When Mandeep Chopra is out and about, he walks with eyes downcast, his head facing the ground.

“It is an occupational hazard. I look at people’s shoes,” says the 43-year-old founder of Limited Edt, Singapore’s pioneering cult sneaker boutique chain, with a laugh.

Besides getting a sense of the hottest kicks of the hour, Chopra has, on occasion, spotted rare finds to add to his personal collection. For instance, at a recent sneaker convention, he saw an attendee with a pair of Adidas Pharrell Hu NMD Holi edition shoes that he had been eyeing and bought them off the wearer. On the other hand, Singapore’s sneaker king has had people offer to buy shoes off his feet too.

It is a sign of how frenzied the sneaker craze has become, that many collectors will go to great lengths to snag a coveted pair. This is not just a hobby for a niche group of fanboys either – investment experts are beginning to consider sneakers an “alternative asset class”, for their potential to appreciate in value. In July, Sotheby’s held an auction of 100 of the rarest sneakers produced, with the Nike Moon Shoe, which was designed by the brand’s co-founder Bill Bowerman, selling for US$437,500 (S$607,000).

Building a community

Here in Singapore, the sartorial set has Chopra to thank for kick-starting this sneaker culture ahead of its global spurt. In the early 2000s, Chopra, a third-generation member of Weston Corporation, a family business that deals with sporting goods, joined the company after graduating from the National University of Singapore with a bachelor’s in business administration.

“Back then, no one was bringing in shoes like Nike Air Force 1’s or Dunks. You didn’t see them on the shelves of the Nike stores back then,” he recalls. He convinced his father to invest $100,000 into creating a dedicated niche sneaker boutique and, in 2003, the first Limited Edt was launched at Queensway Shopping Centre. In its early days, Chopra relied on painstakingly cultivated e-mail lists to inform a small but loyal community of sneaker collectors of the latest drops. Word spread, queues for coveted footwear grew and a devoted sneaker community was born.

Today, there are 15 boutiques across Singapore, each catering to a different niche. Chamber at Marina Bay Sands sells collaborations with designer brands such as Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens and Jeremy Scott; Vault at 313@Somerset is known for collector’s editions and collaboration pieces like the Asicstiger X SBTG shoes. There are other stores specialising in basketball or skateboarding sneakers.

Over the years, Limited Edt has established itself as arguably the region’s most influential sneaker boutique, with fans flying in just to queue for special launches. It also has enough clout that its in house design team has worked on collaborations with almost every major shoe brand, including Adidas, Reebok, New Balance, Puma, Asics and Vans, as well as top sneaker artists including Singapore’s own Mark Ong of SBTG.

These “collabs” have been spotted on numerous celebrities including pop star Justin Bieber, hip-hop artist and producer Swizz Beatz, and actor Samuel L. Jackson. Famous personalities such as footballer David Beckham and rapper Missy Elliott have also previously dropped by the Limited Edt store unannounced for shopping sprees.

Spreading his wings

Now that sneaker appreciation has gone mainstream and upscale – designer labels such as Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Gucci have best-selling versions of the sneaker – he is on a mission to nurture the larger street culture community in Singapore and beyond. “I am at the point where I’ve been in this business for so long that I want to do something that is not about my company. I want to give back and grow a movement in Singapore that we can shout out about,” he says.

Enter Culture Cartel, the street culture festival which was held at the Singapore F1 Pit Building last year. It is the first of its kind in the region, showcasing the different sectors of street culture – ranging from art and toys, to tattoos and fashion – in a single event. Chopra, a partner and shareholder, was roped in by Culture Cartel’s three co-founders so as to tap into his extensive street culture network and to bulk up the event’s street style chops.

One of the highlights was the launch of Limited Edt’s popular Asics collab with SBTG. The boutique also created a Yeezy arcade booth where festival goers could win rare Yeezys if they won at the arcade games. Additionally, the team also assisted brands including Adidas, Nike, Crep Protect and Vans in conceptualising their booths.

He was wowed by the different urban tribes coming out in full force during the two-day event. “What’s different about Culture Cartel is that it isn’t just about sneakers and streetwear. It is about bringing different people together to expose them to different aspects of street culture.”

(RELATED: Why luxury fashion brands and streetwear are now collaborating frequently)

This year, Chopra says the festival will be about twice its initial size, with more music acts as well as “big names” joining the fray. There are plans to hold a pop-up in Indonesia too.

