The thing that Nick Sakai wanted most as a child turned out to be the catalyst for his life’s work. Growing up in California, Sakai, 33, was one of those sneaker-loving kids, and he had an eye for kicks he just couldn’t have. “I always wanted Jordans because [Michael Jordan] was such a hero of mine, but my mom refused to pay $100 for a pair of shoes,” he says. Eventually he got a pair: a used, beat-up, two-sizes-too-big hand-me-down from his older brother’s friend. “They were the best! I wore those things every day,” he says. “And even though they were disgusting, torn up and falling off my feet, I am still convinced to this day, 100 percent, they made me jump higher.”
Oh, if MJ only knew his Airs could launch more than three-pointers, because 20 years after wearing those beat-up shoes, Sakai has found himself at the heart of something of a little empire. At 28, Sakai opened CRSVR (pronounced “crossover”) in Santa Barbara, California, selling limited-edition sneakers—everything from special-issue Nikes, Vans and Jordans—as well as the obscenely loud Stance Socks. Sakai laid the storefront’s floors, painted the walls and worked every shift to make CRSVR a raging success.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I wanted to learn, and I was completely fearless,” he says. “To see that little concept grow and grow before my eyes keeps me grounded as hell. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about how lucky I am.”
In 2011 the Cosmopolitan invited Sakai to open a second CRSVR. His Vegas retail footprint leaps to the next level in December with12amRun (pronounced “Midnight Run”), opening at the personal behest of retail developer Rick Caruso at the Linq, Vegas’ new outdoor shopping, dining and playground going up across from Caesars Palace.
“I never thought in a million years that I would own two sneaker shops on Las Vegas Boulevard, and to this day, I still have the same hunger to nail—and grow—this thing,” he says.
We bet he never thought who his next business partner would be, either. “The rapper Nas caught wind of [12amRun] and my concept through some investors in L.A., and reached out to me when he was here for one of his shows,” Sakai says. “I still don’t know exactly how it happened, but I took the meeting.” Halfway through a tour of the rough construction site, Nas was hooked.
So what’s Sakai’s stealth plan for expansion? Besides the stores’ trifecta of $50-$200 inventory, lack of pretense and fun environs (DJ booths and live music are part of the shopping experience), Sakai’s ace in his pocket is a little thing called “locals.”
“The tourist can be great,” he says. “[They] want to spend when they’re on the Strip, because it’s the most electric piece of real estate in the country. But when owning and operating a small business, if you don’t have local support, you’re not going to make it. It’s that simple. … I made an effort to be as active within the community as possible from the day I arrived: schools, charities, events, fundraisers, nightlife, etc. The most rewarding thing about opening here in Las Vegas has been the unbelievable local support I’ve received.”
But let’s be real. This is Vegas, and what would a “look-at-him” profile be without dropping some name-bling? Sakai’s boyish charm and humility won’t let him say that the Rolodex he’s created over his short time in the shoe biz has made him the insider’s go-to guy for sweet kicks. In that ’dex? Boxing champion Floyd Mayweather; pro athletes Kevin Durant, Colin Kaepernick, Darrelle Revis and Reggie Bush; and musicians Justin Bieber and Wale.
“Someone told me that I had the best athlete Rolodex in all of Las Vegas … all from shoes. It’s so surreal.”