The Sneaker Swindle: Inside the Crusade to Sniff Out Fakes

Standing behind the Legit Check counter at Sneaker Con, held recently at Houston’s NRG Center, is a guy with a clear tub of plastic tags and a head filled with an encyclopedic knowledge of sneakers. His name is Eric Perez. As each new pair is placed before him, he lifts the lid from the box, removes the shoes, and begins the examination. He presses his thumb against the tread, caresses the tongue, squeezes the toe. He loosens the laces and removes the insole. He scrutinizes the box with the narrow-eyed skepticism of a customs official or a master sommelier. He shoves his nose inside the shoe and inhales deeply: Some replica makers use a chlorine-based glue with a telltale odor. If the sneakers pass, he affixes a tag embedded with an NFC chip that you can scan with your smartphone. If it doesn’t pass, Perez shakes his head.

No explanations are given, no appeals entertained.

What was once a curious niche market (You won’t believe what the kids are paying for sneakers!) is now a corporate juggernaut hyped by its own constellation of celebrities and fueled by online consignment companies like StockX, Stadium Goods, and GOAT, where you can hunt for your personal footwear grail and monitor daily fluctuations in market value. But as those companies flourish, a shadow industry has arisen — a thriving trade in what are called UA, short for unauthorized, or reps, short for replicas. They mostly come from a single city in China—Putian—and they’re churned out in factories by imitation auteurs with handles like Boostmaster Lin, PK, and Godkiller.

These are not flea-market fakes with misspelled brand names and slapdash stitching. They are uncannily exact replicas, often made using the same materials, the same machines, and, according to rumors, with the surreptitious assistance of Nike and Adidas employees able to procure inside information. The objective is one-to-one correspondence between original and duplicate, down to every last crease, contour, and aglet.

“They’ll tell you reasons why they’re fake, this and that, but in the end it comes down to magic.”

The replicas are “coming in heavy today,” Perez says. Most of those who discover that their prized sneakers are bogus accept the news with glum resignation — though not always. Perez has had guys threaten him. “You tell them their $500 sneakers are fake, and it’s like you just stole $500 from them,” he says. Dealers turn to Perez when they’re not sure about a shoe. After handling umpteen-thousand sneakers, he’s developed the sort of hard-won intuition that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his bestseller Blink. “Sometimes I open a box and just know there’s something wrong,” Perez says.

But Perez will admit he’s not infallible and that he has probably mistakenly deemed replicas legit. Not long ago, he was confronted with a pair of Tom Sachs Mars Yards, which sell for upwards of $3,000. As it happens, Perez owns that shoe, so he knows it particularly well. He was suspicious but couldn’t say exactly why. Then he noticed that the margins of the booklet that comes with the shoe were a little too wide. That’s how he figured out he wasn’t holding an official Nike product: The margins of the booklet. The shoes themselves were perfect.

Ifyou wanted to trace the history of sneakerhead culture, you might go back to the Walt Frazier–inspired suede Puma Clyde of the 1970s, or to Run-D.M.C. ripping the laces out of their Adidas in the early 1980s (“They’re black and white, white with black stripes/The ones I like to wear when I rock the mic”). Though it wasn’t until kids started lining up at the mall to buy the first Nike Air Jordans in 1985, and innumerable iterations thereafter, that sneakers began to transcend their purely utilitarian origins.

How quaint that all seems now. Witness the scene outside NikeLab in lower Manhattan one evening last December on the release day for the Air Force 1 Low Off-White in black and Volt. It’s past the store’s normal closing time, yet the doors are still open. There are three sizable Nike employees — bouncers, really — guarding the entrance to ensure that the only customers permitted inside possess a digital golden ticket on their phone allowing them to purchase a single pair. Every person I spoke with in line had used automated software to obtain that ticket. Officially, Nike forbids the use of such software — which can cost as much as $500 — but if the crowd outside NikeLab is any indication, it’s a rule no one follows.

Even though the sneaker has been on sale for only a few hours, it has already made it to online resellers, and the price has risen to $400, more than twice retail. In the coming weeks, the value will climb past $500 for the black version.

Most buyers are here to make a couple hundred bucks. Several are planning to sell to Flight Club, Manhattan’s most famous sneakerhead outlet, a store where the priciest shoes are locked inside a giant lighted case, like Bronze Age antiquities.

