Chucks Iconic Pop Culture Item

AllStar
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When I was in junior high school, Chuck Taylor All Star Converse shoes became the wildly popular and trendy shoe of the moment.  All the kids wore them; you were nothing within school society if you didn’t have at least one pair.  Although my mother had resisted other clothing trends in my school career, she acceded to the demands for Converse shoes and gifted me with several pairs during that school year.  As luck would have it, that year my brother and I wore the same size shoe and at my urging he began to verbalize the need for Converse as well and refused to wear any other brand.  Between the two of us we became the proud owners of a small rainbow of Converse shoes which we wore every day, often exchanging one shoe of a pair so we could wear two different colors at the same time and match them to our outfits.  Although the fad burned out before I moved on to high school, it remains a fond memory of one of the few times that I was considered fashionably dressed during my school years.

 

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Designed by Missoni

 

Thanks to my positive associations with the shoe, I have looked on the resurgence in popularity of Converse All Stars with a sentimental feeling of happiness and a bit of awe.  How have these shoes remained in existence for so many years?  Why is it that Converse have persevered when so many other seemingly superior products appear and disappear just as quickly off the market?  In fact, this time around it seems as if Converse shoes have become an even more integral part of pop culture, and they seem poised to remain so.  They have appeared in movies, been worn by celebrities, popular designers have created their own versions of Converse, and artists have immortalized them in sculptures and paintings.  So what is it about a simple pair of shoes that has vaulted them to the status of permanent iconic objects?

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Designed by John Varvatos

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Still from preview video promoting Converse designed by Maison Martin Margiela

 

The All Stars got their start in 1917, designed by the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in Massachusetts, America, as an attempt to gain a foothold in the basketball shoe market.  The original shoe was produced in a natural brown colored canvas with black trim, and in the 1920s Converse began to manufacture them in black canvas and leather.  Although the shoe sold well enough, it wasn’t until basketball player Chuck Taylor joined the Converse Company in 1921 that sales really took off.

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Chuck Taylor in 1921

Within a year, Taylor has suggested several alterations to the design and appearance of the shoe which were successfully implemented.  In addition, his work as a salesman and basketball player for the company’s team made him such an asset to the company that they placed his name on the shoe.  In 1932 his signature was incorporated into the design, branding the shoes with the name that they are still known by today.

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Dragon eyelet detail from “Year of the Dragon” released in 2012

What is notable about Taylor’s career with the Converse Company is the innovative style with which he sold the shoes.  As a salesman and ambassador for the company, he traveled extensively within America.  His strategy included visiting small towns, where he would align himself with the local sports retailers, basketball coaches and teams there and then hold basketball clinics while promoting the shoes.  He is recalled as being enthusiastic about basketball and about Converse shoes as well, and he crisscrossed the country countless times in his career.  He worked hard to project a positive image and create and maintain bonds with his customers.  He seemed to recognize the importance of promoting himself as a brand; a strategy which is still widely utilized today in the selling of athletic shoes.

Untitled9Converse All Star graffiti

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Designed by MAMAFAKA

Thanks to Taylor’s tireless efforts, the Converse All Star continued to gain in popularity across the country.  It was the shoe worn by the American basketball team in their gold medal winning performance in the 1936 Olympics.  With the outbreak of World War II, Converse sought to extend its influence by supplying the American Army and Air Force with specially designed footwear for combat.  In addition, the Chuck Taylor All Stars were a popular choice for soldiers in training, and with Chuck Taylor himself serving as well, the influence of Converse shoes continued to grow.

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Billboard concept design for Converse by Says Who

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Cardboard Converse All Stars by Michael Leavitt

After the end of World War II, basketball became a national sport in America and by the end of the 1940s nearly every professional basketball player wore Chuck Taylor All Stars.  By the mid 1950s, they were the number one selling basketball shoe in the country and a decade later they still dominated with an 80% share in the market.  However, in 1969 Chuck Taylor died less than a year after retiring, and with his passing, Converse’s hold on the market began to weaken.  In 2001, the Converse shoe company filed for bankruptcy and in 2003 it was bought up by Nike.

