This 16-year-old has made millions selling rare sneakers
At Miami-Dades Opa Locka Executive Airport, a man in uniform walks in from the tarmac to the marble-floored private-jet lounge and starts whispering. He's excited. He just saw the rapper Travis Scott and his entourage pull up in a fleet of cars including a red Ferrari, black Porsche, and white Beemer with butterfly doors. Seconds later, a rosy-cheeked 16-year-old who goes by Benjamin Kickz appears in the parking lot wearing a Travis Scott hat. He has big brown eyes and a face that's just starting to thin out of its baby chub, barely sprouting the first, wispy mustache hairs. His phone is perpetually teetering on a one percent charge, and he is here today, with a French bulldog named Gucci in one hand and a shopping bag full of Air Jordans in the other, to complete a sneaker deal. Scott and Kickz meet in the middle of the lounge and dap, the tall lanky rapper with a mouthful of diamond grills wearing his own Gucci (in the form of slides) and a diamond-encrusted Tweety-bird chain.
"How's business?" someone yells out.
He already knows what Ben's going to say: "Boomin'!"
A woman behind the counter recognizes him, too: "How's business?" Someone in Scott's crew comes over: "Hey, Ben, how's business doing, my man?"
The answer is written across Ben's custom-made T-shirt in a big red logo, Supreme style. Ben smiles, puts down the bag of shoes. "Boomin'!" he replies, again and again, his voice deepening on the double o.Boomin'!
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Ben's real last name is Kapelushnik, and a full year before he should be graduating from his Fort Lauderdale high school (he skipped fourth grade and is now homeschooled), he's one of the most recognizable sneaker resellers in a flourishing resale market valued at $1.2 billion. Ben brags that he's on track to make $1 million in sales this year just from the normals who shop his collection every day online at sneakerdon.com. "What I make in one day on the website I can't make in a month with the rappers," Ben says, but they give him the satisfaction of working alongside his favorite celebrities. Plus, they function as brand ambassadors, offering free, well-placed mini-billboards that float across social media.
Famous people, of course, have a guy for everything. P. Diddy had his umbrella holder. Paris Hilton, her closet organizer. Ben is their sneaker broker, which means that in a crazy connoisseur's market where imposed scarcity, not style, is the most reliable driver of value, he will do whatever it takes to get you the sneaker you want — a high-end, single-product TaskRabbit so monofocused on the job of finding the right shoes that he now employs four others to do things like manage his website and ship his goods while he hustles connections with celebrities and distributors.
People have been worshipping sneakers at least since the '80s, when Run-DMC wrote an ode to Adidas, but the secondary market's current form is relatively new. Whereas before sneaker hobbyists existed only in an insular world of online forums, message boards, and sneaker conventions, now they find each other on Instagram's Explore page and in dedicated Facebook groups where the strongest collectors build followings and fame around sneaker closets. Which is one reason a 16-year-old kid could make a place for himself at the center of it. Could somebody like Travis Scott reach out to Nike himself? Maybe, but an athlete signed to Adidas couldn't. And collectors often want sneakers that were released ten years ago but still look brand-new. For this, they need Ben. Scroll through his Instagram and you'll see Ben looking serious, throwing up a peace sign with his head hitting the shoulders of Drake, Future, and DJ Khaled. Kevin Hart and Floyd Mayweather make appearances, too. But Ben says he picks his spots carefully. "I don't look at rappers like, Wow, that's a rapper," he says. "If every time you're like, 'Oh my God, can I get a picture?,' you'll never form a relationship. "
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Ben only recently met Scott — whose album Rodeo Ben says he once listened to exclusively for 15 days straight — at a party Kendall Jenner was throwing at OUE Skyspace in L.A. "I don't mind heights, but I'm no fan and we were on the 70th floor. You had to take three different elevators, and they had to scan your credentials at every stop, obviously, because everyone was there: Kendall; Kim Kardashian; Jaden Smith; Drake's dad, who's mad cool." A friend — "who used to work for P. Diddy" — introduced him to Scott, but "he already knew me from before. He was like, 'What's good? Ben, right?' I was like, Ohhhhhh shit."