A young entrepreneur named Mahreen Chowdhury has a more ambitious plan: He used bots to score 20 tickets, and he plans to buy 20 pairs. Because Nike employees might get wise if he walks through the line that many times, he hires a bunch of his buddies, paying them $50 each, which brings his per-shoe cost to $235. He already has a buyer lined up in China who will pay him $500 a pair for as many as he can grab — meaning 19-year-old Chowdhury will pocket north of $5,000 for his day’s efforts. When I met him, he had been outside the store for 9.5 hours, overseeing his operation. “Just take off your glasses,” he says to one of his guys, who is reluctant to go through the line again. “We’re Asian. They can hardly tell us apart anyway.”

I tell Chowdhury I admire the sophistication of the hustle. “Thank you,” he says, grinning, before turning to give further instructions to his crew.

Yu-Ming Wu understands the passion. In 2002, he bought a pair of hard-to-get Atmos Air Max 1 Safaris for $150 through a friend of a friend. They were a half-size too big, but he loved them anyway. After that, Wu started figuring out how to get more on his own, slowly building his collection to more than 1,000 sneakers, including the Nike MAG Back to the Future, which sells now for about $9,000. That obsession led to the creation of Sneaker News, a site that treats the release of a new sneaker like a movie premiere and attracts around 35 million page views a month. Wu is also a co-founder of Sneaker Con and the chief marketing officer for Stadium Goods, an online reseller that was recently purchased by Farfetch, a luxury goods marketplace, for a reported $250 million. No one is more central to what’s going on in the world of sneakers than Yu-Ming Wu.

And yet, even at his own event, he seems to go unrecognized. I met Wu, who is 40, at the entrance to Sneaker Con amid a sea of sneakerheads balancing stacks of shoeboxes and decked out in streetwear from Supreme and A Bathing Ape. Wu was wearing a camouflage jacket and a pair of Nike Off-White Black Grim Reapers. Maybe the camouflage jacket is a metaphor for how Wu blends into the background. “I’m not a celebrity here,” he says. Instead, the kids want to meet YouTube and Instagram personalities like Jaysee Lopez, better known as Two Js, the owner of Urban Necessities, a well-known consignment store in Las Vegas. Lopez’s videos, which often get several hundred thousand views, have made him into a folk hero of sorts. Like every popular sneaker YouTuber, his MO is showing off expensive shoes and spending wads of cash. At Sneaker Con, he was pulling rolls of $100 bills out of a duffel bag. One of his videos is titled “SPENDING $20,000 DOLLARS AT COMPLEXCON (SO MANY PICKUPS!!!).”

But his videos can also be confessional. Lopez talks about being broke and offers advice to up-and-coming sneaker hustlers who consider him an inspiration. When I spoke with Lopez, we had to sneak behind a partition next to his Sneaker Con booth because, as he explained to me, “So many kids are asking for selfies right now that we’ll get interrupted.” As soon as we finished, a 14-year-old kid with a backpack sidled up, holding out his iPhone. “Hey, Jay, can I get a picture?”

A clearly distraught Lopez posted a video in September apologizing at length for unknowingly selling a pair of Nike Vapormaxes that turned out to be reps.

Both Wu and Lopez have had to deal with the influx of replicas. “It’s a problem for everybody,” Wu says. “We curate all of the vendors, but once people start coming in with their own dollies of stuff, that’s what we can’t control.” Wu saw a pair of Air Jordans not long ago, gave them a once-over, and figured they were authentic. “They looked good,” he said. They were replicas. Likewise, a clearly distraught Lopez posted a video in September apologizing at length for unknowingly selling a pair of Nike Vapormaxes that turned out to be reps. In the video, Lopez said he hoped the incident didn’t cause his many followers to lose faith in him. “At the end of the day, our name is all we got,” he said. “I’m the guy who’s going to tell you, ‘Hey, I fucked up and got it wrong.’”

How often do reputable outfits like Urban Necessities or Stadium Goods fuck up? They’ll insist it’s exceedingly rare. That’s what Josh Luber says too. Luber is the CEO and co-founder of Detroit-based StockX, which has become the dominant online sneaker reseller, handling more than $2 million in sales per day and recently pulling in $44 million in funding from, among other sources, Google’s venture capital arm. Eminem was an early investor as well. Luber wants sneakerheads to think of their shoes like investments and to use his app to buy, sell, and track their value. So far, his plan seems to be working out.

