May 19, 2017

The creepy reason these Nikes are worth a fortune

How a suicide cult changed fashion
Nathan Jolly
MAY 13, 2017

THIRTY-NINE bodies, dressed in identical black uniforms, lay dead in a spacious San Diego mansion, as police combed the grisly scene.

They were all members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who believed that — through suicide — their souls would be transported from their lifeless bodies to a spaceship which was supposedly trailing the nearby Comet Hale-Bopp. From there, they would be beamed to a “level of existence above human.”

When the mass suicides splashed onto the nightly news on March 26, 1997, the cultish images of these bodies clad in all black uniforms left an indelible impression on the public. One thing stood out most among the horror: all 39 bodies were wearing matching black-and-white Nikes.

The shoes remained in focus when the unsettling photos peppered publications such as Time and Newsweek in the following weeks. Saturday Night Live helped further cement the connection between the cult and the company with a tasteless Nike commercial spoof of the events — the slogan “Just Do It” was too tempting a punchline to avoid.

Not surprisingly, Nike went into crisis mode, quietly discontinuing the line, and refusing to issue a press release about the tragedy.

While the story soon faded from prominence, the shoe’s limited availability, coupled with its morbid place in history, has resulted in the otherwise unassuming Nike Decade becoming one of the most sought after sneakers in the world. Resellers often ask for prices in the thousands for a single pair.

Chip Newell is one such collector, and he certainly knows the value of these shoes.

He is currently selling a pair on eBay for the inflammatory price of $6,660, displayed with a picture of Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite to really hammer home the point.

Not surprisingly, his listing attracts criticism from many who feel it’s offensive; Newell admits he had to remove any mention to the cult in his listing, as it violated eBay’s ‘tragedy’ rules. “My mum doesn’t think it’s funny, either”, he notes.

Despite their eerie exit from this realm, some members of Heaven’s Gate still inhabit Earth. The cult even maintains a website: A gaudy, pre-2000-style hub which features book excerpts, “exit statements” by students, and an essay titled, “Our Position Against Suicide” — a befuddled rant which runs counter to the group’s most famous action.

The site is maintained by ex-members Mark and Sarah King, who were among only eight members of Heaven’s Gate who didn’t commit suicide in 1997. They were chosen by the cult’s leader Marshall Applewhite to remain behind on Earth as the group’s “communication centre”, a job which involves — among other more mystic tasks — tending to emails, which they diligently continue to do two decades later.

They explained to me, via email, that the easy iconography of the matching shoes has been blown out of proportion.

“We were looking for a good buy on shoes”, the couple explains, of the decision to sport such iconic kicks.

“The Nike Decade was a discontinued line [they were actually still in production at the time] and the shoe store manager indicated he could come up with about 40 pairs of those shoes for us at a good price. We shopped around and found his deal to be the best in relation to the kind of shoe we wanted.”

According to records still kept by the Kings, the shoes were bought on March 1, for $US548.45, from a store in North County, San Diego. Just over three weeks later, the shoes were representative of much more than savvy shopping.

“It has been turned into something bigger than it really was”, they explain. “They were to demonstrate uniformity. We were all in the same attire, like team unity. It, again, got blown out of proportion.

“Any shoe that would have been selected would have done this. If it would have been Adidas or Converse or New Balance, they all would have been supported or received publicity. We thought that it actually hurt Nike more than helped, anyway.”

This much would appear to be true. Despite almost all Nike’s various ranges from the ‘80s and ‘90s having been successfully reissued over the years for nostalgia purposes, the company is obviously content to let the Decade fade into history.

Speaking to Ad Week in 1997, company spokesperson Jim Small gave the only public statement on the matter Nike have offered to date: “The Heaven’s Gate incident was a tragedy. It had nothing to do with Nike.”

But two decades later, the tragedy and the sneaker company remained inexorably linked.

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