From nondescript dad shoes to rare collectors item, all thanks to a mass suicide.
Twenty years ago, on March 24 and 25, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult went to a rented house in an upscale San Diego suburb and took their own lives in an attempt to board a UFO they believed to be trailing the passing Hale-Bopp comet. One of the strangest aspects of the already bizarre cultural event was that the cultists' bodies were found decked out in matching black shirts and sweatpants, as well as fresh-from-the-box pairs of black-and-white sneakers.
In the weeks following the suicides, news programs broadcast video from inside the house around the world. The footage showed dozens of Heaven's Gate member corpses, each covered by a purple sheet, with only the shoes peeking out from the bottom.
The shoes worn by the cultists were part of a bland budget line produced by Nike called Decades. According to a Sole Collector article that spoke with Mark and Sarah King, former Heaven's Gate members who keep the cult's turn-of-the-millennium website operational to this day, Heaven's Gate founder Marshall Applewhite purchased the sneakers primarily because he liked their look and was "able to get a good deal" on them by buying in bulk.
After the tragic events unfolded, Nike did what you'd imagine any large corporation to do when confronted with such a brand-tarnishing PR event and discontinued the Decades line. To this day, its sole comment on the suicides was a 1997 statement to Adweek in which it referred to the deaths as a "tragedy," before adding that they "had nothing to do with Nike."
Though the brand is certainly not culpable for anything leading up to the suicides, by pulling the sneakers from the market, Nike turned the once innocuous shoes into highly prized collectors' items within the burgeoning sneaker collecting community. Nike did not respond to my request for a comment for this article.
I spoke with Tony Jankun, a vintage-clothing retailer who says he's been collecting and selling shoes since well before the "sneakerhead" label came into popularity, about his hunt for the iconic shoes. Jankun told me he hadn't even heard of Heaven's Gate until he happened to catch a TV documentary about the cult.
"They didn't say the name of the shoe," said Jankun. "They just said they were all black Nike's with a white swoosh and a white sole."
Those few details were enough to set him on the trail, and just a short while later, Jankun found his first pairs of Decades while browsing a flea market in Chicago.
Unfortunately, these pairs were all children's sizes, but Jankun was still able to turn a nice profit by selling the sets he'd purchased for $10 for around $150 each to collectors with smaller feet than his. As the years progress, the increasingly rare shoes have gone up in resell price. A pair of the original Decades is currently listed on eBay for the too on-the-nose asking price of $6,660, though Jankun says there's no way anyone should or will pay that much.
Eventually, Jankun found a pair of the rare sneakers in a size that fit him, but as he is admittedly more addicted to the high of the hunt than the ownership of his quarry, he sold his last pair of Decades a decade ago at Sneakerness, an annual shoe convention held in Switzerland. Despite the baggage attached to them, Jankun says he never felt any sense of morbidity about buying, selling, or wearing the shoes. "I didn't feel weird or any type of supernatural way," remarked Jankun. "I felt like I had a part of history."
Vintage-shoe collector David B, who goes by "Lemon" within the community, still owns a pair of Heaven's Gate Decades, after finding them for a $55 steal on eBay years back before the vintage-shoe craze was at its current levels.
"I wear these randomly throughout the year anytime I feel like wearing something older that I know won't fall apart," said Lemon. "I love the silhouette of these, and they are such a clean pair."
Lemon says that nobody off the street has yet noticed that he's sporting the exact pair worn during the cult members' mass suicide as he believes that "most people outside of vintage Nike collectors would not be able to make that connection." Unlike Jankun, however, he can't help but reflect on his Decades' eerie backstory. "I think about it every time I pull them out," he said.
For the most part, though, he and his friends just refer to the Decades as his "grandpa shoes."
Whether one is able to set aside their macabre history or not, the fact of the matter is that the Decades gained their monetary and novelty value because 39 corpses were found wearing them. I reached out to the Kings, the surviving members of the Heaven's Gate cult, to see if they had any concerns or thoughts about the fact that a sneaker fandom has developed from the deaths of their friends. "We could care less," they replied.