibre."
Not everyone finds what they're looking for, mind. Take 25-year-old Cash Cobain, a skater and tattoo artist who's currently hunting for a jacket from the first ever North Face x Supreme collaboration, in 2007. "It's annoying, because it's the one thing I haven't been able to get yet," he explains. "The only jackets I've seen with my own eyes were both large and XL. I've seen one – just one – in my size, on the Chinese market for a ridiculous price, but I'm not willing to spend that much money."
But it doesn't really matter. It's all about the chase. Wondering whether the will-I-won't-I hard work will pay off. Twenty-year-old Colin Chu, for example, spent nearly two years tracking down a blue Cav Empt Icon Hoodie. "I first saw it in an outfit picture and had to have it instantly – the colour, the design, the 'cool' I believed it would bring," he says. It was too expensive first time around, so he waited, patiently, for the price to drop to roughly £200. "When it finally arrived from Asia after a month, it felt good to have put all that effort into buying something I really wanted."
Some, like 20-year-old Zoard Heuze, don't hold onto their grails. After immersing himself in the Air Max re-selling game at the age of 15, there was one pair he couldn't quite track down: the Patta "Lucky Greens", which were released, unannounced, in-store in 2009. After three years, Heuze finally got his hands on a pair, and wore them for six months before swiftly selling them to pay for a holiday in Budapest. "I got bored," he explains, "and it was actually pretty scary to see the trainers lose their condition. I wanted to sell them before they got too fucked, otherwise I wouldn't be able to get my money back."
For Quainton, re-selling is out of the question. "I haven't sold anything since I was 12," he says. "I've got 400 pairs of trainers, three wardrobes and a lot more stuff in storage. There's these new age hypebeasts who sit there, buy something, own it for a week and then sell it on again." Wilson, for what it's worth, agrees: "It feels like a lot of younger people track down these items purely to flex on social media to a bunch of strangers. You see people claiming: 'I've finally got my grail,' and then the same person selling said item 48 hours later... it baffles me."
Still, for those who aren't simply using it to rack up likes, this infatuation with the unobtainable is more than a dick-swinging contest. "It's kind of… filling a hole," laughs Cobain. "Once I've got something in my mind, I can't stop thinking about that thing until I've got it. [Aside from North Face x Supreme], the only other item I've really wanted that I actually managed to get was the first Stone Island Raso Gommato camouflage jacket. I'm pretty sure it's the only size small in the UK. I felt proud because I knew almost no one else has one."
Is that it then? Is that why grown men spend half their lives hunting down a pair of trainers? Do we simply want what we can't have? Colin isn't so sure. "For a lot of people, their grails are symbols of their own hopes and dreams, to be owned by better, future versions of themselves. They become physical manifestations of success. Most of us wouldn't be able to spend £1,000-plus on a pullover, just on a whim – but we'd love to be able to. It's something that makes managing to get one of your grails so much sweeter. That, and looking fly as hell wearing it."