A Shoe For Every Subculture: A Brief History of the Nike Dunk
A Shoe For Every Subculture: A Brief History of the Nike Dunk
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date August 10, 2020
With links to sneaker tourism, skateboarding, streetwear and runway appearances, the Nike Dunk is a focal point of not only sneaker culture, but men’s fashion at large. Yet, for a shoe with such rich cultural appeal, the Dunk has a difficult history.
The second most-popular shoe to debut in 1985—after the Jordan I—the Dunk was never intended as a flagship model. Instead, it was a college-centric basketball shoe. Designed for NCAA athletes (and their respective fans), the Dunk was an attempt to capitalize on the collegiate leagues' growing appeal. But, despite playing second fiddle to one of the most successful Nike sneakers of all time, the shoe took on a life all its own, quickly diverging from its intended audience and finding new life in a variety of subcultures. From there, the shoe faded in and out of public consciousness, never quite hitting fever pitch but always making waves.
As of 2020, though, that’s all changed. Not only is the sneaker back in full force, boasting Off-White and Travis Scott collabs and a number of successful retros, but its sister sneaker, the SB Dunk is once again a hypebeast must-have.
How did an eerily similar Nike silhouette gain such a fervent following? Furthermore, considering how it fell out of fashion multiple times, what caused the recent resurgence? The answer is a long history of beloved colorways, clever collaborations and leveraging its own cachet.
Follow Asaf on Instagram here.
Originally sketched by former Nike creative director Peter Moore (the same who designed the Jordan I), the Dunk was conceived as a natural evolution from the Air Force 1 that debuted three years prior. Bearing a resemblance to both the Jordan I and Nike Terminator, the upper featured subtle tweaks, a sort of middle ground between the two aforementioned silhouettes. Though often described as a precursor to the Jordan I, in reality, the Dunk was released slightly after the initial Jordan model, which was personally developed to sway Jordan himself to sign with a swoosh. With a last was based off of the Nike Legend—at the time Nike’s most successful basketball shoe—the shoe did not particularly stand out from the rest of the Nike line-up.
Originally named the College Color High, the shoe somewhat randomly coincided with the 40th anniversary of the “first” slam dunk, leading to a last minute name change. In fact, the most memorable aspect of the sneaker was its debut marketing campaign. In anticipation of the shoe’s release, Nike launched the now-iconic “Be True to Your School” collection, one of the most effective (if unanticipated) advertisements in the brand's then-nascent history. As “College Color” implies, the Nike Dunk was designed as a shoe for college basketball teams. The concept was simple: Sponsor successful Division I college teams and provide the players with color-coordinated sneakers, then market those same shoes to the respective campus so fans could match their school’s all-stars. Teams like UNLV, Michigan, St. John’s, Syracuse, Iowa and Kentucky (amongst others) all received the “Be True” treatment. It was a smash success. Dunks performed especially well amongst younger males who adored their bold collegiate colorways, then a rarity.
Throughout the mid- to late-'80s, the Dunk was a favorite, but given basketball’s explosion in popularity and a renewed focus on technological innovation across the sneaker industry, the Dunk quickly became outdated—no longer suited for the court. Still, it remained a reliable casual sneaker, introducing subtle changes over the following decade including a nylon tongue to reduce weight, a shorter shaft and an augmented, thicker swoosh.
Incidentally, these changes made the shoe all the more appealing to an entirely separate audience, the skate community. As early as 1986, Dunks were spotted in skate videos—most notably NYC-based SHUT Skates crew members in Iowa Dunk His–and by the early-'90s many of the skate community’s most notable figures—from the Z-Boys to Mark Gonzales—would skate in Dunks. Though Dunks became synonymous with the skate scene's formative figures, it would take more than a decade before Nike was able to successfully infiltrate the industry.
In 1999, after 14 years, Nike finally re-released the “Be True to Your School” pack for the first time, adding a number of extra colorways to boot. Of the new releases, by far the most notable was the now infamous “Wu-Tang” Dunk. In reality just a special edition Iowa Dunk with an embroidered “Wu W” on the heel, Nike repurposed the design and created 36 pairs—an ode to the groups essential album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—which were gifted to Wu-Tang Clan members and associates. Eventually word got out and considering the incredible rarity, a legend was born. Today, the shoes are some of the most valuable and sought-after dunks on the market and sell for tens of thousands of dollars... that is, if you can find them.
