A significant milestone in Dexter Tan's life involved sneaker collecting.
Tan was in the line to purchase some limited-edition kicks at Leftfoot. It was early morning and not one of the 20 people in the queue was in any mood for conviviality, save for Jon Fong, who complimented Tan on his New Balance shoes. They started talking, a friendship blossomed, and later the duo created Sole Superior, Singapore's first sneaker convention.
Sole Superior is a grassroots, community-based effort. The lads wanted a convention that was for the fans by the fans. It’s to be a day out with the family—an inclusive event, where you aren’t judged by who you are or what you wear.
It is the sort of openness that led to Tan amassing close to 400 pairs of shoes. When he started, he collected like a fiend and wasn't deliberate with his purchases. "I'd look for deals. I'd go to outlet shops and buy, and buy." He spent up to SGD1,000 per month on sneakers.
But that was then. Tan has since slowed down. Space constraints, he tells me. When he eventually moves into his new flat, Tan is considering rotating his kicks out—which ones he'll display and which he'll wear.
A formidable threat to Tan’s collection is entropy. All things eventually fall apart over time, but sneaker soles are particularly prone because they are usually made of polyurethane (PU). As a sports shoe material, PU is ideal because it is hard wearing and absorbs shock well. It is, however, susceptible to hydrolysis. Over time, PU polymers break down from exposure to water or even just water vapour. It is the latter that poses a great threat for sneaker collectors because their prized shoes are not safe from hydrolysis even when they go into storage in mint condition—especially in a warm and humid place like Singapore.
NIKE TERMINATOR ZOOM LOW SYRACUSE
“I was 17 when I wanted a pair of Air Force 1s. So I saved up and went with my parents to 77th Street to make the purchase. When they saw the colourway, they felt it didn't suit me. My mom made an offer: if I chose something else, she'd pay half of it. So we went to Leftfoot—which was two stores down—and saw Nike's "Be True To Your School" collection. They were in colourways of popular US colleges and I chose Syracuse because their house colours [of orange and navy] were similar to my JC (junior college). They evoke so much nostalgia that I bought five more pairs. I'm now down to my last pair, which I wear sparingly.
NIKE PLAYSTATION AIR FORCE 1 LOW
“These promo samples were only issued to Sony execs and family members. I think there are about only 100-ish pairs worldwide. I first saw them in a Japanese magazine and someone in an Air Force 1 collectors group on Facebook was selling them. They didn't come with the box and he sold them to me for a little over SGD1,000, including shipping. Now, an unworn pair could go for SGD10,000, which is too bad as I wear mine all the time. They are still in okay condition though.”
Tan is taking the hydrolysis in stride. Might as well, he reasons as he slowly runs out of space for his shoes. "Now, I'd go for specific shoes that catch my eye,” Tan says. “Those that have nostalgic value, that has a story to them. Right now, I'm in a phase of hunting down the pairs that I couldn't afford in my youth. Instead of buying three pairs a month, I'll save up that money and splurge it on that rare and expensive pair."
When it comes to fakes, Tan fully believes that no one can ascertain the authenticity of shoes with 100 per cent accuracy. He once sent a pair of New Balance to a resale platform and they were declared replicas. "Which was weird because I bought them from a New Balance store."
But he isn't susceptible to being a victim of knock-offs. "I bought a pair of Travis Scott Jordan 1 that I thought were real. But when I wore them during a sneakers meet-up, another guy said that the colour was off. And sure enough, when we compared my shoes with the ones that he got from Nike, the colour wasn't right. Further scrutiny uncovered something was also wrong with the sole patterns."
NIKE SB KOBE X ERIC KOSTON WITH HUMIDOR BOX
“These were the biggest steal for me. Only 24 pairs of these exist in the world, with two in Singapore. They aren’t even in my size. A local collector wanted to liquidate his collection and handed me a list of shoes for sale. I was interested in a couple of them but they had already been sold. Out of desperation, I picked two random pairs that were still available. I didn't know that one of them were Kobe shoes. I only found out about their rarity afterwards, which adds flavour to the purchase. Those are the shoes that many collectors would offer to buy from me, but I’ll never sell them because there will never be another pair by Kobe again.”