Untitled13Kimono inspired Converse

Untitled14Designed by Oscar Niemeyer

Of course, this retelling of history does nothing to explain the lasting appeal of the Chuck Taylor All Stars.  But what is interesting to note is the parallel story of the shoes which unfolded along the way.  While All Stars were the preferred choice of basketball stars for many years, simultaneously they also became the shoe of choice for many unconventional and non-conformist members of society.   As shoes designed for a specific sport, wearing them without regard to their purpose and in other settings turned them into symbols for rebellious behavior.  This idea is reflected in movies such as 1961’s West Side Story in which the gang members all wore Converse All Stars; the Jets in white and the Sharks in black.  The movie Rocky was released in 1976 and it portrayed Sylvester Stallone’s character wearing black Chuck Taylor’s during his training regime; a sign of his determination to become a champion boxer by following his own non-traditional path.  It is even said that James Dean, Hollywood’s original bad boy was a fan of Converse sneakers.

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Converse sculpture by Alain Salomon

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Designed by Shotopop for the “Hack a Chuck” project

But Converse All Stars gained the majority of their acclaim as a symbol of the counterculture due to their popularity with musicians.  In the 1970s and continuing well into the 1990s, the shoes were embraced by many alternative musicians, from punk bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, to rappers such as NWA and grunge stars like Kurt Cobain.  The shoes were cheap, easily available and made to endure a multitude of activities.  As Converse began to fall in popularity, they became even more significant as wearing them signified a deliberate refusal to buy trendy mainstream products; they were a physical representation of the underdog outsiders and social outcasts that every rebel imagined himself to be.

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All Star High Tops “Huipil”

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Designed by Taro Okamoto

In the early 2000s, Converse finally embraced the fact that the majority of its customers are not basketball playing athletes and accordingly it reworked its image and began marketing to its relevant customer base.  It has reached out to musicians and artists and skateboarders as well.  Today the Converse brand represents a different mindset; it encourages a challenge of the status quo, portrays the idea of age as an attitude and the need for self-expressions as vital.

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All Star High Top “Rasta Cap”

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Converse graffiti in Atlanta, USA as part of the “Wall to Wall” initiative

Throughout their history, Chuck Taylor’s have been appropriated by numerous subcultures and used to represent characteristics and beliefs of different groups.  However, over the course of their journey they have gone from edgy and anti-authoritarian into the mainstream.  Today they are worn by everyone from toddlers to grandmothers, but one thing has remained constant.  All Stars are, as they almost always have been, an object to help one construct a social identity.

Untitled21Embroidered All Stars customization

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All Star “Animals” collection for children

Due to their previous societal connotations, they remain a statement making shoe.  What has changed is that now they don’t represent just one perspective.  Instead these simple canvas shoes exist as a sort of blank canvas for the wearer to use as an expression of their unique identity, whatever that may be.  And that aspect is what lies behind their never-ending appeal; with their availability in a range of colors, patterns and styles and the easy possibility of customization, anyone can make their All Stars whatever they want them to be.  And allowing even the most insignificant individual the ability and encouragement to define themselves through a simple pair of shoes is what makes Converse a continuing success.

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“Lovikka” All Star by SneakersNStuff

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Batman Arkham City customization

Today, Converse has sold over 800 million pairs of Chuck Taylor All Stars and they show no signs of fading from the limelight.   Although their popularity may ebb and flow, they seem sure to remain a dominant element of mass consumerism and pop culture for some time to come.  Clearly, the consumers have yet to realize the irony of owning a pair of All Stars; buying a pair of Chuck Taylor’s to show your individuality simply means that you are just like everyone else.

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Van Gogh “Starry Night”

 

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