Flight Club reopens two years after COVID and civil unrest shut L.A. sneakerheads' favorite hangout

·8 min read
Los Angeles, CA - July 07: Flight Club's floor-to-ceiling wall of consignment sneakers is seen inside the store on Thursday, July 7, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. A scissor lift is a fixture in the store, for when customers want to purchase sneakers from high on the wall. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)
Flight Club is remodeled and reopening with floor-to-ceiling walls of sneakers. The North Fairfax Avenue store was a favorite stop for sneaker fans before it closed in 2020. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Since it opened in 2006, Flight Club Los Angeles was always more than just a consignment and retail store for sneakerheads and resellers.

It was a clubhouse and cultural hub, a gallery where customers could browse some of the most famous shoes ever made. Friends met up there to just hang out, untroubled by the usual kind of buy-and-scram sales staff. Flight Club grew into one of the biggest draws on North Fairfax Avenue's streetwear row.

But then came March 2020 and the global COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns that closed all but essential retail outlets. In May, before Flight Club could reopen, thieves exploited civic upheaval around the city, targeting upscale stores.

Flight Club was gutted, along with the psyches of some of its most avid fans.

"I've been on the block maybe once since then and I didn't even want to walk past it," said Kevin Gaspard, a longtime Flight Club customer and streetwear designer who was a regular in the space. "It was just too weird to not be able to go in there. I stopped hanging out on Fairfax because it felt almost pointless."

More than two years later, the Los Angeles storefront for sneaker and streetwear marketplace GOAT Group is quietly reopening its doors Monday. Chief Executive Eddy Lu hopes the extensive overhaul will not only restore the popularity of the old Flight Club but go beyond it.

The inside of a building with shoes stacked on walls to the left and right.
The interior of Flight Club's renovated space on North Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Lu wants the new Flight Club to spark a rejuvenation outside its walls for an area that looks little changed since 2020.

Although some businesses appear to be doing well, many storefronts still have their graffiti-festooned metal security roll-ups firmly locked in place. Armed robberies have been a continuing concern in the Fairfax and Melrose shopping areas.

"I can't wait to go," Gaspard said. "It's going to feel like the old stomping ground is coming back to what it used to be. I mean, a lot of things still aren't the same since COVID happened, but it will be good to see Flight Club back because it's definitely a staple in that community."

Lu remembers watching some of the news coverage of thieves walking off with armloads of Flight Club merchandise and feeling "disappointed. It was a down time for the company."

A man holds a pair of shoes.
Flight Club sales lead Micah Gardner with a pair of 2006 Stash X Nike Air Max 95 sneakers. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

When GOAT Group bought Flight Club in 2018, it sent shock waves through the sneakerhead cosmos.

Flight Club, after all, revolutionized sneaker retail with its original New York store in 2005. It was a pioneer for collectors wanting to sell rare shoes on consignment and for buyers willing to stand in line for hours to snag the next hot shoe during exclusive product drops.

Would the purchase by GOAT (which stands for Greatest of All Time) be akin to allowing the money changers into the temple?

Instead, the matchup was more like landing a star player at the trade deadline.

The combo brought GOAT's financial muscle — its most recent funding round doubled the firm's valuation to $3.7 billion — and rigorous product authentication process to Flight Club. And it brought Flight Club's street cred and passionate fan base to GOAT, as well as the online juggernaut's first physical retail spots.

The pre-2020 Flight Club Los Angeles store was minimalist and modern. The walls were lined with pale plywood and pegboard that carried shoes from floor to ceiling, like an art installation.

The new version also embraces a modern, product-is-king aesthetic but has pivoted to a full-on industrial look. Plywood has been replaced with concrete, steel and rebar. A heavy-duty scissor lift stands ready to fetch out-of-reach kicks.

"Flight Club has meant so much to the community" outside its walls, Lu said. "So we took elements of Los Angeles to say, 'Let's embrace where we are, the rugged freeways, the traffic, the concrete, etc., and put that into the store and just have that beautiful marriage of L.A. with sneakers and Fairfax,' just to make a statement that we are back and better than before."

Shoes on a wall.
A collection of Nike Dunk shoes on display at Flight Club. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

The only thing that remains from the old store is the so-called centerpiece, a long rectangular seating area where friends gathered and customers tried on shoes.