At the airport, Scott and Ben walk out into the million-degree Miami summer and hustle toward the private jet, Ben's legs sticking to his light-gray Balmain jeans. ("Car-payment alert!" he says, then adds, "I don't need a car because these jeans make me fly.") Onboard, everyone hovers around as Ben unpacks and presents three sneakers to Scott. The strongest reaction is to the Broken Backboards ($425 on sneakerdon.com), a white-black-and-orange Air Jordan 1 named after a 1985 exhibition basketball game during which Michael Jordan dunked so magnificently he shattered the glass backboard. Scott yells. The entourage exclaims:
Contemporary sneaker culture was born in February 2012, when Nike released the Foamposite One "Galaxy." In honor of the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, just an hour west of the Kennedy Space Center, Nike printed an image of deep space on the sneaker's plastic body. The company produced so few of this color scheme that it didn't even sell the sneaker online. The sneaker world had a conniption. Bids on eBay hit $70,000. A guy from Queens tried to trade his Chevy Cavalier for a pair in size ten and a half. "Yes car for sneakers," he posted on Craigslist. "Car will come with a full tank of gas ... And I'll even drive to you."
At the time, Ben was 12. The "Galaxy" (now $1,550 on sneakerdon.com) was one of his early purchases, "off eBay for mad cheap." His mom had bought him his first pair of Nikes in middle school; he came home the next day a changed man. He read sneaker magazines to learn what was popular, used his bar-mitzvah money to buy more, studied the resale market, and met like-minded hobbyists at sneaker conventions. In eighth grade, he bought a pair of LeBron X MVPs. Nike raffled pairs of the bright-green-and-pink high-tops off at only ten stores, but Ben managed to find one for $400 from a sneaker acquaintance living nearby. The same day he bought them, before he'd even held them in his hands, he sold them to an 18-year-old friend for $4,000. Not that anybody in the family was really surprised. When Ben was 10 years old, he had asked a family friend's mother if he could buy her parrot — "Out of the blue!" remembers the friend. "She's like, 'No, Benjamin, the parrot's not for sale.' He goes, 'What do you mean? There's always a price.' "
He learned that listening to hip-hop. "All I saw was Lil Wayne wearing $100,000 chains in a Rolls-Royce," Ben says. "Now, that doesn't mean that's a great lifestyle I want for my kids, but when I listened to that, it got me infatuated to the point where I wanted to have a diamond necklace. I wanted to drive a Ferrari. I just thought to myself, I have to figure it out."
So with his MVP money, Ben set his sights on bulk orders. One of his first bulk purchases was 85 pairs of the Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG "Powder Blue" ($200 on sneakerdon.com), which he managed to buy before it was even released to market. "My thing was a hunnid," he says, meaning a hundred. "I started buying by the hundreds. When I posted it, everyone was like, Damn, he has a lot, so I showed it to other people, other plugs, and they were like, Okay, if he has the money to buy this, he can buy from us too. And then I bought more and more and more."
Ben moved his way up the hierarchy of insider sneaker sources — those "plugs" he's referring to — with purpose. In high school, he says, he never went out if there wasn't an opportunity to expand his reach. "Go with a girl to the movies, go with your brother to the movies — that's cool, but I have no interest in going out to parties and not networking with anyone. Not only does it get boring, you're not getting ahead." He doesn't drink or do drugs, he says, and when it comes to meeting new clients, he won't direct-message celebrities, instead carefully asking for connections and forcing face-to-face opportunities. Technically, Ben says, the people he buys from are resellers, but they don't have the customer base to sell their shoes: They sell in bulk to Ben. "I'm that one person that goes and scatters it around," he explains. "No one wants to go through dealing with [a random seller], because he only has one pair, one size. I have every pair, every size, because I just bought it from everybody. Done."
Growing up near Miami proved vital; the city was small enough for Ben to make a name for himself in the local sneaker community and big enough to reach influential clients. But his real break came at the end of 2014, when a customer introduced him to DJ Khaled. At the time, Khaled was known in hip-hop circles for orchestrating rap's most exuberant anthems, but he was still on the verge of becoming the most unlikely star of the Snapchat generation, where millions of fans follow the mundanity and routine of his daily life as he dishes out the "keys" to better living: healthy cooking, watering the plants, Jet Skiing. The producer reached out to Ben because he wanted three sets of the Air Jordan Ultimate Gift of Flight pack, six pairs of shoes in total. "One to rock, another one to rock, and one to stock," Ben explains. "Then, oh, one gets dirty? New-pair alert!" They started hanging out, bonding over sneakers, Ben sometimes sleeping over at Khaled's house. Now he's a recurring character on Khaled's Snapchat. "Everything we would just do or say regularly was now on Snapchat," Ben explains. "We were really just talking like that, like, 'Yo, let's hit the Skis, go catch a vibe.' " Ben's fame grew alongside his new mentor's. When I ask what people misunderstand most about him, Ben says, "Mainly, people are like, 'Are you DJ Khaled's son?' "
One night last December, after the black Yeezy Boost 750 release ($1,400 on sneakerdon.com), Ben was at Khaled's house with Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat. Ben had come into a small fortune that day, having sold a handful of Yeezys. Khaled was in the Jacuzzi, filming for Snapchat, and asked Ben, "How's business?" With Ben's answer, a tagline was born. "That was just the thing that came to my head. It's, like, a word, you know? It's like, Boomin'. It's just a boomin' word. It's just boomin'!" Last season, the Steelers' wide receiver Antonio Brown, also a friend of Khaled's, started using "Boomin'!" as a catchphrase.