The rise of sneaker forums like NikeTalk in the early-2000s perfectly coincided with the Dunk retros. For many of the first “sneakerheads,” their primary focus was collecting not only the “Be True” pack, but regional exclusives as well. While these geographically-limited Dunks had existed for a couple years, before the dawn of forum culture, it was nearly impossible to know about them—let alone buy them—if you lived outside the immediate area. With eager collectors blogging about every single release, however, suddenly buying and trading became a real possibility. Even CO.JP releases (Dunk colorways exclusive to Japan) were suddenly on the radar. Partly spearheaded by the godfather of Japanese streetwear himself, Hiroshi Fujiwara, the CO.JP exclusives were so enticing that eager fans literally made trips across the globe for an opportunity to score a pair, later referred to as “sneaker tourism.” During these trips, sneakerheads naturally went shopping, and in doing so, discovered and exported the countries most notable streetwear brands back to the states.
The CO.JP Dunks were not the sneaker’s only ties to streetwear. In 2001, Nike tapped Stussy for the first-ever brand collaboration Dunk. At, arguably, its pinnacle, Stussy was the world’s preeminent streetwear brand, with chapter stores in New York, Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. Largely influenced by London-based Gimme Five (the company’s European distributor at the time), the design was the product of Gimme Five founder Michael Kopelman, Simon Porter and Nike creative guru Fraser Cooke. Available in three colorways (two highs and one low) and sold exclusively at the chapter stores, the shoes were released over the process of two weeks, with each store instructed to sell 12 pairs per colorway per day. The release strategy created an unprecedented demand, and set the stage for the golden era of Nike Dunks.
Over the next few years, notable models from the “Brazil” and “Celtic” Dunks to a trio of collaborative Dunk highs with Supreme helped the Dunk stay at the center of sneakerhead culture. By the mid-2000s, with a renewed interest in Jordan retros, Dunks began to falter; despite “Be True” retros in 2003 and 2012, respectively, for the most part consumers lost interest in the silhouette. On the other hand, its skate-specific cousin exploded.
In 2001, the late Sandy Bodecker was named general manager of Nike SB, with the task of revamping Nike’s struggling skate business. Though skaters had worn Nike Dunks and Jordan Is for years, Nike failed to create a successful skateboarding division. Bodecker’s solution was simple: Instead of searching for an entirely new silhouette, Nike would make subtle tweaks to a sneaker skaters already wore. He reasoned Nike should reengineer the Dunk, and create a version specifically for skaters. Though still based on the basketball shoe, Bodecker and the rest of the SB team knew that the SB Dunk should be skateboarding specific and directly acknowledge skate culture.
In order to bring this to life, Bodecker enlisted four skaters—Reese Forbes, Gino Ianucci, Richard Mulder and Danny Supa—as the face of Nike SB. In order to make the SB suitable for skating, padding was added to the insole to reduce impact, while the sole—originally designed for the hardwood—was swapped for a thicker rubber better suited for traction against griptape. The most notable change, though, was the SB’s “fat tongue” in place of the original’s nylon.
Though technically savvy, the Dunk SB was still—at its core—a Dunk, meaning colorway was everything. The most popular skate shoes at the time—by the likes of Emerica, éS, DC and Osiris—were wide, bulky behemoths. Creating a skate shoe that was traditionally good looking was, as it turns out, monumental. In 2002, Bodecker visited local skate shops with a new grey and navy “I-95” SB Dunk Low. Named after the interstate highway he drove along, the sneaker finally released in March 2002 following a warm reception and extensive endorsement courtesy of team rider Reese Forbes.
For the official launch of the SB Dunk Low Pro, the four original Nike SB riders received an exclusive dunk colorway. Referred to as the “Colors By” series, the pack was entirely intended for skaters. Each colorway—supposedly a direct reflection of its respective rider—made its way onto the NikeTalk forums, and Dunk veterans quickly sunk their teeth in. Within a matter of months, serious sneakerheads began frequenting small skate shops to secure limited SB Dunks. Simultaneously, Nike SB dropped collaborative Dunks with both Zoo York and Chocolate—landmark skate brands at the time—and, eventually, Supreme. The first ever non-Jordan sneakers to feature elephant print, the Supreme SB Dunks were the last figurative brick in the wall, and by September, 2002, every Nike collector in the game was after them.
More than secure Nike’s place in the skate industry, the SB Dunk bridged the gap between sneakerhead culture, streetwear and skateboarding. Though Supreme was still very much a skate brand, since it opened in 1994 punk and hip-hop were both key influences. Now, not only did Supreme pull from those subcultures, with the release of a premium SB Dunk, it had an even bigger spotlight. In hindsight, the drop was a pivotal moment in modern menswear history.