GOAT representatives were tight-lipped when it came to discussing details of one addition: the noticeably tighter security, with better entrance protection and fewer ways to get into the store.

GOAT representatives also declined to reveal how much was lost in 2020 and how much was covered by insurance. As a goodwill gesture, Flight Club members whose shoes were in the store for resale were reimbursed, the company said.

From a financial standpoint, GOAT Group didn't need to reopen the Los Angeles store, Lu said.

Digital transactions soared during the pandemic, and more than $2 billion worth of merchandise was sold on Goat.com and FlightClub.com in the last year. The platforms have more than 40 million members and more than 700,000 sellers across 170 countries.

"Sales and member growth has been phenomenal," Lu said. "And it's just a testament to the brand that Flight Club presents where, hey, if I can't shop at the stores, I can access FlightClub.com online."

But the plan was always to reopen the store.

"Sneakers are such a tactile experience," Lu said. "It is a physical product and something that you can't replicate online. And that's why I think it's so important and valuable to have that in-person experience, to really have all the feels and smells of the store."

Despite the cosmetic changes, Lu said, the store will remain one that welcomes people to hang out and learn about the sneaker world.

"Traditional retail stores are all about the sales transaction," Lu said. "We've never felt that way about Flight Club.

"In some ways, it's like going to a museum. It's an experience where you get to have that tactile feel of shoes you've seen many times online, but now you can live it and breathe it, you can smell it. You can try it on. You can really experience and see the subtle details of these sneakers. These are products that so many people are passionate about in real life. That's what makes people stay in the store."

Shoes.
Flight Club displays original 1985 Nike Jordan sneakers. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

An entire wall of the store is devoted to the primary collection, with Air Jordans and Air Jordan collaborations, a section for Nike Dunks, and a section of Yeezys.

Another area is dedicated to the rarest and most exclusive so-called Grail shoes, which might include the $50,000 Air Yeezy 2 Sp Red October, the $30,000 Nike MAG Back to the Future sneaks and a $30,000 Eminem X Carhartt x Air Jordan 4 Black Chrome.

At the rear of the store is a special exhibit section where pairs of the entire 1985 line of Jordan 1s are featured, on loan for the reopening by avid sneaker collector Ryan Scott, who owns more than 500 pairs of shoes.

The store will also feature Nike AF 1 shoes made in separate collaborations with the late artist Virgil Abloh and designer Louis Vuitton.

Special art was commissioned for the store, including a mural by well-known graffiti artist Stash, who said he was thrilled to be part of Flight Club's return.

"Flight Club was and still is one of the most amazing retail concepts, in my opinion," he said. "I wish I'd had Flight Club when I was younger."

A man stands next to a shoe in a display case.
Eddy Lu is co-founder and chief executive of GOAT Group. Lu said Flight Club will remain a store that welcomes people to hang out and learn about the sneaker world. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The reopening has been a curious mix of spy-grade hush-hush, in which it amazingly didn't get leaked on social media, and something video gamers might refer to as an Easter egg hunt. All around the Flight Club Los Angeles location were hints that something was about to happen.

On the northwest corner of North Fairfax Avenue and Rosewood Avenue, for example, were a series of large posters showing the progress of an artist painting a mural. The artist was Stash painting the mural that will be on a wall inside the store.

On the roof of the same building, it looked as if someone had committed the ultimate insult to the memory of the store by graffiti-tagging the entire lower half of a huge Flight Club billboard.

It wasn't vandalism. It was done with purpose, again by Stash. The same symbol will be sold on one sleeve of Flight Club T-shirts commemorating the reopening.

One person who can't wait for it to happen is Greg Plotkin, 52, a film editor whose latest job was working on the upcoming movie "Secret Headquarters." Plotkin is a longtime sneakerhead who has shared his passion for shoes with sons Jake, 16, and Lucas, 14.

"There were always great shoes that my sons had never seen except in photos, like one time there was a very rare pair of Yeezys," Plotkin said. "And he was allowed to hold them, which is what sets Flight Club apart from other stores. Lucas just flipped, and from then on it was his favorite store."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.