Original All-Stars all gone
by Vanessa Gillard
Converse has unveiled the 2011 spring collection of their classic runners, the Chuck Taylor All-Stars. The new line features brightly coloured toes and toe guards with boxy, starkly contrasting patterned uppers. They will no doubt be flying off shelves as the shoe continues to see unparalleled popularity, and with a seemingly never-ending parade of new designs, the lengthy history of the sneaker that won’t wear out is today especially interesting.
Selling just over 800 million pairs worldwide since their debut from a rubber galoshes company out of Massachusetts called Converse, which opened in 1908, Chuck Taylor All-Stars have come full circle in many ways. But before discussing the footwear it seems only fair to introduce the feet, and by extension, the man who inspired these high-tops of the highest esteem.
Chuck Taylor was a man who wore many hats, and yet seemingly only one pair of shoes. In the ’20s, while basketball was growing in popularity, so was the former Indiana high school athlete Taylor. Taylor approached Converse to endorse the first mass-produced basketball sneaker ever.
Taylor had preferred the shoe, the All-Star, in high school, and accepted the job enthusiastically. Taylor took his endorsement quite seriously, and suggested that the shoe be sewn together differently to enhance flexibility, the tread be converted to non-slip and a patch be added to the inside facing panel. That patch became the emblem for one of the most enduring brands in history, and the company put Taylor’s moniker on it shortly afterward. He then began to circle the country promoting the shoe and leading basketball clinics: a real door-to-door salesman.
Considering the piles of people sitting around today, pondering the science of both selling the basketball shoe, and marketing it, Taylor’s efforts were quite minimal considering what he accomplished. In 1936 Taylor designed the first athletic shoe to be worn in the Olympics by the first American basketball players to compete at the games. “Chucks,” as they are sometimes affectionately known, were also the official athletic shoe of the United States armed forces.
The iconic footwear began as the face of a burgeoning sport, but as times changed consumers wanted more variety than just the original three types. Taylor co-designed many different styles, but while the colours and textures increased the shoe’s popularity, the classic black and white was popularized by 1950s counterculture.
Basketball has always been a popular game for kids growing up in urban centres, and this led to thousands of young men sporting the reasonably priced shoes.
Because Chucks were the neighborhood kid’s go-to shoe they became a symbol of youth, middle-class sensibilities and rebellion all at once. This may explain, in part, why Chucks didn’t quite fade into the scarves and tassels, ironic combat boots and bare feet of the 1960s. If footwear was a hallmark of trend in the ’60s, Paul McCartney and The Beach Boys wearing Chucks said it all.
The Ramones are probably the musicians most well-known for donning the rubber-toed originals. So much so that the band had a tattered design dedicated to them when the band’s logo replaced the All-Star patch. Chuck Taylors perfectly embodied the rebellious spirit of a movement that was a revolt against the fluffy self-indulgence of the “Me Decade.”
Converse saw a serious downturn in sales in the ’80s, and the following decade wasn’t much kinder. The introduction of new designs such as Reebok’s Pump took the simple, unassuming Chuck out of a gradually dimming spotlight.
The company’s poor decisions and loss of market share led to its eventual demise in 2001, when it was announced that Converse was filing for bankruptcy.
When the news came that Nike was to purchase the brand for $304 million, diehard fans of the shoe saw red. It was thought the quality of the product would be degraded, and Nike’s manufacturing practices would see American jobs lost, with more of Nike’s purported sweatshops set up.
Manufacturing did indeed move to Asia, and the famous double-ply canvas construction became single-ply “textile.” Many who had worn the shoe prior to Nike’s production noticed the easy-wearing and altered appearance, and complained quite vocally. The result was that Nike returned to the original contruction method, for an additional $5. This was the final straw for some.
Regardless of the complaints of those few naysayers, the re-branding of the Chuck Taylor All-Star has been a resounding commercial success. There is even a website that enables Americans to design their own pair. (Canucks get no custom Chucks.) The countercultures that gave these shoes their appeal are increasingly rejecting them, vying for shoes that aren’t such sellouts. The irony is palpable indeed, and although there have never been more Chucks walking the streets worldwide, the quality that its namesake assured and stood by will never quite measure up while the most famous sneaker in history is sewn together with profits and bottom lines.