Embrace the Fat Tongue: A Brief History of the Nike SB Dunk
Embrace the Fat Tongue: A Brief History of the Nike SB Dunk
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date December 17, 2018
The sneaker market was fundamentally different twenty years ago. At the turn of the century, skating was finally granted some much needed recognition, and for the first time, skate culture was creating an impact on sneaker sales. Nike, for its part, was desperately trying to secure a foothold within the fledgling industry. The Swoosh had signed Bam Margera—known more today for Jackass antics than his skating ability—but the relationship bore little fruit. A trio of signature Margera silhouettes released in the late ‘90s failed to make any impact whatsoever. Nike’s strategy at the time—acquiring nascent skate brands, putting product in general sports stores rather than independent skate shops, tacky TV commercials—proved Nike fundamentally misunderstood skate culture. Still, a handful of skaters were already skating in classic Nike silhouettes. Lance Mountain and the Bones Brigade famously wore Blazers and everyone from Mark Gonzales to Steve Caballero rocked Jordan 1s.
While Nike as an entity failed to recognize—and if anything attempted to monetize—the subculture, its full-leather construction and high-end tech actually proved ideal for skating, laying the groundwork for some of the most successful and beloved skate shoes ever made. In 2001, Nike’s skate-focused imprint, Nike SB, began the process of capitalizing on the years-worth of grassroots momentum by introducing a model that revolutionized not only the brand’s skateboarding line, but sneaker culture as a whole: the SB Dunk.
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First introduced in 1985, the Nike Dunk was designed by Peter Moore, one of the most influential designers in the brand’s history. Bearing similarities to the Jordan I and the Terminator—both introduced the same year and designed by the same team—the Dunk boasted the same tech and construction as its peers. What made the Dunk special, however, was the endless colorways that became a defining characteristic. Initially released as a college basketball sneaker, the Dunk’s various colorways mimicked those of Nike’s biggest college basketball partners. The shoes associated tagline, “Be True To Your School,” reflects how Nike marketed the shoe to both basketball players and fans alike, as a way to showcase collegiate pride. Before long, skaters too became fans of the Dunk, though mainly for the support and cushioning it offered, as well as the added traction, owing to a sole designed for pivoting in the post. In the late ‘90s, the Dunk received some technical updates—like the introduction of a nylon tongue—that inadvertently made them even better for skating. While more and more skaters gravitated towards Dunks, Nike had the aforementioned underperforming skate business on its hands. The problem was clear: the only Nikes skaters wore weren’t Nike skate shoes.
In 2001, the late Sandy Bodecker was named general manager of Nike SB, with the task of revamping Nike’s struggling skate business. After playing an integral role building up the soccer division, Nike hoped Bodecker could find an answer to SB’s lackluster performance. Bodecker’s solution was, in short, to do the exact opposite of what Nike had done previously. Nike SB shunned general sports stores, generic releases and mass production. Bodecker argued that making a new skate shoe made no sense when Nike was already making shoes skaters wore. Instead, he reasoned Nike should reengineer the Dunk, and create a version specifically for skaters.
While still based on the basketball shoe, Bodecker and the rest of the SB team knew that the SB Dunk had to be first and foremost for skateboarding, which meant more than a simple redesign. The new sneaker had to recognize, and respect, skate culture. To earn the communities approval, four skaters—Reese Forbes, Gino Ianucci, Richard Mulder and Danny Supa—were recruited to be the face of Nike SB. More than simply signature athletes, the group played a crucial role in the development of the sneaker itself. To make the SB more suitable for skating, a number of changes were made to the original dunk so it could withstand the near constant wear and tear. Padding was added to the insole to reduce impact, while the sole—originally designers for the hardwood—was modified for better traction against grip-tape. The most notable change, though, was the introduction of the SB’s beloved “fat tongue.”
While the technical changes were crucial, what set the SB apart was its aesthetic appeal compared to traditional skate shoes. According to Mulder, the SB Dunk represents a dramatic shift from the days where you would carry “pair of shoes in your backpack for chilling after skating.” Unlike its chunky competitors, the SB was not clearly just for skating. More importantly—for skaters, at least—the shoes looked good on-board. “I liked seeing skateboard tricks in these shoes,” said Mulder. The SB Dunk’s popularity was rooted in its crossover aesthetic appeal—simply put, it was a skate shoe that didn’t look like a skate shoe. It just resembled a good sneaker. In hindsight, that was monumental.
In 2002, Bodecker hit the road with a grey and navy SB Dunk Low sample. Driving along the I-95, Bodecker went from city to city, hitting nearly every independent sneaker shop on the way to simply introduce the new model, and gauge interest on the revamped SB label. “Most shops were up front and said they wanted to see if we would come proper or just jump in and jump out again,” said Bodecker, referring to the Swoosh’s ‘90s-era business practices. Bodecker, however, brought Nike SB rider Reese Forbes along, who acted as a conduit to the skate community. Just as important as the relationships Bodecker built was his impression on Forbes, who ended up being one of the best ambassadors SB ever had. It didn’t take long for retailers to understand that Nike was coming proper. Following the trip—and Forbes glowing endorsement and co-sign—the SB Dunk was greenlit, and finally released in March 2002.
