Understanding Ultra-Rare Sneakers with Collector Ryan Chang

Understanding Ultra-Rare Sneakers with Collector Ryan Chang

As founder of Applied Arts, Ryan Chang celebrates specific sneakers as objects of fine art. Thanks to events including Cult Canvas (a recent auction at Sothebys that featured ultra-rare or artist created sneakers) it’s clear that the art world has followed suit. Keen to understand more about collecting rare sneakers and how to curate a meaningful collection, The 10,000 spoke with Ryan Chang. Read on for insider tips and insights, plus learn more about Ryan and his inimitable collection.

What initially piqued your interest in collecting sneakers, and more specifically rare and unique prototypes? Your collection has been described as small but exceptionally curated. How do you decide what to add and what does that process typically entail?
I’ve been building and designing townhouses in Brooklyn for almost 10 years. When I started, I sourced expert artisans, plaster and metal workers, classically trained carpenters who could build a unique, architectural masterpiece. I focused on building legacy homes—houses that would be passed down from one generation to the next. I’ve only done 4 projects because my focus was on making each space unique. Certain elements—staircases, light fixtures, mantels—presented great opportunities to be creative without sacrificing functionality. Each home is a fully functional work of art.

Sneakers fascinate me in the same way. I’m not one of those sneakerheads you see online with wall to wall sneakers, boxes from floor to ceiling. I only own about 70 pairs, and focus heavily on the artists and designers who collaborate in the creation process. Some of my sneakers aren’t even pairs! Many are single shoes—prototypes and artist proofs that really show the artist experimenting with the design. I consider all of them art objects. They are a canvas, a cross between a painting and a sculpture, and I love how they are enjoying their cultural moment right now and gaining traction in the art world.

Tell us more about your collection. Is there a specific pair of sneakers you pride the most in your collection? Do you have a favorite?
’84 Air Jordan 1 Black Toe. It’s the first true Air Jordan 1, designed by Peter Moore almost 40 years ago. Over time, cars look different, trends in furniture and clothing come and go, and polar ice caps melt. But, the Jordan 1 silhouette hasn’t changed. It’s a design masterpiece—the Dolly sheep that has been retroed hundreds of times and crossed international and culture lines, but remains the same because it was perfect to begin with.

The Futura Nike ‘FLOM’ sneaker recently sold for $63,000 during the ‘Cult Canvas’ Sotheby’s auction, the highest price a Nike SB sneaker has sold for to date. What makes this particular sneaker so rare?
That’s a special shoe, and I love how Sotheby’s came forward to take the position that sneakers should be considered works of art. Brahm Wachter (their Director of eCommerce) and I spoke at length about which shoe should be featured for ‘Cult Canvas,’ and we landed on this pair for a number of reasons. FLOM references one of life’s central dilemmas, “For Love or Money,” and was made by renowned graffiti artist, Leonard McGurr. What some people don’t know is that McGurr came up in NYC in the late 70s and early 80s alongside Basquiat and Keith Haring. His work has exhibited internationally for decades, and has sold at Sotheby’s and other auction houses for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because of McGurr’s impressive history, and because there were only 24 FLOMs ever created, it actually doesn’t surprise me that it sold for $63,000.

Comparisons are being drawn between collecting rare sneakers and fine art. What are your thoughts, especially considering the recent Sotheby’s sale.
There’s a cultural shift happening where collectors are responding to shoes the same way they respond to fine art. Auction houses like Sotheby’s are featuring shoes that possess cultural and historical significance, rarity, monetary value, and aesthetic appeal. These are the same pillars of value that drive the fine art market, so it makes sense that auction houses would steer their clients into this new category. As a whole, I think this category and the involvement of major institutions like Sotheby’s is only just beginning.

Tell us about the sofa you’re sitting on.
I love this couch. My partner, Simone Duff, is a natural creator. She’s one of those people who can look at an object once, and engineer and reverse engineer it immediately. She always has her hand in some form of creation–writing, set design, fabrication–and decided to make this Campana-style couch as an artist exercise and gift for me last year. We ask everyone who comes over to take a picture on it.

What hallmark traits or characteristics must a sneaker possess to specifically become collectible?
It depends on what kind of a collector you are: some view sneakers as cultural matter, and they’ll have a different heuristic for value than someone who collects game worn sneakers and sports memorabilia. On a macro level, the same data points that inform quality for art, inform quality in the luxury collectibles segment—scarcity, the artist, cultural relevance, and aesthetics.

Who assigns and determines value is also changing. Affluent art collectors are getting younger and more diverse. Musicians, athletes, tech entrepreneurs—this segment of young wealth continues to grow. When a 25 year old sells her company or makes her first endorsement deal, she is going to invest that money in something that is artistically and culturally significant to her. I think that means (at least for this demographic) less money spent on Rembrandt, and more on shoes and other artifacts people always wanted, but couldn’t afford as teenagers.

What is Applied Arts, NYC?
Applied Arts, NYC is a media company founded by myself and Simone Duff that features sneakers as art objects. Years ago we started building a network of collectors like myself from all over the world. Using that network, we’ve been fortunate enough to collect and host some of the rarest sneakers in the world in our studio, where we create photography, stop motion video, and other media work that celebrates sneakers as art objects within the context of the cultural moment. Whether that’s personifying them, bringing attention to their designers, or offering historical context, there are endless ways to tell stories with sneakers as a primary source. If you want to take a look, our Instagram account is: @Applied.Arts.NYC

There is a massive gorilla climbing on your house! Tell us more about this Halloween installation and how this Halloween may be different from years past.
Halloween is our anniversary. Simone and I met at a costume party at my old place seven years ago. She turned the place into a haunted house and put this incredibly realistic and frightening zombie above the front door that was holding its own severed head in its arms. When we moved to Brooklyn together, we started celebrating Halloween by giving out candy on our stoop and putting up over-the-top decorations. Two years ago it was Spiderman climbing an 80 foot web up the side of the building, then last year Spiderman got caught in the web of a giant black widow. This year, Simone and her colleague Kumpa Tawornprom, who makes props for Lucasfilm, built a massive 18-foot articulating gorilla from scratch. As you see, it’s currently climbing up the back of the house from the garden. He’s wearing a large surgical mask because wearing masks is important, and there’s a marquee next to him that provides donation information for gorillafund.org. Overall, we feel that art is a powerful means of building community, and felt that this year in particular, our neighborhood could really benefit from the positivity.


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