Jaden Zhai grew up loving basketball and by extension, basketball sneakers. But soon, the footwear became his primary passion — even when the shoe didn't actually fit.
"One time there was a pair of LeBron shoes that went on sale and they were two sizes too big," the 28-year-old recalls.
"But I begged my mom to get them for me and the salesperson kind of convinced her that I would grow into them … which I never did," laughs Zhai, who now has a collection of over 75 pairs, starting with his first Nike Zoom LeBron IVs way back in middle school.
He said he's one of a growing number of Ottawa "sneakerheads," as they call themselves — people who buy, sell and collect limited-edition sneakers, many of whom have managed to transform their passion into a career.
In Zhai's case, it started with a job at the Rideau Centre Foot Locker (where the employee discount helped him fuel his collection) and eventually landed him a job as a footwear designer for Fila.
Though his work took him to New York City, Zhai continues to run the Ottawa Sneaker Community Facebook page, which has grown from 100 members when he began in 2014 (it was started by a Foot Locker co-worker) to over 10,000 today.
Shoes as art
That's one of the places Brea Cristobal first went to learn more about sneakers when she thought about using them as a way to showcase her art.
The 24-year-old artist and physiotherapy student did her first custom commission pair in 2019 and now says she's found a niche for her custom designs, making extra income selling them on her Instagram page @bigsteppabrea.
For Cristobal, whose little sister first sparked her interest in sneakers, it's important to welcome women into what she sees as a male-dominated world.
"Especially with the Ottawa community, I find that the majority of customizers are men. I get a lot of comments from people who tell me that I'm the only woman," she said.
Her goal is to make the sneaker world a fun place for other young women.
"I definitely want more women to be into [sneakers and customization] and show their creativity."
A new space for sneakerheads
Donny Dao also credits a younger sibling for introducing him to sneaker culture and its marketplace seven years ago.
After amassing a large personal collection, the 30-year-old recently sold off much of it to fund a new shoe store called Sole Society with two friends he met through reselling.
"It's so hard to make that choice but I had to ask myself, do I want to invest in my future?" said Dao, who kept just six or seven pairs, including his coveted Nike Air Off-White Prestos in black.
Starting as a pop-up, Sole Society recently opened a small space in Centretown showcasing the sneakers and offering shoe-cleaning services.
Dao boasts it's one of the few independent sneaker stores in the city, aiming to offer not just a store but a community space. He said growing up he couldn't afford nice shoes, so opening the store has been like living a childhood dream.
"Never in my life did I say to myself, 'I'll sell sneakers for a living," he said. "I still can't believe it, you know? I'm so happy and honoured.
"It's a market that no one looks into normally … There's a market for everything out there," he added.
Despite the risks of retail, Dao said he's seen the demand for sneakers grow during his years as an Ottawa sneakerhead.
For example, where he used to see the same 10 people line up for "sneaker drops" at stores like NRML, in recent years he's seen dozens of fresh faces eager to get their hands on the latest shoe, sometimes lining up overnight (though during the pandemic, many stores pivoted to online raffles).
He explains that a typical shoe might sell in the $350 range at retail but can go for hundreds more upon resale, while others can eventually sell for thousands, a big motivator for collectors.
He said he lined up overnight for a $250 pair of Off-Whites by Virgil Abloh, which are now worth around $2,000. The designer died last year.
High school hustler to store owner
The shoe marketplace was what attracted Dao's partner Jer Hamel to sneakers back in high school, where he began buying and selling shoes and streetwear with his pocket money.
"It was me, at lunch, in the bathroom selling a pair of shoes … bringing all my stock in a big duffel bag," recalls Hamel, estimating he had over 80 pairs at one point.
Eight years later, the now 20-year-old said he started Sole Society because he's seen a rise in Ottawa's sneaker culture.
"It's been crazy for the last couple of years, to be honest," said Hamel, pointing to new events like the Fly Market, a regular vintage market, as helping to fuel sneakerheads' collections.
Dao sums it up. "We love sneakers to death," he said.