Jeff Staple has forgotten more about sneakers than the vast majority of us will ever know. A lifelong aficionado, he’s been collecting since the 6th grade — and now, at 46 years of age, he’s widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the sneakerhead and streetwear movements that have reshaped the world of style over the past 20 years.
Staple’s iconic Nike “Pigeon Dunks” caused a minor riot at his retail shop Reed Space on NYC’s Lower East Side upon their release in 2005 and now fetch sums in excess of seventy thousand dollars on resale sites like StockX and GOAT (they originally retailed for $200). While certainly an extreme case, the Pigeon Dunks are illustrative of just how far the cottage industry of sneaker reselling has come over the last several years — aided by bots, inside sources and other shortcuts, resellers have effectively cut the everyday consumer out of the equation and created a secondary economy wherein massively inflated prices are the norm, and the platforms that facilitate them thrive (even during a pandemic — after doubling its sales over the last year, GOAT recently reached a valuation of almost $4 billion).
And while a consumer’s willingness to pay 5x the retail price of a pair of Jordans is certainly a good sign for the health of the sneaker/streetwear industry as a whole, it does admittedly bum an inveterate sneakerhead like Staple out a little bit. What’s more, it got him thinking: can the process be re-democratized?
Thus, Staple’s latest role as creative director of KYX World, a new concern helmed by CEO Brian Mupo and COO Steve Dorfman that’s looking to upend the problematic sneaker paradigm via an increasingly common model: subscription. For a tiered monthly fee, users have access to a library of some of the most sought-after limited-edition kicks out there, which they are free to wear as if they own them and then send back at their leisure in exchange for their next shoe crush.
It’s a brave new world that Staple is excited to explore. We sat down with him to discuss the provenance of his sneaker obsession, his thoughts on our changing attitudes toward ownership as a culture, and, of course, Crocs.
InsideHook: So before we get to the future of footwear, let’s go into your past for a moment — was there a moment in time or a catalytic event when you knew that sneakers and sneaker culture were going to be such a passion for you? That this would be a thing that would have a such a huge imprint on your life?
Jeff Staple: [Laughs] Yeah. I gotta go way, way, way back then. I’m talking back to the sixth grade. It was the first release of the Air Jordan 3 — not retro after retro after retro, but the first ever release of the Jordan 3. That shoe really did it for me. That turned me from a sports-loving sneaker enthusiast to a full-blown sneakerhead. And I think the reason why is because with the 3, there were so many interesting design elements that shifted it from what had been basically “Dunk, Dunk Low, Dunk High.” Even the Jordan 1 was essentially just a modified Dunk High. The 3 was a whole different design language that I was just enthralled with. It was the first time I saw the hand of the man I would come to know as Tinker Hatfield.
Yeah. No one before that cared about who designed your shoes. It was a commodity item. So here’s this guy, “Tinker what?” He meets with Mike and Mike tells him about his inspiration for fighter jets and all this stuff. My mind was blown.
Also, quite vainly speaking, the neck breaking effect that the 3s had when I walked into sixth grade and kids were just … even teachers were like, “What are those?”
It was also the first time I’d wear shoes then sacrifice a toothbrush and clean and scrub them after every wear. I didn’t do that before. Before it was like, you wear shoes, you fuck them up, and then you buy new ones. This was like a piece of art that I had to cherish. And this is pre-Jason Markk, cleaning, unboxing video, one click to buy. [Ed. Note: Jason Markk is YouTube’s preeminent sneaker cleaning guru] Imagine a sixth grade kid in his bedroom for some reason putting a toothbrush to a shoe without anyone telling him to do so.
Fast forwarding to where we’re at now, which is, I think almost a re-commodification of the sneaker. Because similar to you, I remember mowing lawns for an entire summer to get a pair of Jordan Grapes. It meant a lot to me to own those on a personal level. I wasn’t thinking about, “Can I get these and then sell them to one of my friends?” Do you think that’s essentially where we’re at now, a re-commodification?
Even if you’re not a reseller or if you’re not even buying on resell, the universe has exploded for sneaker culture from drop date to MSRP to resell percentage increase to people setting phone reminders for SNKRS app drops. In the SNKRS app it’s like “Sacais dropping in 10 days.” I’m like, “Really? I need to be reminded 10 days in advance of a sneaker drop now?”