Though mainline dunks largely fell off, throughout the '00s Nike SB Dunks were at the center of sneaker culture. Not only did colorways sell out, but demand was so great that riots ensued, most famously over Jeff Staple’s infamous “Pigeon” SB Dunk lows. Sold out of the designer and creative collaborator's Reed Space retail store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on the day of the drop thousands of eager shoppers flooded the streets. The hype was so intense, to the point where each successful customer required a police escort to leave the shop safely. More than a landmark moment for the SB Dunk, the "Pigeon Dunk" riot made national news, and is largely cited as the moment sneaker culture went mainstream. Suddenly, a once niche subculture—collecting Nike sneakers–was household knowledge and the Nike Dunk was at the center of it.
Over the next five years, Nike SB dropped countless collectible dunks, ranging from collaborations with graffiti artist Futura (the D.U.N.K.L.E.S) to Guns 'n Roses homages. From the unreleased Paris Dunks—the most expensive pair on the market—to the trio of "Bear" Dunks (inspired by the story of Goldilocks) with exterior fur, SB Dunk mania flourished. Inevitably stores popped up to support a burgeoning secondardy market, with buyers reselling pairs much like rare Jordans.
Yet, despite notable releases in the early-2010s, for some reason, the market imploded. Pairs that just a few years prior commanded hefty four figure sums by 2015 were essentially worthless. Be it shifting taste, or the rise of new sneaker lines (like Yeezy), for some inexplicable reason, shoes once considered “grails” were no longer even in the conversation.
Interestingly enough, as SB Dunks faded, mainline Nike Dunks began making a comeback. In 2015, Nike re-released several colorways from the “Be True to Your School Pack.” Honoring the shoe’s 30th anniversary, this retro was unlike the prior two, which featured offbeat reworks like “vintage” leather or ostrich leather-embossed swooshes. Instead, this new crop was a near one-to-one recreation of the 1999 models, slightly wider and shorter than the 1985 originals. Though they failed to make a large impression, Nike Dunks were suddenly on people’s radar.
A year later, Comme des Garçons Homme Plus put Dunk highs on the runway, presenting a black/teal/white colorway with a transparent PVC upper. They were by no means a smash success in comparison to other Comme des Garçons x Nike collaborations—though the $400 price tag may have been a major impediment. Regardless, the runway appearance was proof that, after years of lacking relevance, Dunks were poised for a comeback.
It was around the same time that vintage sneakers began trending in earnest. With fans sick of the never-ending retros and cyclical drop cycle, many attempted to track down the true OGs—most notably 1985 Jordan Is—but additionally, vintage Dunks. From ‘99 “Be True to Your School” Kentucky Dunks to the A.P.C. Dunk, stylish men were suddenly flaunting decades-old sneakers as a point of pride. Of course, the powers that be noticed, and soon enough everyone from Virgil Abloh to Kim Jones were on the hunt for these vintage silhouettes. Regularly seen rocking both Michigan and Syracuse Dunk highs, in 2019 Abloh revealed his next Off-White x Nike collaboration was, you guessed it, Dunks. Specifically, Abloh tapped into Dunk lows inspired by the “Be True” colorways, the trio—UNLV, Michigan and Celtics colorways—featured orange bungee cord speed lacing system, an orange hang tag below the swoosh and the patented plastic velcro attachment. Naturally, they were a huge hit. Building off the hype, over the next year Nike dropped a slew of Dunk Lows in the “Be True” colorways, coinciding with the shoes' 35th anniversary. Though a Dunk high has yet to make an appearance, we’re sure they are coming down the pipeline.
Funnily enough, almost a decade after the market collapsed, SB Dunks are once again coveted. Though a strong string of releases over the past few years have helped rehabilitate the SB Dunk’s image—including the latest SB Dunk Low “Lobster” in collaboration with Boston based retailer Concepts—in reality, it is Travis Scott who is owed a large amount of credit. A noted SB fan, Scott is regularly caught in some of the rarest SB Dunks out there, introducing a new, younger generation of fans to shoes they largely missed out on.
Scott even designed an exclusive “Cactus Jack” SB Dunk as part of his on-going collaboration with the brand, as clear a sign of his commitment to the silhouette as any. Now, many of the most coveted dunks are once again surging in price, and shoes that were worth less than a $100 in 2016 are selling for thousands. Coincidence? We doubt it.
Now celebrating 35 years, the Dunk clearly sits in the pantheon of Nike greats. Though it may not hold the esteem of its predecessors, the Dunk persevered, and through focusing on colorways, collaborations and avoiding unnecessary design updates, it went from fresh to stale to vintage and back again. With a number of notable celebrity endorsements, the full backing of Nike and a renewed interest in the SB back catalog, the Dunk wave has finally arrived. As we see it, it could not have come sooner.