Chuck Taylor's Enduring Legacy: A History of the Converse All Star
Chuck Taylor's Enduring Legacy: A History of the Converse All Star
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date June 24, 2019
In 1908 in Malden, Massachusetts, Marquis Mills Converse founded The Converse Rubber Shoe Company. Although initially a producer of rubber-soled galoshes, by 1917 Converse was ready to venture into the world of basketball, and set out to create the company’s first performance athletic shoe. The precursor to the “All Star”, the “Non-Skids” consisted of a rubber sole and a canvas upper designed specifically for athletes.
Converses championed the Non-Skids as a revolutionary performance product. Featuring a “two-piece quarter instead of the single piece back, which permits shaping the back seam, thus obtaining a perfect fit around the ankles” and “exclusive foot-form last, which gives ample toe room, a snug fit over the instep, and proper support.” The first basketball shoe was born. Four short years later, American semi-professional basketball player Charles “Chuck” Taylor joined the company as a salesman, and his impact was monumental in every aspect.
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During his first year at the company, Taylor introduced improvements to the shoe’s design, enhancing both flexibility and ankle support. More importantly, Taylor understood the value of good marketing and branding, opting to incorporate the now-iconic All Star logo on a circular patch above the ankle. Taylor’s signature was added to the ankle patch, officially creating the “Chuck Taylor All Stars,” the first athlete-endorsed signature sneaker, in 1922.
Professional basketball was dramatically less popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s, so in order to market the shoe Taylor visited YMCAs and high school gyms across the country, to directly communicate with prospective buyers—young athletes in particular. As a direct result, the next generation of professionals began wearing All Stars throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. The shoes popularity however was not limited to basketball but sports in general, eventually becoming the official shoe of the Olympics from 1936 to 1968. Even the Armed Forces—who chose All Stars as its official athletic training shoes throughout World War II—acknowledged the technological innovation of Converse. The shoes were a nationwide success, a symbol of American ingenuity and craft.
Following WWII, Chuck Taylors were more popular than ever, and nearly every high school and collegiate basketball players wore Chuck Taylors. By the ‘60s, Converse controlled nearly 80 percent of the basketball footwear market, with 90 percent of professional and collegiate basketball players wearing All Stars—a statistic no modern business comes close to.
But in the 1970s the company began to struggle financially, due to increased competition and outdated technology. Athletes switched to shoes with leather uppers and harder rubber soles for increased support.With rivals adidas and Nike pushing newer, performance driven sneakers, Converse simply fell out of favor. The last time a canvas Converse All Star was worn in the NBA was during the 1979-80 season by Tree Rollins. Lacking hardwood presence, the shoe began to grapple with its off-court identity.
“The rise of sneaker culture killed Converse in the 80s,” said Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, one-third of legendary rap group Run-DMC and noted adidas enthusiast. “Sneakers were aspirational. Hardly nobody in the NBA was wearing old-school Chuck Taylors in the '80s. Chucks got old-looking fast.”
Speaking on the All Stars’ fall from grace, former Converse marketing manager explained how Converse always thought of itself “as an athletic shoe company...maybe too much, frankly. Chuck Taylors were for the freaks and geeks.”
One arena where Chuck Taylors icon status remained was the music industry. Various sub-genres from Punk and Grunge to Alt Rock each adapted the Converse as its own, with bands like The Ramones, Nirvana and The Strokes all regularly wearing the shoes. The simplified black canvas became a symbol with the unique subcultures associated with each music scene.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was still rebellious to wear sneakers outside of the gym,” Tommy Ramone said to SPIN. “Doing that was anti-establishment.” For its 100th anniversary in 2008, Converse released shoes honoring the Ramones, Kurt Cobain shoe and The Clash—all individuals who regularly wore All Stars. In fact, the shoe is so intrinsic to the history of rock that various bands from Pink Floyd to Def Leppard and Iron Maiden have all had Chuck Taylors made in their honor.
Not just rock, but other music genres helped the All Star remain in the public consciousness, despite losing its basketball association. West coast rap particularly was a haven for Chuck Taylors. “Growing up in Compton in the 1980s, I started wearing Chuck Taylors by watching my older brothers, my friends, my uncles,” said Ice Cube. “You’d see all these gangsters going to the surplus stores and buying Chuck Taylors because they looked good with a pair of khaki pants and a T-shirt. You could spend $60 and look fresh. Black Chuck Taylors worked with that raw, hardcore street feel that N.W.A. wanted, even if some people were more into Jordans and shit.”