For the launch of the SB Dunk Low Pro, each of the four original Nike SB riders received their own dunk colorway. Officially dubbed the “Colors By” series, the pack set the precedent for future SB Dunks throughout the aughts. Each colorway was highly personal, a direct reflection of its associated rider—except Ianucci’s “Gino” Dunk, which in black and dark grey featuring a mix of suede and perforated leather, simply looked good. Forbes’ “Reese” Dunk was modeled after a suede work boot, featuring a soft pigskin that became a Dunk signature. Mulder’s dunk was a nod to his first pair of Nike’s, white and blue tennis shoes that he skated while on tour in the early ‘90s. Supa’s creation, in blue and orange leather, was a reference to his favorite basketball team, the New York Knicks. Apart from Ianucci’s iteration, every sneaker was clearly inspired by either a personal anecdote or prominent cultural touchstone—a defining characteristic of the shoes. The Colors By Dunks aren’t legendary simply because they were the first, but because they set the tone for all future releases. Beyond simply looking good, the story behind the sneaker was essential.
The first four sneakers were available in limited quantities, sold exclusively through an elite network of independent skate boutiques—drastically different from Nike SB’s prior releases. Due to each shoes limited availability, skaters were the first to get their hands on the Colors By shoes and actually skated in them. With the shoes finally on the feet of skaters, Nike SB turned up the notch dropping collaborative Dunks with both Zoo York and Chocolate—landmark skate brands at the time—in June of the same year. That September, SB partnered with Supreme—then still very much a skate shop—to release two legendary SB Dunk Lows. The first ever non-Jordan sneakers to feature elephant print, the shoes transcended skateboarding and became coveted sneakers outright. Most importantly, though, taken together with the Zoo York and the Chocolate SB Dunk Lows, the trio of collaborations in ‘02 helped cement Nike SB’s reputation within the core skateboarding community, something it had thus far failed to do.
Central to the SB Dunk’s success was the shoe’s crossover appeal. Since its release in ‘85, and the “Be True To Your School” campaign, the dunk had developed a cult-like following, especially within the burgeoning sneakerhead community. The pre-existing clientele—combined with Supreme’s use of the cult-favorite Jordan III elephant print—created a frenzy surrounding the drop and by extension the SB Dunk in general. The last release in 2002, the SB Dunk Low “Reese Forbes Denim,” solidified the SB Dunk’s status as a crossover success. Featuring a denim outer—a rarity on a sneaker in 2002—the design clearly placed an emphasis on aesthetics over performance. By the end of year, the SB Dunk was revered by both skaters and sneakerheads alike.
Suddenly, skate shops had a new customer on their hands: sneakerheads. By the mid-‘00s, sneakerheads were lining up for hours—sometimes days—to scoop the latest collaboration or inventive colorway. During the “silver box era”—a reference to the silver shoe boxes SB used from ‘03 to ‘04— standouts like the “Jedi”, “Heineken” Lows and U.N.K.L.E Highs were some of the most hyped sneakers on the market. While the Jedi’s and Heinekens were simply homages to Star Wars and the Dutch brewer, respectively, the U.N.K.L.Es—commonly referred to as the Dunkles—were an official collaboration with British trip-hop group U.N.K.L.E and Futura, the famed graffiti artist and noted sneaker enthusiast. Released in September 2004, the Dunkles had little to do with skating—by this point, skaters by and large had stopped wearing hi-tops. Instead, the shoe attempted to cash in on the SB Dunk’s newfound cache by working with a titan of street culture. By the end of ‘04, SB knew the dunk was no longer simply a skate shoe, and did everything it could to capitalize on it.
Meanwhile, many of the era’s most acclaimed—and best-dressed—skaters were rocking Dunks in video parts. Alongside the original four team members, Brian Anderson, Paul Rodriguez, Lance Mountain, Wieger Van Wageningen, Eric Koston and Lewis Marnell all joined the Swoosh skate team.
By 2005, SB Dunk hype was feverish, but paled in comparison to what came next. In February, SB released one of the famous sneakers in its history—one that pushed SB Dunk craze to the new level. It was the peak of New York streetwear, and Jeff Staple, founder of Staple Design, was a polemic figure. Nike reached out to Staple with a simple task: design an SB Dunk that represented New York City. Part of SB’s “City Series,” the previous release, the “Paris” Dunk, was a tremendous success. Limited to 202 pairs, each shoe was wholly unique, personalized by French painter Bernard Buffet. Unlike Buffet’s artistic approach, Staple came up with a far more mundane concept: a Dunk inspired by New York City’s ubiquitous pigeons. The Staple “Pigeon” SB Dunks featured two shades of grey on the upper, a white swoosh, a pinkish-orange liner and outsole and, most famously, an embroidered pigeon on the heel.
