When Brittany, a 27-year-old retail manager, and her husband, Austin, needed to flee Houston in 2017 as Hurricane Harvey hit, Austin had the foresight to place some essential household items atop the kitchen cabinets so they’d be safe from flooding. To Brittany’s amusement, though, almost all of these essential items were boxes of sneakers.
“He maybe moved his Xbox and checkbook to the top of his desk, but I might be being generous,” Brittany laughs. “His shoes are his pride and joy, so he was taking zero chances.”
The way Brittany describes it, it’s as though she’s married to Austin and his shoe collection; the two come as a package deal. He sells and buys regularly, so his collection fluctuates in size, but it’s always big enough to be a significant strain on living space. “Since we had a baby, he’s sold a lot of them so I can utilize more closet space. But he still has at least 40 pairs, and at most he’s had about 100 at a time,” Brittany explains. “At one point, our closet was 75 percent shoes in our one-bedroom apartment.”
Extreme sneakerheads are a cultural fascination, and the internet suffers from no shortage of videos about people who spend more money on sneakers than rent and articles featuring kids with 5,000 pairs of kicks in their closets. But much less attention is given to the long-suffering partners of these obsessives, who look on at their loved one’s habits with a mix of bafflement, frustration and amusement. Because in their own way, they share in the cost of their partners’ sneaker habit without experiencing much of the joy.
One obvious downside of loving a sneakerhead is the extra stress on finances. While Brittany says she doesn’t really worry about money because Austin is otherwise “almost annoyingly financially responsible,” Samantha, a 26-year-old writer in Texas, experiences some anxiety about the cost of her partner’s shoes; he has a collection currently sitting at about 80 pairs. “I’m a very anxious spender; my family was lower-working-class and we rarely had nice or name-brand stuff growing up, so I don’t have consumer habits quite like his with shoes,” she tells me. “He doesn’t spend so much that I’m currently worried about it, but I’m getting him to make a budget. I’m trying to get ahead of that impacting our relationship.”
Space is a constant issue for Samantha, too. Her partner’s shoes take up most of their guest bedroom, and she finds that she’s sometimes roped into the acquisition process. “He sets alarms for shoe drops and has gotten me to make a Nike profile so I can enter them too, so he has double the chance,” she explains. “And sometimes, if he’s expecting a package, I have to plan my [day] around that.” Samantha is magnanimous about this, though, describing the cost on her time and attention as “mostly small inconveniences.”
Portia, a 34-year-old office manager in Atlanta who used to date a serious collector with more than 300 pairs, says that loving a sneakerhead can give rise to novel forms of interpersonal conflict. “One time we got into an argument and I stomped on one of his Jordan 6 boxes, and he demanded an apology,” she recalls. “It did sometimes affect our relationship negatively because he often thought that’s what he had to buy me to get out of trouble. I wasn’t even getting a damn apology, but some Air Maxes? Likely.”
Overall, loving a sneakerhead was a mixed bag for her. “Sometimes it was cute because I’m into sneakers, too, but sometimes it was the fucking worst,” she says. “I helped him move from Atlanta to Jersey and those shoes were a nightmare in the U-Haul. Oh my god, when that door opened, Jordans were hitting the moving men in the face. It took him forever to get dressed because of the damn shoes, too.”
Of course, the traditional gender stereotype is the other way around: The woman amasses large volumes of clothing, shoes and makeup, paying careful attention to her appearance and monitoring fashion trends; her partner looks on with bemused frustration as her collections take up space and she requires hours to get ready. But for women dating sneakerheads, that dynamic is reversed — at least some of the time.
Portia says that her ex was “much more understanding about amassing things and keeping them because you value the purchase.” Brittany, however, explains that, in many ways, the traditional gender stereotype also applies to their relationship. “He’s definitely a stereotypical man when it comes to that, because he does get annoyed by how much clothing or makeup I have,” she tells me. “But I’ll say that he only really actively complains about it when I’ve left something where it doesn’t belong, because he’s a neat freak.”
Unsurprisingly, dating a sneakerhead can be tedious. Emily, a 28-year-old paralegal in Chicago who briefly dated an extreme collector, says that pretending to be interested in his shoes was a challenge during one of their dinner dates at his home. “He led me into his ‘sneaker room’ and proceeded to sit me down on the small bed and give me a ‘tour’ of his shoes,” she recalls. “He took out probably 10 pairs and explained them all to me in detail — why they were so exclusive, how the stitching was different, how much he liked them in comparison to other versions he had of the same shoe, and so on. I was so bored.”
Despite the boredom, tedium and frustration that loving a sneakerhead can involve, women tend to be good natured about their partners’ habits, and report finding the obsession and vanity involved in extreme collecting more amusing than anything else. Portia laughs as she recalls how her ex would ask random strangers on the street to take photos of him wearing an especially beloved pair, or how he once kept a pair in the box for so long that they rotted. Brittany, too, takes the inconveniences in stride. “Since it doesn’t impact us financially, it’s the whole space thing that’s a little annoying,” she explains. “Mostly it’s just hilarious to me that he has special shoes he won’t even wear outside.”
Ultimately, loving a sneakerhead means accepting that you’ll probably never understand the thrill of a new purchase or the pride of nursing a long-cherished pair. “I’m trying to be at peace with the fact that I’ll never understand the fulfillment he gets from [collecting] compared with how expensive it is,” Samantha says. “I guess I’m just happy this makes him happy.”