The Measure of a Hip-Hop Star? It’s on Your Feet

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From Run-D.M.C’s “My Adidas” to Nelly’s “Air Force Ones,” rappers have long been publicly displaying their affection for sneakers. It was Run-D.M.C that first turned this obsession into a business opportunity, imploring Adidas to pay them a million dollars and eventually landing an endorsement deal tied to their hit song.

Today, getting your own line of sneakers is a rite of passage top-selling hip-hop artists. Just last week Adidas confirmed that it’s signed a deal with Kanye West, while Drake announced he was designing shoes for Nike’s Jordan Brand. Eminem, 50 Cent and Jay-Z have also designed shoes or launched new shoe lines for major athletic wear companies. But don’t expect to see these rap stars’ shoes in Foot Locker for long. A celebrity sneaker launch is more publicity stunt than big business venture.

While shoes attached to NBA stars like LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Michael Jordan are usually manufactured in mass quantities, celebrity sneakers are almost always created in limited runs. West’s previous line of Nike sneakers, the Air Yeezys, generated tons of hype because they were so rare. The release of the Air Yeezy II in 2012 saw people lining up for days before they were released and bidding as much as $90,000 for the shoes on eBay. Matt Powell, an analyst at sports-research firm SportsOneSource, estimates that around 5,000 pairs were ever produced. For comparison, Nike’s most popular shoe  sold around 3 million pairs last year, Powell estimates.

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“Part of what makes collaborations like this successful is very, very limited distribution,” he says. “They create a lot of hype, they get mentioned in all the sneakerhead magazines and blogs. There’s a lot of brand attention to it.”

It’s these sneakerheads, avid shoe collectors that sometimes have hundreds of pairs of kicks, that are the true target market for celebrity shoes. Their willingness to line up for days for a much-hyped sneaker or pay thousands for it on the secondary market makes these shoes seem desperately sought after and generates free press. “A lot of this is about the desire to buy a higher end product that others only aspire to have,” says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group. “They’re not necessarily to the same customer that might buy a player product, but a celebrity product has a lifestyle of its own and a following of its own and a collectible nature of its own.”

Though West has benefited from the hysteria surrounding celebrity sneaker releases—he gave away 50 pairs of red Air Yeezy IIs earlier this year to help promote his latest album—he may now try to the buck the trend of celebrity shoes being elaborate marketing ploys. Before leaving Nike, he expressed frustration to anyone and everyone about not being able to distribute the Air Yeezys in wider numbers. “Nike would make you believe it was my fault that you couldn’t get them, but that was not the case,” he said during a stop in Nashville on his current tour. “I wanted there to be as many Yeezys as there was LeBrons, and I wanted them to be at a good price, but that was not my choice, and we’re going to change everything.”

Adidas, which has only 5.5 percent of the basketball shoe market in the U.S., is in need of another strong brand spokesman. The company dumped $185 million into an endorsement deal with Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, but he’s out for the season again with another long-term injury. Perhaps Adidas will give Kanye a chance to make good on his boasts that he is the Steve Jobs of fashion.

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Some celebrity shoes have been both commercial and marketing successes in the past. When Jay-Z released his S. Carter sneaker line in 2003 through Reebok, it became the fastest selling shoe ever for the company. But it can be challenging for celebrities to create a line that has the year-after-year success of athlete-branded shoes. Powell says the S. Carter line declined in popularity after its initial hype, and he can see the same happening to a mass-produced Kanye shoe. “It will be interesting whether Adidas maintains the same kind of control over the quantities,” he says. “My gut is if they made a lot of Kanye West shoes, they’re going to find that the demand goes way down.”