Luber downplays the replica issue, framing it as a nuisance that affects naive buyers who aren’t savvy enough to purchase through legitimate channels. In 2015, when StockX began, Luber says that around 15 percent of the shoes they received were replicas, and as a consequence, authentication emerged as a priority. “We never realized how much a part of the business it would become when we started,” he says. Now that tens of thousands of sneakers pass through StockX’s warehouse every week, he says the number of replicas has dropped below 1 percent. StockX employs about 100 authenticators, who tear apart replicas to see how they’re made and measure their weight and density. The company holds classes in the art of ferreting out fakes. “The fact that we authenticate means that people don’t send us fake shoes,” he says.

That might be true, though it’s hard to verify. Let’s say StockX receives a pair of replicas, tags them with StockX’s authenticated tag, and then sends them to a buyer. If that buyer doesn’t spot the fakes either, then it’s possible that no one except the initial seller will ever know. It’s not hard to find YouTube videos featuring disappointed sneakerheads swearing up and down that StockX sold them reps. An anonymous posting on Nike Talk, an industry news and gossip forum, asserted that StockX authenticators handle an average of 55 shoes an hour. “They work at such a rapid pace there’s NO WAY they can do their job to the fullest,” wrote the poster, who claimed to be a former employee at the company’s New Jersey warehouse. While Luber wouldn’t confirm that number, he said that in some cases it can take an authenticator only a few seconds to tell whether a shoe is legit. If they receive a high-priced sneaker that’s known to be faked frequently, he says, they’ll spend the necessary time to be certain. But it’s a constant battle, and, like Wu, Luber has found himself dazzled by dead-on replicas. “You put a phenomenal fake in front of me, and I might not be able to tell the difference,” he acknowledges.

I’m lurking behind the counter at Legit Check in Houston to see the authentication process in action. Over several hours, about a dozen sneakers are deemed likely fakes. Among them is a black Pharrell Human Race, a sneaker that’s essentially a weird slipper with decorative laces. They go for $1,000 on StockX. A 16-year-old named Patrick has brought them to Legit Check, having asked the shoes’ owner, a dealer in the trading pit, if he could get them verified before buying. Eric Perez, the Legit Check guy, looks the shoes over for a couple minutes, peers inside, gives them a sniff. Then he shakes his head.

Patrick looks bummed, but no money has changed hands. The dealer receives the bad news, shrugs, and throws the shoes in a bag. I ask his name, and he tells me it’s John.

“Is your name really John?”

“No,” he says.

“John” informs me that he bought the sneakers from a thrift store in Los Angeles for $50 and assumed they were authentic. He’s not entirely convinced that they are replicas despite the failed Legit Check. “John,” who I later discovered has an Ivy League pedigree, argued eloquently that the line between authentic sneakers and replicas is more porous than authenticators would have you believe. He doesn’t think their judgment should be regarded as holy writ. “Because we’re in a marketplace, then if he says they’re reps, they’re reps,” he tells me. “But do they know? They’ll tell you reasons why they’re fake, this and that, but in the end it comes down to magic.”

That sounds a little self-serving coming from a dealer who has just been caught committing the gravest of sneaker sins in the middle of sneaker mecca. At the same time, he’s right that authentication is an admixture of science and instinct. There is no sneaker DNA that can be extracted and conclusively matched. And if it’s possible for authenticators to mistake replicas for retail, the reverse is certainly possible.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that “John” knew full well he was selling replicas. He wouldn’t be the only one. I heard of a shop in the Bronx that supposedly sells nothing but replicas, so I stop by one day to see if the rumors are true. The front window is stocked with cellphones and assorted electronics, which makes me wonder if I’ve come to the right place. Inside, though, I find a wall of sneakers and a store employee engaged in an animated phone conversation about an Instagram model he’d been direct-messaging. I grab a pair of Yeezy 350s from the wall and ask if they’re authentic. “Yeah, I mean, like, they’re consignment, so it’s, like — we’ve never had complaints,” he says.

“Okay, but are you sure they’re authentic?” I ask.

“I mean, you can look at them,” he says. “You seem like you might know.”

I look at them. I don’t know.

It’s easy to respect the replica makers’ craft, if not their ethics. Obviously, what they’re doing is a violation of intellectual property laws, and it does lead to buyers getting defrauded. But they are awfully skilled at what they do. As Perez, the authenticator, puts it, “You can’t love ’em, but you can’t hate ’em.”

