A former fund manager, Z has been a hardcore sneaker fan for over 20 years. The “Z talking about sneakers” series is full of thoughtful and insightful sneaker-related content on Chinese short video platform Bilibili. Bilibili is a video channel especially popular among China’s Generation Z. Started as an online ACG (Anime, Comic and Games) community, the platform has evolved into an ever-more diversified realm mixing and matching all youth cultures and subcultures.
As Z always puts it, his videos are not review videos, it’s always about loving and sharing. “If I don’t truly love it, I won’t talk about it.” Z recommends and reviews sneakers but most interestingly, he analyzes the economics and business model of the sneaker businesses from his unique perspective.
For example, Z compares the current overheated sneaker market to an under-regulated stock market. While he loves everything sneaker-related, he dislikes the fact that the prices are artificially jacked up. “It’s ridiculous and crazy,” he said. He publicly denounced Pozion, a Shanghai-based sneaker unicorn for selling fake sneakers.
Data from the Pozion app shows that in May 2019, the market price of the hottest sneakers compared with the sale price has increased by more than 100%, and an alarming 430% for some particular ones. The Air Jordan 1 co-branded sneakers, known as the “Sneaker King of the Year 2019” by sneakerheads, have soared to over 10,000 yuan ($1,448) from the original price of 1,299 yuan.
Pandaily had an exclusive interview with Z, in which he talks about his stories and passion for sneakers as well as how he sees the sneaker market in China now.
How did you come up with the idea of being an uploader on Bilibili?
I really loved shoes when I was little, then I started buying more and more. My home couldn’t even hold them, and my wife started to complain. She wouldn’t let me buy them. But then I found a good reason for buying sneakers, that is, to make sneakers videos. That’s how I got into the business.
How many pairs of sneakers do you have now?
Over a year ago, I had around 400 pairs, but this year I started to do the sneaker videos and bought a lot more. Now I have around 700 pairs.
Would you buy the sneakers just for collecting, or do you wear them regularly?
All my sneakers are for wearing, and I think the greatest value for sneakers is for people to wear them.
Would you wear a particular pair on a particular day?
This varies from person to person. Everyone has their own preferences. For us commuters I would wear the more comfortable type. If I’m on a business trip, in addition to formal leather shoes, I would wear AJ Eleven. It’s a good match. As for others, it would be quite random. For basketball shoes, I would just choose one of my favorites I bought recently.
Which factors would you consider before buying? Its practicability, or its collectible value?
I have two principles for sneaker collection. The first is for commemoration. For example, like Kobe, McGrady, and Jordan’s shoes, whether it’s new or a replica. The other is its looks and price, as I always stress in the program. After trying a lot of shoes, you would not really care that much about the specific feel of the shoes anymore, cos you already know what comfortable footwear is like. The look really matters. I would judge appearance first, and then check if the price is reasonable. I already have a fair amount of shoes, so I would wait for a discount after the season, unless I really like it very much.
What are the most expensive and cheapest sneaker you’ve ever bought?
Actually I have another hobby, that is to collect soccer shoes, that players wear. In fact, my most expensive shoes are a pair of soccer shoes. It is a pair of match-worn Adidas Predators from David Beckham. It cost me around 15,000 yuan. As we know, Air Jordan is popular in China now, and a lot of people are trying to make money by flipping sneakers. But back when we were young, I remember the price was something around 790, and after a discount it fell to four or five hundred yuan, and still nobody would buy it. So I’m not particularly interested in these popular AJ sneakers right now.
I also saw in the video that you are not very supportive of flipping sneakers. Some sneakers that originally cost hundreds of yuan are jacked up to thousands of yuan. What do you think about it?
The phenomenon of flipping sneakers has lasted for two to three years now. There are actually two aspects. A lot of my viewers on Bilibili.com are students. Many of them actually use Ant Check Later (Alipay’s installment product), or get some student loans to buy shoes. I received a message saying that the person is in a huge conflict with his family, that his mother doesn’t allow him to buy sneakers anymore. “Next month, the sneaker will appreciate by 200 yuan and I can resell it and pay her back,” one of my viewers said to me. In fact, it is these students who suffer most from the behavior of flipping sneakers. I think it’s very bad in this regard.
However, from another perspective, it is because of the popularity of flipping sneakers in the past two years that the entire sneaker culture has been widespread. Many people have come to know that sneakers can be stored, resold and make money. Many people began to be interested in sneakers, which helps spread the sneakerhead culture.
What do you think of the current behavior of young people burning money for their love for sneakers? Should we persuade them to balance their hobbies and consumption power?
There is no need to persuade actually. I have advocated this so many times in the program, but it doesn’t work. Why? Because everyone is irrational when facing the temptation of making money. It is just like the fluctuations of stock markets from 2005 to 2007. In fact, only those that have experienced it and lost money would know not to continue doing it again. Back in July, CCTV exposed this flipping sneakers behavior, and in September too. Many people have lost huge amount of money and their inventory was trapped in their own hands.