This whole world has become so just enveloped into this multi-billion dollar industry that we’re all a part of and we’re all highly in tune with. That’s the crazy part. We used to just be consumers. You’d walk into a Foot Locker or an Athlete’s Foot, you’d scan the wall like everyone else did, and you’d be like, “I want that one.” No one told you to do it. But now it’s like “This influencer said that, this blog said this.” Now you’ve got to figure out how to get it.
It’s become this whole game and kudos to the sneaker companies for putting us in this maze, putting the cheese on the other side. Now it’s our job to navigate the maze. They’ve done an incredible job at doing that. And quite frankly, the Pigeon Dunk was probably one of the biggest pieces of cheese that has ever been created. So I’m part of the problem, but I’m also a consumer still. So I still go through the same things that other people might go through in terms of the struggles and the trials and tribulations of trying to cop a pair.
So then thinking about KYX World, it’s like there’s this inherent issue in the world of sneaker culture, which is that a lot of kids who want to get a thing straight up cannot get it. And then also there’s this idea that luxury and ownership are not necessarily as tied together as they once were…
People have gotten used to this idea of “Oh, well I rent my music from Spotify or my movies from Netflix or I get clothes from Rent the Runway.” Why should sneakers be any different?
Exactly. There’s a couple of factors that were happening in the universe that were allowing this to happen. You mentioned first and foremost, that there’s obviously a problem. People who want the thing that they want can’t get it. Facts. But then this idea of physical ownership was really being redefined. Like you said, we probably come from the generation where you had to pry the vinyl record or CD out of our dead hands. “I am not giving up my CD collection. Are you crazy?” “No, but Jeff, it’s in the cloud.” “No, I don’t trust the cloud. I want the CD.” [Laughs] I was the last holdout, man.
Netflix, Spotify, Airbnb, Turo, all these things were happening. And the other thing that was happening was sneaker cleaning. Sneaker cleaning used to be, you go to Foot Locker. When you check out, they have this can with a brush on top of it. And it was $1. And that was it. Now sneaker cleaning is on its own a multi-billion dollar industry of just wipes and shammies and all this shit.
And then in the retail businesses that I had — Reed Space and I was also working with Extra Butter for a minute — I started seeing kids, because of social media, grabbing a bunch of fly gear and kicks and saying, “Can I try these on in the dressing room?” They’d be in there for 20 minutes, then come out like, “I’m good. I don’t need anything.” Meanwhile, you look at that kid’s social media when he walks out of the store, he conducted an entire photo shoot in the dressing room. He’s like, “Look at this, look at this.” Didn’t buy anything, but the comments are all like, “You the flyest guy out there.” “That’s a sick look.” “Drip, drip, drip.”
So that kid is able to cash in on social currency without having to spend a dollar. And I was like, “Like it or hate it, whether as a business owner this hurts me or not is irrelevant. The fact is that this is the future. They’re hacking it. And we got to be a part of it one way or another.”
And so it seems like, with KYX World, you can still figure out how to make money as a business owner but you’re also servicing this new generation of clientele who don’t necessarily care so much about owning the actual thing.
I think there’s this idea of, “I still appreciate fly kicks. I still want them, but I don’t have to own all of them. I don’t have to have 200, 500, 1,000 pairs of shoes.” To be honest, the co-founder of this company, Brian, when he approached me, he was like, “Think about it. I am desperately trying to get shoes. I wear them for two months before the next thing that I desperately have to get comes out. And then in order to make room physically or to make room in my budget to get the next thing, I have to now sell these things. Jeff, I am essentially renting shoes. Let’s just formalize this whole process.” And I was like, “Wow, that is scary to me.” I felt the same feeling I felt when I first heard about kids reselling shoes, I was like, “This is the new frontier, and I’d better hop on while I still can.”
So let’s talk about curation — I think this is going to live and die by the taste that is applied, the lens that is applied to the admittedly very, very large world of sneakers. What in your mind makes a truly dope sneaker?
It’s very much like art where it’s like saying, “What makes for a dope painting?” There’s a lot of elements that go into it. I’ve got to say that even when you try to check off all the boxes of what goes into it — let’s say, off the top of my head, premium construction, premium materials, great storytelling, true, authentic partnership between collaborator and brand, amazing marketing — even when all of those things are checked off, it could still be a dud. And you don’t really know why. That’s the artistic part of it.
