Yu-Ming Wu couldn’t afford his own sneakers until he got to college. Growing up in New York as the child of Chinese immigrants who had to work in sweatshops and restaurants, Wu never asked his parents for a sneaker allowance.
Now, Wu has a 900 piece sneaker collection and is one of the co-founders of Sneaker Con, which is self-proclaimed the “greatest sneaker show on Earth.” The show just went international, hitting up a bunch of new locations, and drawing in a lot more people. But with thousands of people reselling sneakers, there are bound to be some fakes. So Wu decided to start a sneaker authentication program where customers at Sneaker Con could get shoes verified before they drop a couple grand on them.
VICE caught up with Yu-Ming Wu at Sneaker Con Toronto to find out more about the show, the authentication program, and how to spot the fakes.
VICE: So you have a Sneaker Con authentication program, tell me, what is sneaker authentication? Yu-Ming Wu: It’s not an official job but we do help some of our attendees figure out whether a shoe is authentic or not. Especially some of the younger kids coming in, they don’t know whether they’re getting a real shoe or fake shoes so it’s not a huge problem but they still want to have that peace of mind, that “Hey, I did buy a legit shoe.” We just help people making exchanges to know that they are getting a legit shoe.
What motivated you to start the sneaker authentication program at Sneaker Con?
A few years ago, we had a kid who bought a pair of shoes that out to be fake. He came up to us crying, that’s when we realized we had a problem. We ended up refunding him that money, took the shoe, and used it as an example of what we need to do at Sneaker Con.
Is it a really big problem, fakes?
At Sneaker Con it’s not a big problem. We do have one or two. There are guys who see Sneaker Con as an opportunity. If you go to anything like this where there are high value goods, someone’s going to try to rip you off.
Can you walk me through the process of authenticating a sneaker, what are you looking for?
So one of the first things that we do is actually look at the box to see if it's a well-constructed box. We look at the printing to see if it's well-printed—if everything is sharply printed, and everything seems to be where it should be. We look at that first and then we look at the rest of the construction of the box. While boxes can get a little beat up, they should still be good in terms of what it should look like. We look at the labels to make sure all of the numbers and everything else matchup.
Sometimes these numbers actually do not match up, or things might be misprinted. The labels are a hard one to say because different countries have different labels, so we don’t generally use it but we do look at the number to make sure it’s the right number.
And I can see the price tag there too.
Yes, this is actually a very pricey shoe, it’s very high value. Obviously when someone is paying for this shoe they want to get it authenticated. So we look at the box first, everything looks legit to me so far. But again, someone can just switch a shoe in there. So then what we do is we take the shoe out, put down the box. First thing we do is look at the construction of the shoe, make sure it feels right. Another thing that we do is we take a sniff.
A lil’ shoe sniff?
We take a sniff, as long as it hasn’t been worn. We make sure that there’s no toxic glues, a lot of the big companies, especially Nike and Adidas, they don’t use toxic glues anymore. If you smell it, and it smells pretty toxic — something’s wrong. That’s an easy sign. We also looking the laces, the stitching. Everything looks pretty legit, it’s even. With some of the fake ones the stitching is a bit crooked. And then we look at the sole. There’s no misprint, there’s no jagged edges. Everything is sharp, everything is clean. So for the most part we know that the shoe is real. It’s easy to tell. We also look at how well it’s glued together, with some of the fake factories some of the glue might be coming out. If this was a bad shoe and it was mocked as a “B” grade, we would look on the inside where it would say “B” grade.
We look at the logos too make sure they’re printed well, the stitching again. At some point they might have gotten some of this right but on some level the fake factories just can’t get it right because they don’t have the quality assurance and the high end machines the legitimate factories do have. Legit factories invest millions in terms of their production values. These fake factories, they don’t have that money to invest in high level production. So that’s how we legitimately check the shoe, and from the eye we can tell “this guy is real.” I’m touching it too, it feels right in my hand, but that’s from years of experience. As we get into the high end pieces that’s when we have to look at everything, we have to take out the insole, we have to look at the labels and make sure everything is correct. After all those checks we’ll tag it up and say this is a legit shoe.
So you’re using sight, touch, smell—human senses. So there’s also room for human error, how do you explain that to somebody who says “this doesn’t sound good enough”?
I would then ask them to bring me a fake and show them the differences. Until they say I have a fake and this looks exactly like a fake I’m going to say “we’re right, we have years of experience doing this.” That’s all we can say, if they’ve made up their mind that this is not legit there’s not much we can do. We can take them back to the Adidas factory and say “hey guys can you verify?”
Have you ever seen a shoe you couldn’t authenticate?
Yeah, sometimes we get shoes that are just so old that we don’t have anything to compare it to. Or other times the shoes that are so limited edition that we have never seen or don’t have a shoe to compare it to. So really old, or very limited edition.
What do you say to someone who justifies buying a fake by saying “it looks the same but it costs a lot less?
That person has made up their mind that they’re comfortable with buying a fake. They’re happy with it. I personally would prefer if they buy a shoe that has been knocked off instead of completely counterfeited. “Knocked off” means it would just be from a lower end brand. That’s what I can tell that person, but if they’re happy about buying a fake there’s not much we can do to change their mind. But we’ll do our best to educate them on why they shouldn’t be buying fakes.
Why should people not buy fakes?
It doesn’t make sense to buy a fake. You’re supporting counterfeit factories, you’re supporting crooks and criminals. Criminal enterprises. And who know what those guys do with that money?
What makes a good authenticator?
As I mentioned it’s the guys who’ve worked in the industry for years. They’ve touched so many shoes over the course of their life that they can just look at a shoe and be like “oh man that’s a fake.” Without batting an eye. Those are the guys who make good authenticators.
Which sneaker is knocked off the most?
The Air Jordan line, still one of the most knocked off shoes because of their long heritage and their value. A lot of Yeezys too because of their value and they’re limited edition. So Jordans, Yeezys, NMDs, Ultra Boosts.
How did you develop these skills and how do you keep up with the market?
I’ve been in the industry for 17 years, over the years I’ve just looked at these shoes, touched them and over the years its like you take a microscope and look at these guys. A lot of times when you see a fake you just know, there’s no way it’s real. There are times it can look really good, but that’s when you look at all the details.
How would you explain sneaker culture to someone who isn’t into it?
You know anyone who really looks at a pair of shoes and says “oh my god, that’s a beautiful design,” it’s not just a functional accessory for them, it’s a work of art. To hear that from someone, that’s when you can say that guy’s probably a sneakerhead. We have a really high appreciation for sneakers. If you appreciate sneakers to the point of putting one on your trophy case, you’re very much a sneakerhead.
What’s your sneaker collection look like?
It used to be pretty big, I used to have 1,300 to 1,400 pairs. I’ve slowly brought it down to 800 pairs, but it’s climbing back up. At this point I’m probably at 900 pairs.
Do you wear all of them?
I probably wear 20 percent of my sneakers. The rest of them I treat as art.