NIKE JORDANS 1 OG CHICAGO (1985)
“The Holy Grail for collectors. By luck, I bought them before the boom, at a good price. Right now, unworn pairs can fetch USD20K. I saw a Japanese site selling a pair for USD500 on IG. It was in poor condition but I so badly wanted to own one that I didn’t care. I got in touch with the sellers and was crestfallen when they said they didn't do overseas shipping. Undaunted, I looked for a Japanese resident through a forum to help me purchase and ship it to me. It was a leap of faith because I basically remitted money to a stranger I'd met online, but I got the shoes in the end. It's one of the few pairs that fulfilled a childhood dream for me.”
Tan doesn't think it's right to shun someone who wears knock-offs. "I don't know if they know they are wearing fakes," Tan says, "but the fact of the matter is who am I to judge if that person feels happy in them? I’m fine as long as they don't try to sell them off as the real thing. Morally, there's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the sneaker fanbase can be toxic, in that sense. We gatekeep so much. From an average Joe's point of view: why should I pay SGD1,000 for a pair of shoes when I can get a replica for SGD500 on Carousell? It still looks the same, and honestly, sometimes the fake ones look just as good as the real thing and nobody will ever know."
That sort of openness is what makes Sole Superior so special. Despite the rise in rental fees, Tan is nonplussed. Sole Superior has always been a side project for Fong and him. They don't run Sole Superior like a business. Every time they want to set it up, they consider whether it's logistically and financially sound for them to do so. "Sole Superior is a passion project of sorts. So, even if we don't put out an event this year, we'll be perfectly fine. There's always the next year."
NIKE AIR FORCE 1 LOW LUX (ANACONDA)
“This is the last pair that Nike produced using real reptile skin because PETA protested against it. In addition to the material, the shoes had embellishments like the lace lock, the keychain and the hangtag that were gold-plated. It retailed for USD2,000. At the time, it was an insane price for a pair of Air Force 1. I forgot how I came about it but I saw them going for SGD900. I was thinking who would sell them at such a loss? We hypothesised that they could have been gifted to someone and they just wanted to sell them off. This was something that I have wanted to own because I used to work for a consignment shop and I kept seeing this pair in the storage room. I still wear them but the soles are busted. If there are any pairs that I’d want to resole, it'd be this, and the PlayStation pair.”
SNEAKERLAH X HUNDRED% X ASICS GEL-LYTE III (TEH-TARIK) / TOBYATO X ASICS NOVABLAST
“These are shoes that my friends have done and I won't ever sell them. This above is by SneakerLAH (a KL sneaker con) with ASICS. Bryan Chin (SneakerLAH founder) came to one of our events and was so inspired by what we did that he went back and did his own sneaker con. After that, they would work with ASICS for collaboration kicks. I was so happy for them that I would buy their shoes.
“The pair below was by the artist Toby Tan (aka tobyato), again with ASICS. It’s not my style but I still rock them when I go hiking. This collab was a huge moment for Toby’s career. During the initial stages of the collab, he’d ask for our [Fong and my] feedback. We gave him some tips but ultimately, the design was all him. Because we were privy to the whole process, it made this pair very special to me. I can still remember how excited Toby was when he gave us these shoes.”
Fortunately, Sole Superior will happen this year. HomeTeamNS approached them to hold it at its venue and while it seems odd to hold a sneaker con in an area synonymous with the army/police/civil defence forces, Tan and Fong saw the humour in it. "We are next to Yishun and we are doing it at HomeTeamNS. There's nowhere safer," jokes Tan.
Photography: Jaya Khidir
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Photography Assistant: Chuen Kah Jun
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