“We hope to make Singapore a hotbed for street culture around the region; we want to make the festival an institution,” he says.

Just like dance and music festival Zoukout?

“Yes, we can,” he says decisively.

Born a sneakerhead

Mandeep Chopra
Street Art
Chopra is photographed with an in-house collaboration – the Adidas Superstar X Limited Edt.

One can say Chopra was born with a passion for sports shoes in his blood. He grew up helping his father out at his shop in Peninsula Plaza in the late 80s. “When I was in primary school, I was on the sales floor at our general sports store selling ‘retro sneakers’ like LA Gear and Reebok when the country was going through an aerobics phase,” he recalls.

An active child, he played all manner of sports, including basketball and tennis. Much time was spent convincing his father that he needed appropriate shoes, such as Michael Chang’s or Andre Agassi’s Nike Air Tech Challenge tennis shoes, the Nike Air Max 90 running shoes or the New Balance James Worthy high tops.

Judging by the footwear he has brought to the photo shoot – the Nike Air Max 90, Adidas Superstar X Limited Edt and New Balance X Limited Edt Vault – his tastes still lean towards the classics.

But while the rarest purchases do get archived in his chain of Limited Edt stores for posterity, in general he is not precious about wearing most of his shoes. “I am not a collector, I don’t keep them on a pedestal,” he says. He typically has about seven to eight pairs of sneakers on rotation at any one time and, yes, he does throw away worn out shoes. “In Singapore’s climate where shoes can disintegrate easily, my advice is that you wear them.”

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He takes a similarly pragmatic approach to what some may say is peak sneaker obsession. “I don’t see the obsession as a bad thing. Sneakers are comfortable, they have become a fashion accessory and people even wear them with suits.”

He adds: “There may be purists who, if they see too many people wearing something, then they don’t want to wear it anymore. Well, everyone has the right to wear what they want and the purists will eventually find something more obscure to buy.”

In many ways, it is also an affirmation that his efforts to spearhead the local sneaker culture have paid off. “It makes me happy because it means we are doing our job,” he says. “When you think about it, even the uncle or aunty on street knows what (Adidas) NMDs are. It boggles me how much awareness there is.”

The sneaker influencer’s influences

Mandeep Chopra reveals how he stays plugged in to youth culture.

Mandeep Chopra

01 Embrace creative capitals

“I love the fashion scene and buzz of cities like Tokyo and New York.”

02 Keep tabs on digital feeds

“I used to be a fan of all the Japanese fashion and sneaker magazines, but now streetwear websites like Hypebeast keep me updated on what’s happening.”

03 Draw inspiration from other lifestyle spaces

“Rivington Club in New York, which has decor like a gentleman’s club, was an inspiration for Limited Edt. There are also lifestyle stores like Colette which set the tone for stuff we will do in the future.”

Rare kicks from Mandeep Chopra’s sneaker collection

There are precious signed kicks from sporting legends like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neil and current hotshot Stephen Curry on display in special archives in Limited Edt stores. But Mandeep Chopra’s personal collection might be even more jaw-dropping. Here are some of the rarest sneakers he owns.

Nike Air Mag

Limited Edt 2

These futuristic high-tops, worn by Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, were first released by Nike in 2011 via auction on eBay. Most pairs were sold for five-figure sums. “I have a pair in my size but have never worn them,” says Chopra.

Nike Air Yeezy 2

Limited Edt

Before Kanye West’s Yeezy shoes were synonymous with Adidas, he first collaborated with Nike. “The inspiration from the Air Tech Challenge midsole and the Air Trainer-like strap made me fall in love with this shoe. I wear this only when I need to turn heads,” says Chopra.

Nike Dunk Low SB X Limited Edt

Limited Edt

Consider this the pair that got away. These are just one of two sample pairs that were made for a Limited Edt collaboration with Nike in 2006 before the project was canned. About five years later, Chopra saw the sample being sold online and bought it for US$200.

Adidas Pharrell Hu NMD Holi

The “holi” grail for fans of this sneaker, it was created to pay homage to the Hindu celebration of Holi, where multicoloured dyes are thrown during the festival. Chopra says: “Every pair has different shades of colours. This is another pair I’ll wear if I want to be noticed.”