In a ground-floor Shoreditch studio, lit dimly with bulbs dangling on long cables, the feature that immediately draws the eye is the illuminated wall of 42 individual trainers. If this were a church, these would be the altar. Combined, these trainers would sell for around £120,000. I'm about to meet the person who owns them all. He is 17 years and five months old.
Dressed in a black hoody, grey Ralph Lauren T-shirt, black jeans and black Yankees cap, Joe Franklin shakes my hand firmly – certainly more firmly than I would have when I was 17 – and we sit down. For the past year, Franklin has occupied this studio space, in which there are DJ decks on one side of the room and a podcast business upstairs. Franklin isn't doing gigs or podcasting; he's selling trainers to grime stars, influencers and high-net-worth individuals.
At 17, Joe Franklin is the youngest trainer fixer in the country. He has buyers from Dubai, Russia and the States, and often flies abroad on business. Various high-profile musicians have walked into the studio, including Dizzee Rascal, AJ Tracey, M Huncho, Ms Banks, Kida Kudz, Smoke Boys and Not3s.
"It kind of all started maybe when I was 12, 13," he says, meaning only four or five years ago. "Me and my mates would just be collecting trainers. It was kind of like, 'Who's got the best pair of trainers'-type thing, trying to— 'flex' is the word; like, show off." Crushingly, this explanation confirms that I must look like someone who doesn't know what "flex" means.
"I bought a pair of trainers and they were £200, and they were Jessie J's Nike Air Max 90s," Franklin continues. These rare trainers would be the pair that started Franklin on his journey as a kid who could "source the un-sourceable". He sold them to a buyer for £400. Did Franklin like the trainers? "Obviously I was excited to wear the trainers and stuff like that, but I knew if I was gonna wear the trainers I'd wear them a few times and I'd dent the price by £50, £100, just for the sake of wearing them three times. So from that point it was just buying and selling, buying and selling."
Franklin was doing too many trainer deals to be able to keep up with his work at West Herts College in Hertfordshire. At 16, he dropped out. At first, his parents thought it was "nuts", he says, but they could see that he was beginning to make a lot of money. "It's the same concept as art," he says. "I've got it, you want it, you're willing to pay a higher price."
Franklin has managed to charge a very high price indeed for some of the shoes. His biggest sale was in 2018, when a client told him he wanted a pair of the 2016 Marty McFly Air Mags, the Back to the Future shoes that lace themselves up. Franklin was going to LA, where he knew a huge Back to the Future collector. The collector was willing to part with the shoes for £48,000. When Franklin sold them to his client, he charged an eye-watering £62,000, making £14,0000 in one go.
Though Franklin has almost literally no personal online presence, his Instagram business profile has around 7,000 followers. He claims to receive hundreds of messages from people wanting to come to the studio to buy the trainers. "And the answer is, I say no," he says. He wants to "create a bubble where it's a product that people can't get, if that makes sense. So I'm kinda building a hype around the store, if that makes sense." (Franklin asks if things make sense a lot.)
If you're not a high-net-worth individual you'll need to buy trainers through his Instagram. If you're Dizzee Rascal, you can come to the store. A video on Franklin's Instagram shows the grime star popping in to peruse the trainers. Franklin shows me the shoe that Rascal signed, one of the Tongue 'N' Cheek Air Max trainers he released in 2009. Rascal only has one pair himself, and they have a hole in them.
The 42 trainers on the wall are the most in-demand at the moment ("Everything on there is in, if that makes sense"). Franklin's publicist brings over a pair – the first trainer that Kanye West designed, the Bapesta. This is the most exclusive pair that Franklin owns, and would sell for between £6,000 to £10,000. The second most exclusive are the white "Jesus" Air Max 97s, designed in 2019 by MSCHF; these have a bubble of what is allegedly River of Jordan water, as well a gold crucifix on the laces. The insole is – allegedly – 100 percent frankincense wool. "I've only seen Drake with them," he says.
I ask Franklin how many pairs he owns himself, expecting him to say about 600. He says five, none of which are particularly valuable, besides a pair of Sacai x Nike trainers. Unlike Benjamin Kickz, an American teenage trainer mogul, Franklin doesn't seem infatuated with the product he trades in. "I don't really care what it looks like," he says.
I ask if there's a trainer he has always wanted to get his hands on; a shoe that has forever eluded him? "It's kinda tough, because that feeling usually comes if you're a collector, if that makes sense," he says. "I don't usually have that feeling, only because the only reason I'd be getting an expensive pair of trainers is for a client. If I think it's gonna go up in value, I will buy it and just hold it, right?"
There's something a little deflating about this, I think – that Franklin talks mainly about money and not about formative memories of falling in love with shoes. But given that he claims to make between £5,000 to 10,000 a week (about £390,000 a year), he's probably not too bothered.