Despite the cultural cache these musicians provided, for years Converse fought against any association to any genres or subculture. The company no doubt felt the relationships diluted the brand, and fought to maintain itself as a performance shoe designer, despite all the evidence to the contrary. More than 60 years after its flagship model was introduced, the sneaker was vastly outdated, a relic of a bygone time. While it had outlived its reign as a performance sneaker, the shoe found new life as a casual lifestyle sneaker, a reto favorite. By the '90s, when Nike and adidas sales dwarfed Converse, the All Star was still favorite among artists and musicians, and Converse finally began to cave, embracing its newfound cultural standing. By the shoes' 80th anniversary, Converse had sold more than 600 million pairs.
Despite years of monstrous sales, when the All Star’s on-court bubble burst in the ‘70s, Converse suffered financially for decades due to both competition and poor decision-making at the corporate level. The company filed for bankruptcy multiple times and floundered in debt. In 2003, knowing full-well the cultural relevance of the All Stars and the Converse brand—not to mention the current retro boom—ever-forward thinking Nike purchased Converse for an estimated $305 million.
“Nike buying Converse was a game-changer,” said designer John Varvatos to SPIN. “That allowed Nike to have a bigger piece of the lifestyle business and Converse to transition out of the performance-sneaker business. And obviously, the strongest part of the lifestyle business for Converse was Chuck Taylors.” Follow the acquisition, Nike’s global retail and whole arm drastically transformed the business from a million pairs of Chuck Taylors sold globally in 2001 to a whopping 55 million in 2007 alone.
Originally, the All Star had three main design styles: An all-black pair with a black canvas upper and black rubber soles, an all-white high top with blue and red trim designed for the 1936 Olympics and an all-black leather and rubber version. In 1949, Converse would introduce the iconic black canvas shoe with the white toe guard, laces and outer wraps, in what is probably the most popular version of the shoe known today. Other versions of the shoe would soon follow, including the low-cut “oxford” version of the All Star, introduced in 1957. Lacking the hi-top's ankle patch, the low features All Star logo on the heel, as well as a tag with the same logo as the heel stitched onto the tongue. In the decades since, both the highs and lows have been recently in literally countless materials, colorways and iterations.
After more than a decade of Nike ownership, Converse finally iterated on the sneaker, releasing the All Star II in July 2015. Featuring a thicker Tencel canvas, a higher rubber midsole, lighter-weight rubber, thicker Lunarlon cushioning, a smaller toe cap and other slight design tweaks, the new sneaker was supposed to launch Converse into a new generation. Unfortuantely, it didn’t. At $75—with a meshed-back leather version retailing for $100 and a water-resistant canvas version selling for $110—the shoes were a drastic price hike from the originals, and almost immediately deemed a flop. They sat on clearance racks at various retailers, proof that tweaking a classic is often simply bad business.
Of course that's not to say that the Converse All Star's lineage has been tarnished by iteration. In the fashion space, the All Star has thrived, earning consistent cachet with collaborations across the spectrum; Brain Dead, J.W. Anderson and Maison Margiela have all lent their design flourishes to the classic sneaker. Of course, that's to say nothing of Converse's long-running collaboration with Rei Kawakubo's Comme des Garçons PLAY line. Even Virgil Abloh included the Chuck Taylor in his game-changing "The Ten" sneaker collaboration collection with Nike.
Chuck Taylor All Stars transcend sneakers. Over the past century, titans of culture including Elvis Presley, James Dean and Steve McQueen all, at one time or another, strapped on All Stars. The shoes featured prominently in cult classics like Hoosiers and Wayne’s World, popular sitcoms such as M*A*S*H and Happy Days—even Sylvester Stallone wore them in the infamous Rocky training montage. The shoes prolonged influence on not only basketball, but sneaker culture as a whole remains unrivaled. Above all, All Stars have always been democratic, affordable shoes worn by those with taste, talent and a sense of history. Former Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman said it best: “Growing up in Texas, I wore Chuck Taylors til they fell off...I was poor. I had nothing, but I felt like I had something in those shoes. They’re the shoe.”
“So thanks, Chuck Taylor, whoever the fuck that is.”