Earlier this year, the hip-hop personality Karen Civil posted a video asking Hillary Clinton, "How's business?" The nominee smiled at the camera, looking directly at her millennial voters. "Boomin'!"
From the airport Ben calls an Uber, and we stop by his house in Aventura. He picks up his 9-year-old brother, Daniel, changes into shorts, and directs the driver to the Aventura mall for lunch, where the waitress says she's seen him on Snapchat. On Ben's Instagram, Daniel is often photographed while buried under piles of sneakers or next to girls in bikinis. It looks sleazy, but in person the brothers' relationship is much kinder. Daniel leans into Ben, and Ben wraps his arm around him as he orders fish tacos and a side of six or seven goat-cheese balls. "That's definitely my favorite cheese," Ben explains. "I'm kosher."
On the wall of fame in Ben's bedroom, there's a picture of him dancing behind the rapper Rick Ross as he performs for Ben at his bar mitzvah. Ben's father had met the rapper through work and asked him to make an appearance: "It's funny because I didn't know who he was then, and now I sell sneakers to him," Ben says. Both of Ben's parents — a real-estate broker and a stay-at-home mother — moved here from Russia, and Ben's voice has the type of inflection you might expect from someone who grew up speaking Russian to immigrant parents and now mostly hangs out with rappers. His favorite Khaled-ism is "Don't play yourself" and its iterations. Someone questions if his shoes are fake: "Congratulations, you played yourself." His dad didn't believe he'd actually bought Balmain jeans: "Played himself." Strategizing with friends about getting into the club: "Make sure we don't play ourselves." And even Ben himself is not excluded. He attempts speaking Spanish to an Uber driver but doesn't understand the reply: "I played myself."
Ben is in the process of signing on for a reality show, he says, and wants to open retail stores. A little over a month ago, the family moved to Los Angeles — "More opportunities, more money involved out there," Ben explains — but he's still got more than a thousand sneakers packed, floor to ceiling, in a stockroom here in Miami, and Ben says his entire inventory is worth over $1 million. He sits down on an office chair and picks up a pair of all-white Air Jordan 4 Retro Pure's ($400 on sneakerdon.com). "It's called 'You don't have these!' It's called 'All white!' It's called 'Leather-seats alert!' Feel this tumble leather. I'm being serious." He grabs another all-white shoe and licks the sole.
It's seven in the evening at the end of what Ben calls "probably one of the most unproductive days, but, like, really productive at the same time." He had stayed up till 5 a.m. editing a video of the Travis Scott deal for his Instagram, then woke up at one in the afternoon, took Daniel to the pool, went Jet Skiing, bought a bulk order of Yeezys, bought a pair of otherwise-sold-out Adidas NMDs for himself — "I called someone and I was like, 'Yo, I need these today.' Too easy!" — sold someone five pairs of sneakers, went to the post office to ship some orders, and got lunch with an old friend. "Like, I really only woke up seven hours ago."
Ben's talking as he plays with Gucci ("You're a little pig! You're a little pisher!") and squeezes his mom while screaming "I love you!" before collapsing on his bed. He needs a moment to lie horizontal, he says, before going back out to the club tonight. Around him, in his bedroom, is a shrine to his successes. Along with the wall of fame, there's a row of floating shelves that show off the first bright-orange Nikes his mother bought him and a newer Air Jordan 12 signed by Drake. There's a body pillow on his couch that says BOOMIN. On his bed, there's another pillow a fan sent him. It's an illustrated picture of Ben surrounded by shoe boxes while wearing Nike Air Mags, the self-lacing sneaker from Back to the Future II ($9,000 on sneakerdon.com), and a shirt that says YOUR SNEAKER PLUG AIN'T SHIT. Ben lies back on his own cartoon face, scrolling through Instagram. Travis Scott pops up, standing onstage at Madison Square Garden with Justin Bieber, performing in Ben's kicks.
*This article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.