When word leaked that the SB Dunks had arrived at Reed Space—Staple’s now shuttered retail concept in New York’s Lower East Side—in early February, Staple immediately began receiving calls. The speed at which word traveled, particularly considering the nascent state of the internet, speaks volumes about the hype surrounding SBs at the time. “Kids on the forums and the boards [were] so knowledgeable about shit. They know stuff we don’t...It was like, ‘I heard you got the Pigeons today.’ And I’m like, ‘I just opened the box like five seconds ago, how did you know?” Staple said. After the news hit sites like NikeTalk, all hell broke loose. Sneaker heads camped out for four days in cold, blizzard-like conditions. Yet, come release day, NYPD attempted to break up the line. Those waiting were incensed and refused to leave, leading to a tense standoff that eventually came to a head with a riot-like melee between hopeful buyers and the cops. The event would up as a featured story on CBS evening news and, suddenly, sneaker culture was back in the national spotlight, with SBs as the focal point. Naturally, given the limited quantities and mythical story, the Staple Pigeon SB Dunk became one of the most sought after sneakers—let alone Dunks—ever, with resell prices today exceeding ten thousand dollars.
The Pigeon was the first in a string of strong collaborations. Equally as revered—though not as infamous—was the “Team Manager” Series, two sneakers designed in collaboration with Stüssy and Diamond Supply, respectively. Inspired by Neapolitan ice cream, the Stüssy Dunk featured pink, brown, white and off-white, and was hugely successful—no doubt in part due to its aesthetic similarities to the Dunkle. While Stüssy was the bigger brand, Diamond’s Dunk was the bigger hit. Nick Tershay, founder of Diamond Supply, wanted to replicate Tiffany & Co.’s iconic colorway on a dunk. Instantly recognizable, the “Tiffany Blue” dunk was also a clear reference to Tershay’s own brand, where the renowned shade is a signature. After receiving the first samples, Tershay decided to add faux crocodile leather to add an extra layer of luxury. No doubt the high point of Tershay’s career, the Diamond “Tiffany” Dunk was a blockbuster success. The shoe told a compelling story through a collaborative colorway, yet managed to stay true to skate culture and, in the process, captivated skaters and sneakerheads alike.
The same year, iconic London skate shop Slam City Skates rolled out a unique Dunk Low that changed colors as you wore it. As an added bonus, the shop offered five pounds back to anybody who did a kick flip outside the store while wearing his newly-purchased sneakers: a clear message that skaters were the preferred buyer. That same year, De La Soul teamed up with Nike on an SB Dunk Low and High, inspired by the cover of its album 3 Feet High and Rising. Considered a pivotal sneaker by many collectors, the De La Soul Dunk Hi is still a true grail for Dunkheads. Even while shops like Slam City Skates pushed a skater-centric message, SB continued to work with influential figures to balance respect in the skate community with cross-cultural appeal.
However, this balancing led to a state of cognitive dissonance. Between the Dunkles, De La Souls and, eventually, the MF Dooms, the SB Dunk became an integral part of hip-hop culture. At the same time, though, SB’s top skaters were wearing the rarest SB Dunks, including the Staple Pigeons, because, to them, they were just skate shoes. While collectors gasped as team members skated massive handrails in limited editions, kids who actually skated grew frustrated that they couldn't purchase the sneakers their idols wore in ads. The two sides were wrestling for control of the SB Dunk. SB Dunks were on the nightly news and were driving sneaker forums, but they also featured prominently in skate videos. Whatever tension there was between the two sides, though, it was clear that 2005 truly was the SB Dunk’s zenith, both within skateboarding and streetwear culture.
While interest began to wane over the next few years, the SB Dunk was still quite popular and Nike released a number of notable iterations, such as the fuzzy 3 Bear Pack (a High, Mid and Low) and collaborations like the MF Doom SB Dunk High. In 2008, Concepts took the sneaker world by storm when it dropped the “Red Lobster” SB Dunk Low. Placing an emphasis on storytelling—lobsters are a Boston staple—the shoe was a tremendous success and helped put the retailer on the map (a recurring theme for independent shops that carried exclusive SB Dunks). The following year, Nike and Concepts released the “Blue Lobster” SB Dunk Low and, prior to the release, Nike gifted 36 pairs of “Yellow Lobsters” to Concepts staff as a thank you for generating so much energy around the release, making it the rarest of the trio.
Why was a thank you necessary? Because, by the late aughts, the SB Dunk was no longer held in the same regard. Nike SB had grown exponentially over the decade, signing celebrated skaters like Paul Rodriguez, Eric Koston and Stefan Janoski. The line’s first generation team members—Supa, Forbes, Ianucci and Mulder—weren’t household names, and signature SB Dunk colorways were enough to placate both them and customers. Others, like Mountain, received Blazers. But with Rodriguez, Koston and Janoski, who all boasted their own fan base and were revered by the community, Nike SB pursued a strategy predicated on signature models. Each pro received his own sneaker—similar to other professional sports—and with a slew of new models, Nike SB became bigger than the SB Dunks. That, coupled with changing consumer tastes, meant that by the early 2010s, SB Dunks were remembered more for what they had been than for what they were. Bulkier silhouettes made way for slimmed down sneakers, meaning the puffy-tongued SB Dunks were replaced with Jordan retros and new Nike technology.