That’s why what we do is still special because it’s not something that a computer or a machine or a nine-to-five Dilbert working at a footwear brand could just be like, “We don’t need Virgil Abloh. We could do this shit.” No, you still need the Maestro with the brush in his hand to be able to craft this stuff.
So who does the curating for KYX World? Is this a curation by committee kind of system? Who decides what’s dope enough to make the platform?
It’s a group decision, and I would say it’s partially based on what we love and what we think is fly. And then also partially on what is trending in terms of metrics when you look at StockX and see what shoes are really flying. We obviously want to cater to the customers and give them what they’re looking for. But we also will put in stuff that we just personally love and are our grails.
Ok so I feel like I need to stand on my soapbox for a sec and say that not everything that’s rare is necessarily dope and not everything that’s dope is necessarily rare. Is that a consideration for the platform?
I would say that our sweet spot is really the shoe that you have trouble getting. And to your point, that might not be because they only made 100 pairs. Travis Scotts are hard to get, but they make over a million pairs of Travis Scotts. They’re not limited edition by any means, but the appetite for them is so great that if you make a million pairs and 10 million people want them, it’s still “limited edition.” Conversely, if you make 24 pairs of a shoe, but only eight people want them, it’s not that limited. You could get them. You’ve still got to do a good job at marketing the shoe. So our sweet spot at KYX World is really the shoe that’s hard for you to get that’s insane resell prices. And you’re just like, “Do I really want to drop $600 on this shoe when I know for a fact that, within a month, Nike, Adidas, the big guys are going to put out something that I’m also going to want?”
There’s certain guys and gals that are maybe more connoisseur collectors that are like, “No, I want to own this forever. I want to file it under G in my sneaker collection in my Dewey decimal system. I want to have the photo on the front of the box.” We’re not saying that this is the solve to that. You keep doing you, you keep buying shoes, but there are other people that just want the flavor of the week. We just want to come in and flex on them. It’s like music. There’s some people that go on Spotify and just hit shuffle. “Let me listen to what you got for me.” And then there’s some people that are blowing the dust off their Stevie Wonder album and putting the needle on the record. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just different strokes for different folks.
It occurs to me that there’s also an element whereby it maybe allows you to step outside of what you would normally wear. Certainly what you would normally pay top dollar to wear. You can experiment with your style a little bit without coming crazy out of pocket.
Absolutely. That’s the reason why I wanted to get involved, because I got to the point in my collecting where I was being super selective about what I was getting — there was a point where it was too much. And I just started to be like, “Jeff, you have to learn how to appreciate something for what it is from a design standpoint, but you don’t have to own it. You could just like it. You don’t have to own it.” And so I was trying to really get much more selective, but then what happened after a few years of doing that is that my appetite and my curation was becoming too tunnel vision. I wasn’t expanding my repertoire and my taste level.
For instance, I would never buy Yeezys because to me Yeezys represented this person that I didn’t want to be, but I did like Yeezys at the end of the day. They were good shoes, but I didn’t want to be the sheep in a room with everyone else wearing the same Yeezys. I did like them and I did want to wear them every once in a while, but I didn’t want to go through the hunt and chase and try to get them. So Yeezys are a great example of a shoe that I rent when I’m looking at KYX World, put it on my feet and I wear it a couple of times, but then that’s it. I don’t want to keep them. They go back, and then I get the next color.
So how many pairs are on the platform now?
It was a little bit over 300, but we just shaved it below 300 because we found through analytics that there are certain ones that just are duds and never get rented. So we’re trying to clean up the inventory. I think it’s just shy of 300 right now.
Aside from just acclimating consumers to the overall concept, what challenges have you seen with it?
At the end of the day, this is a logistics business. We are sending out millions of dollars worth of shoes, hoping they come back, and then after they come back, servicing them so that they can properly go back out and it be just as good an experience as it was the first time. That logistics hustle is something that we’ve been focused on to make sure the customer service experience is number one, while also understanding that we’re talking to a very fickle consumer that doesn’t want to do business with a logistics company. They want to do business with an authentic brand that speaks their voice. And that’s really where a lot of my contribution comes in.