I contacted several Chinese replica makers known for turning out high-quality fakes. If you dig around on the right subreddits, you’ll find a list of Skype and WeChat contacts, along with advice about which factories are reputable and which might take your money and never send the shoes. One manufacturer thought I was asking for free sneakers in return for writing a positive review. When I explained that I was working on a story, not a review, they were less than enthused: “Oh no, thanks,” they wrote back, “we don’t like reporter. Have good time.” Later on, I Skyped with a 26-year-old woman named Edith who works in customer relations for a replica company. We had a pleasant chat despite the webcam angle showing only her forehead and the ceiling light. She’s been working at a replica maker for three years. “I didn’t know it was selling replicas at first,” she said. “My boss told me that they were retails. About one year later, I knew they were replicas.”

Edith explained that they post photos of their shoes on subreddits like Rep Sneakers, which has 120,000 subscribers, so sneakerheads can spot tiny flaws and offer feedback. In other words, they crowdsource their counterfeits. “We compare all the details with retail and make them perfect. We send photos to customers and ask which to make better,” she said. “It helps a lot.”

If the replicas are truly identical, then why drop a thousand bucks on the resale market?

I also messaged with Chen, an employee of another manufacturer. He told me he wears replica Yeezys, though he’s not trying to impress anyone. “I like the soles,” he said. The factory where he works employs 100 people, and Chen lives with his colleagues in a company-owned dormitory. They sell about 4,000 sneakers a month, a total that spikes in the lead-up to Christmas. He insists their replicas are convincing enough to fool the best authenticators. “Of course they are one-to-one,” he said. I told him what Luber, the StockX CEO, said about how effectively they filter out fakes. Chen begged to differ. He said he’s heard from customers who sent their replicas through StockX, “and some passed.”

The more you think about replicas, the more it starts to seem like a philosophical head-scratcher: If you can’t tell the difference between two things, then why aren’t they the same? Turns out philosophy has a name for this conundrum — the identity of indiscernibles — and it’s been chewed over by deep thinkers like Leibniz and Wittgenstein. More practically for anyone who plans to wear the sneakers, if the replicas are truly identical, then why drop $1,000 on the resale market? Do you really think your friends will figure out they’re fake if the CEO of StockX or the founder of Sneaker Con can’t?

One hitch, ignoring the ethical and legal implications, is that you would know your shoes are not authentic. On the Rep Sneakers subreddit, commenters encourage each other to “wear with confidence,” which is another way of saying you should forget that they’re replicas. But can you pull that off? Wouldn’t it nag at you? And if you can’t flaunt your kicks with confidence, isn’t that undermining the very reason for getting them? Why not slide on a pair of generic running shoes from Target and be done with it?

Recently, I decided to order a pair of replicas. But first I spent an excessive amount of time reading reviews, studying photographs, and watching comparison videos on YouTube. I thought about buying a pair of Tom Sachs Mars Yards, in part because Sachs himself has explored imitation and homage in his own art, once creating a replica of the Apollo lunar module out of steel and plywood. Plus, they look cool. But that shoe is a conversation piece, and I worried I might get challenged on its provenance by an informed sneakerhead. I also thought about ordering a fake pair of Air Jordan 5s, the sneaker I owned and loved when I was a teenager. But in the end I went with the Yeezy 350 in Pirate Black.

I bought them from a Chinese factory known as H12, whose most convincing fakes are referred to as Godkillers. Like a lot of replica makers, H12’s websites frequently get taken down due to legal challenges. (Last year, a lawsuit filed by Adidas against replica makers for trademark violations led to the shuttering of scores of sites — though new ones instantly sprung up to replace them.) Soon after I ordered, H12’s Instagram page disappeared, though another page was set up, and customers were promptly notified of the switch. My fake Yeezys cost $110, plus $20 shipping. That’s not cheap, but it’s a lot less than actual Pirate Blacks, which sell in my size on StockX for more than $1,400.

Ten days later, a package arrived on my doorstep. Inside was a pale-brown shoebox that appeared to match the actual Yeezy box, down to the Adidas markings and white size label. The box contained a pair of extremely real-looking Yeezy 350 Pirate Black replicas. I pressed against the foam-rubber boost on the sole, which in cheap fakes is generally too firm. These boosts were soft. I pulled up photos online to compare the fabric pattern, the thickness of the laces, the YZY lettering on the leather. I counted the number of tiny red dashes on the heel tab. Everything checked out.

Also inside the box was something I hadn’t ordered: a replica StockX tag embossed with the company’s logo and, next to that, the words “Verified Authentic.”