Many of my viewers came to tell me that they would never flip sneakers again. See, you have to let them go through it for themselves. I remember the last wave of flipping the Dunk SB (Nike Dunks) from 2002 to 2005. This time is just a repetition of the last flipping wave, similar to the stock market.
In your videos, you mention many domestic brands, such as Li Ning, Anta and Peak. How do you define the rise of domestic brands? It ’s like smartphones, between Huawei and iPhone, but not entirely, right?
Recently in the videos, I have been constantly emphasizing the concept of domestic shoes. In fact, all industries are very similar. For example like Pechoin in the beauty product industry, and Maotai in the baijiu (liquor) industry. And then like Huawei and Xiaomi in the smartphone industry. Same for the sports community. Because it’s not that technically hard to make a pair of sneakers. China always has the most advanced manufacturing factories in the world, capable of making products of the same quality as these foreign brands. It’s just a matter of cost.
Then what has been lacking in the brand value of domestic brands? For instance, Chinese brands could make basketball shoes just like those top international brands like Nike, but it cannot sell at a high price, because it cannot acquire the endorsement of quality sports resources. Basketball culture originated in the United States, and then the best basketball players in the world are also from the United States. Rooted in such a culture, companies like Nike could naturally do well. For Adidas, its major strengths are football boots and products. Why? Because German football has always been great, European football has always been great, and the traditions have been passed down for decades. So that’s why this kind of high fashion mostly comes from Europe and the United States.
But in the past two years, I feel that this domestic trend has been very obvious, especially among those born after 1990 and 1995. Born in the decades after China’s reform and opening up, they are very optimistic. They have never been poor, nor have they seen only one pair of shoes in department stores. Since childhood, they have been surrounded by these domestic brands Anta, Peak and Li-Ning, especially the young consumers in third- or forth-tier cities. So as long as the product is good, and then the price is appropriate, let’s say around four to five hundred yuan, they feel that buying this is no different from buying Nike. And in recent years the local sports brands have made significant progress, so it’s an overall trend to buy domestic sneakers.
Speaking of Li-Ning, can you share any interesting stories about working for Li-Ning?
I think there are several things. The first thing is that around 2007, which was the peak time for Li-Ning. For example, during the 2008 Olympic Games, Mr. Li Ning, founder of the Li-Ning company, ignited the Olympic fire. That Olympic Games was sponsored by Adidas. But Mr. Li Ning lit the Olympic fire wearing Li-Ning’s sneakers. That was really so cool. Back then I was responsible for brand communication and promotion. I did a lot of coordination with the General Administration of Sport in China. It was fun.
Secondly, around that time, Li-Ning was the first to make a brand transformation in China, and then changed its slogan to “Make the Change,” targeted towards people born after 1990. The previous slogan was “make everything possible.” At that time Li-Ning was indeed more avant-garde, and now Li-Ning is actually going the same way a decade later. Two years ago, Li-Ning started to appear at fashion weeks and stuff. It was also fun for me to do various projects, including signing O’Neal, designing shoes for O’Neal, and participating in NBA All-Star activities with him.
You work as a public fund manager, right? Your economic background might have helped you understand the sneaker market better.
Right, but I resigned in October. I like observing companies and industries, so I may look at the problem from a more three-dimensional perspective. Again, it’s actually not review videos, it’s sharing my love, recommending my favorite shoes to everyone. I discover topics, like sneaker economics, during this process. I would look into the financial reports and the operating performances of those listed companies. Other uploaders followed suit and began to talk about sneaker economics. Anyway, I think it is interesting to make a contribution to the understanding of this industry.
Last question, for sneakers, it’s always about appearance, texture and feeling. It’s not as fun and interesting as tech product reviewing. How would you deal with it if audiences get tired of the same style content?
Yes, you are absolutely right. I think that for all the content creators, whether it’s uploaders on Bilibili or Youtubers, it may be a huge challenge to choose the right topics every day. If you keep doing it the same way, everyone will slowly grow tired of it.
For sneakerheads, one difference is that new products are constantly being introduced. It’s like car reviews, and the manufacturer will constantly launch new cars, so people might be tired of watching you, but they will not be tired of the new products. For the time being, I’m considering changing the program format, not just sitting there and talking, but anyway it’s really difficult, every program has its own life cycle. How to re-please the audience is a big challenge.
Will you recommend some sneakers for girls later?
Well, judging from my data, 90% of my fans are men, and then 10% are women. Out of this 10%, maybe 5% are recommended by their boyfriends. So maybe only less than 5% of women viewers are actually interested in sports sneakers. I might choose related topics in the future, but this should not be the main direction. But in the future, I would cover some of the content concerning clothing fashion trends, and I have found some personnel to help me.