When Hollywood comedian Kevin Hart or Phoenix Suns basketball player Devin Booker want to secure a special pair of Air Jordan sneakers, it’s a Port Moody man who hooks them up.
Tye Engmann has been buying and selling collectible kicks for the past five or six years. In fact, he’s become so good at it, he bailed out of his second year at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business for the school of hard walks.
Engmann, 20, specializes in vintage Nike Air Jordans. The iconic basketball shoes were first produced for NBA superstar Michael Jordan in 1984 then released to the public in April, 1985. They were an immediate sensation.
Fans who wanted to feel a bit of their hero’s magic wrapped around their toes lined up for hours to get the latest shipments. Muggings, assaults and even a murder to get the shoes became the fodder of media crime blotters.
Some schools banned them outright to curtail the potential for violence.
New Air Jordans have been released yearly since, along with several special editions commemorating milestones in Jordan’s career, historic occasions like the Running of the Bulls in Spain, the player’s relationship with filmmaker Spike Lee who once served as a pitchman for the brand as well as collaborations with various designers.
But Engmann said it’s the original old-school Jordans that elevate his heart rate and boost his bank account.
He said they’re the most collectible not only because so many have disappeared into waste bins over the years, but they were also the best quality.
Engmann said a pair of Jordan 1 Chicago sneakers from 1985 can be worth up to $25,000 if they’re in brand new condition. Other variations like a limited run of that shoe with a black sole when the manufacturer ran out of red rubber, or an iteration with a special strap that was added when Michael Jordan was recovering from an ankle injury are even more rare.
Engmann discovered his passion for sneakers when he was young. He said he coveted a pair of white and black Adidas NMD low-tops that featured some Japanese writing on the sides.
“I just wore them because I liked them,” Engmann said of the shoes that he eventually bought off a reseller because all the usual retailers were sold out. “They were actually really comfortable.”
The unique look of the footwear sparked his interest in sneaker design, the little touches like the colour of the midsole that distinguished one model from another. He started playing with dyes to put his own flair on the shoes, learning about the materials to use and techniques to follow from watching videos on YouTube.
Friends noticed, asked him if he could dye their sneakers too.
Sensing a business opportunity that could earn him the money to further his own sneaker collection without always going to his parents for a handout, Engmann started charging for his dye jobs and scouring online for unique finds. He targeted Jordans because Michael Jordan is his favourite player. He mined websites and blogs to learn all he could about the shoes.
“You have to understand the history of the shoes to appreciate them,” he said.
When Engmann scored his first pair of vintage Jordans, he posted a photo on his Instagram account. His In box filled with notifications, some with offers to buy them for much more than he paid.
Engmann said he held onto those sneakers for two or three years. In the interim, he connected with other collectors to buy and sell other pairs. It was, he said, a pretty “niche” market.
Then, in 2020, Netflix debuted The Last Dance, its 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan’s career.
The show introduced the superstar to a whole new generation who’d never seen him play and reminded those who had of the impact he made on basketball. It also reignited interest in the shoes that bear Jordan’s name.
“There was a real surge in people becoming interested in vintage shoes,” said Engmann, who decided to dive into the growing marketplace with both feet.
Most of Engmann’s days are spent on the computer, scouring blogs and various online marketplaces around the world like Grailed for footwear treasures that may have been squirrelled away in closets or attics for years. Japan was a hotbed of sneaker culture for a time, but has since cooled.
Engmann has set up a small studio to take photos of sneakers he’s putting up for sale on his website or posting to his social media accounts and he’s started dabbling in making YouTube videos to grow his audience even more.
He’s also preparing to go to Sneaker Con events like one that’s scheduled to take place in Vancouver in March after several such shows were cancelled by COVID-19 public health restrictions.
Engmann’s growing expertise and ability to secure rare finds has caught the attention of celebrity collectors like Hart, Booker and another pro basketballer, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma Thunder.
“They’re really cool, they’re respectful,” said Engmann of his high-profile clients.
But finding a pair of vintage Jordans that will fit a pro basketball player’s giant size 14 — or more — feet can be particularly challenging.
“The hunt is so much fun,” Engmann said.