I’m not a 3PL logistics guy. I’m much more of a sneakerhead voice guy. So I make sure that while this machine is running extremely smoothly, it’s still speaking to the audience in an authentic way. We’ve been head down focused on that during the soft launch. Today is our real opening up to the world moment.
So getting into the idea of sending these things out, they come back, you have to service them — this idea of sneaker care. You’ve got this partnership with Reshoevn8r, do you consider them to be the gold standard of that world?
For sure. They’re doing amazing things and we have a partnership where we have products supplied by them and they are guiding us. But we also have an in-house team of our own sneaker care experts. That was one of the first hesitations that I had when I heard about this concept from Brian was this exact issue of, “How many times can you actually rent a shoe? What? Two or three times and then it becomes so beat up that you can’t even rent it out anymore?”
The data that came back after a lot of real life product testing was shocking. It was 18 to 21 times. And it’s like, “Oh wow. Now I can see the business model.” And that’s because they have a 10 step process of totally caring for the shoe. They’re deep, detail cleaning, sanitation, multi-point inspection afterwards. It includes conditioning. It’s also got this rating system so that we know when it’s on its way out. It’s just this whole Jiffy Lube operation that happens with each shoe when it comes in and out. And that’s how you’re able to get 18 to 21 wears.
I suppose it depends on what kind of wear the shoe is getting.
Kids always ask like, “Yo, I could hoop in this shoe? I could step in dog shit with this shoe? Anything?” And what we like to say is “Wear the kicks like you own them.” We find that most people who are considered sneakerheads and who would even be interested in this business, they know how to care for kicks. I think most people in our atmosphere really respect the shoe and they’re not out there trying to light them on fire.
And what our research shows is that not even one out of every 100 consumers comes back and just dogs the shoe, destroys them. We also have a Yelp rating in a sense, but for the customers. Like, “Hey, this girl, she really takes care of shoes but something bad happened. She spilled grapefruit juice on her shoe.” We’re not going to dock her. Don’t worry about it. Shit happens. But if there’s an abusive thing going on, then we do have the ability to kick that person off.
It’s almost like you would need to be a deliberately terrible person because the whole goal is to be wearing really dope shoes that look cool. And if you’re fucking them up, they obviously don’t look cool.
We’re not reinventing anything that hasn’t been done before. Car rental, Airbnb — if you go in and throw a rager in an Airbnb, you’re going to get dinged. And now everyone will know that you’ve messed up this entire house on Airbnb. If you go play bumper cars in your Hertz rental car, you’re going to hear about it.
Not to mention you’re just fucking over your fellow KYX World users.
Exactly. Going back to the car rental analogy, it’s like how you can rent a convertible Mustang or a dope Corvette or something like that. Let everyone appreciate this car, not just you and then you go and smoke 12 spliffs in there and bring your dog and let it shit in the backseat. That’s not nice. That’s not being part of civilization.
I’ve also seen that you can opt to buy a pair of shoes once you’ve rented them. What’s good with that?
This is an option that frankly we didn’t think of in the beginning. The consumers just demanded it. They would rent a shoe and they would keep renting it and then they would contact us and be like, “Can I just buy this at this point?” So now we’re offering the ability to purchase after you’ve rented, which is really helpful because now it’s now try-before-you-buy. Imagine walking into a Foot Locker or KITH and putting on a pair of Sacais and being like, “Can I just try these for a month and then decide?” They’d laugh you out of the store, but KYX literally offers you that option now. It’s pretty amazing. That’s a game changer for us.
Ok last question — favorite shoe of all time that you did not have a hand in creating?
Damn. That’s a tough one. It changes on a weekly basis. That’s such a hard question.
Fair. What about at the moment?
If I’m going to answer right now this season, I’m going to say my favorite shoe is Crocs.
You’re going to have to sell me on that.
Crocs is the official shoe of the pandemic, man.
Just from a pure comfort standpoint?
Pure comfort. But I think their business is doing amazing because coming out of this, people are just going to be wearing Crocs even out to the clubs and stuff I think. So I’m all with Crocs.
Alright. I don’t know if I can co-sign this call just yet.
You haven’t bought a pair yet?
[Ed note: Jeff sounds legitimately shocked that I have not purchased a pair of Crocs during the pandemic, to the point that I start to second guess myself]
Maybe I just need to put a pair on and see what all the fuss is about?
You need to do that. See if they have an outlet store nearby.