The halls of the Education Complex brimmed with knotted laces and the squeak of rubber soles during the SoleFest Sneaker Convention on Aug. 9.
The convention, the brainchild of three UCF alumni, brought in attendees from across the Central Florida area to buy, trade and swap the rare and valuable sneakers at the heart of the event.
"You see everyone from 13 years old to 30 years old coming in to trade shoes," said Mike Irene, a recent UCF grad and one of the founders of the event. "I estimate that there's between 250 and 350 people in the room right now. The turnout has been great."
The convention was bustling, with dozens of vendors forming a ring around the room, behind tables that were all but invisible under a riotous panoply of shoes of all shapes and sizes. Groups of teens and adults roved the hall, their arms stretched wide to accommodate a bounty of sneakers and shoeboxes. Small islands of calm dotted the floor as attendees stopped to chat and share their finds before rejoining the busy flow of bodies circulating throughout the room.
Irene began SoleFest two years ago with his friends and fellow UCF grads Jonathan Griffith and Michael Perez. The group of South Florida natives founded the event in the face of what Perez described as an almost complete absence of their beloved shoe culture in Orlando.
"Me and my two partners were into shoes," he said. "There's a lot of [shoe conventions] in other cities — New York, Chicago, Miami — but there wasn't a lot in Orlando. There are probably 100-plus [shoe] boutiques in Miami, but in Orlando there are only two. We wanted to build that up here at UCF."
After their first successful expo at Blue Moon Cafe, the group returned back to its hometown to hunt for venues and expand its presence in Florida. Now, almost two years later, SoleFest boasts conventions in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Jacksonville and West Palm beach.
Irene said the shoe conventions like SoleFest exist as a way for collectors to verify the authenticity of their purchases. Certain rare shoes command prices upwards of $10,000 and are difficult to verify without personal inspection.
"The reason why a shoe convention has to exist is because there are so many fake and replica shoes coming from overseas," Irene said. "A shoe will come out — a very rare shoe, with maybe 100 pairs distributed throughout the country — and people will try to buy it online. They sell out almost instantly and some people will often end up buying fakes."
Vendor Colten Katcher, who goes by the nickname "Colt 45," came from his home in Miami to attend the convention. He possessed one of the gems of the event, a pair of brilliant-red Nike Air Yeezy 2s signed by Kanye West and valued at more than $5,000. Katcher said that conventions like SoleFest are the one of the great highlights of the sneaker culture.
"I love sneakers; I love the culture," Katcher said. "This is my personal favorite event of any sneaker show. [SoleFest] gives people the opportunity to get shoes they missed out on release date and don't have to pay the ridiculous prices that retail stores have."
But what is sneaker culture? What motivates people to drive hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars on shoes?
For high-schooler Abner Hernandez, it's all about the experience.
"I love sneakers," Hernandez said. "I love having them, wearing them, buying them and selling them. You grow up in them: Every time you see a shoe that you want really bad, you gotta work for it."