Saturday, May 16, 2015

An Ode to a classic: Chuck Taylors

 I have been doing footwear my entire career, starting at Nike prior to the introduction of the Air Max and about the time the first Air Jordan was introduced.  I've had the pleasure of being part of the development of multiple iterations of Nike's air technology, worked on shoes for soccer, basketball, football, baseball, road and trail running, hiking, backpacking, cycling, "Cross Training", minimal, low drop/zero drop, orthopedic, ski boots, high heels, work boots, hunting boots, fishing boots, climbing/approach shoes, military boots, sandals,...on and on.  I have a pair of Vibram Five Fingers that I was given by Vibram's CEO at the time because he told me one of his Italian compatriots had designed a shoe that the CEO thought would be good for kayaking and I was the only kayaker he knew; little did he know that he was literally sitting on what would become a running phenomenon.

I fortunately haven't needed to pay for many of them, and as a result my pile of shoes  - that was a bit legendary when I was in Portland working for Nike and it was in full view; it's still big but now I have it somewhat less visible  - is enormous, despite half-hearted attempts at periodic purging.

Here are a few of my faves:

the original Air Huarache.  They reintroduced it recently as a classic
the "Air Current", a step beyond the original Sock Racer.  Way ahead of its time.  
this pattern was called the Air Wildwood; one of the original trail running shoes that Nike introduced but never really supported.  This particular shoe, however, is unique; I made it with my bare hands!  (don't look at the stitching very closely)
The Air Potato. 
An original Nike Snow Boot, circa 1984.  Never been worn outside!  
A shoe that is fully deconstructable. Yes, that's a swoosh on the side.  
size 13 "running" shoes that I used for summertime testing with size 27 ski boot liners in them.
a deerskin slipper with an old-coin button, leather "lace", and conveyor belt material sole.
a slipper I've had since I was 14
a concept we did for a hut bootie
A "real" Tarahumara sandal from Copper Canyon, and the wooden ball that they use in their epic running games
another potential hut bootie, which is really the bottom of a ski boot liner
A crudely handmade proto of a kayak shoe, that eventually became....
the Patagonia CFS, which eventually evolved to become.....
The Play Boot
Indulging Yvon Chouinard's passion for fishing, we did the "Marlwalker" after spending a week fishing for bonefish in the salt water flats of the Yucatan.  
Further indulging YC, we did an organic cotton sneaker
Some Mongolian yak fur slippers that Mike Libecki brought back from a trip, donated to the Utah Avalanche Center auction, and Ash bought for me.
However, despite this myriad of shoes that can and should work for every foreseeable activity, the truth is that I wear one pair most of the time.  And this is it:
the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star.  

Weighing in at a svelte 1 pound  - twice the weight of new-gen running shoes  - cotton upper, no high tech wicking lining, and with a design that has not changed in eighty-three years!   And despite literally hundreds of shoe companies throwing millions of dollars at the design, development, and marketing of new shoes, Chucks are probably still the most popular shoe sold today:  they are doing over $1B of sales/year ($400M last quarter).  For reference, Nike's Lebron James shoe did $400M in the entire year.  And here is a staggering statistic:  Over the course of time, there have been 600 million pairs sold!  

Chuck Taylor was a decent basketball player in the 20's and apparently was an "All Star" more in his personality and salesmanship than in basketball, and he roamed the country with his team doing clinics and demo-ing shoes.  He also helped with the development, pushing the design team to make them more flexible, more supportive, and the ankle patch - for additional support!  -was his idea as well. Probably the first true sponsored athlete, even in the era of Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens,  By WWII not only were many basketball players in them, but soldiers were using them as well in the war  (I'm poaching this from Wikipedia, so you don't have to).  By the 60's they were worn by 90% of all basketball players, and in the 70's they started to get adopted into pop culture by the likes of Andy Warhol:

They were still worn in the NBA, all the way through the 1980 season by Tree Rollins:

And of course Wilt Chamberlain did his 100 point game in a pair of Chucks:

After that Converse tried to compete with Nike et al and make "real" basketball - and other performance shoes; notably they had both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird:

 but en route they got a bit lost, and in 2001 they filed for bankruptcy.  But they were rescued by Nike, who bought them for $300M (considering the $1B sales last year, a pretty good ROI!) and they let Converse do what they do best, which recently culminated in the opening of a phat new headquarters this year on Boston Harbor:
that's what lots of Chucks will do for you
Recently a Merrell exec I know went up to the Tetons for a trip to see what the tourist hikers there were wearing:  Keen?  Salomon?  Merrell?  Nay.  Mostly, of course.....Chucks (and Nike Frees, which I would consider to be the 2010 version of Chucks: originally intended to be athletic shoes, but made the transformation  - via, essentially, artistic renditions on the originals - into pop culture shoes).   

Ironically, I think the reason that people like Chucks so much is exactly what they are not: fancy, expensive, over-built, over-hyped, over-promised, oft-changed shoes that the athletic/outdoor companies continuously feed us, because that's their business model, vs having the WD-40 of footwear.    And ironically, Chucks are surprisingly durable:  the sole is "vulcanized", which means that the rubber sidewalls are put on in strips and the sole is attached with heat in an autoclave, so there's not the gluing of the rubber outsole to the a typical athletic shoe's EVA "midsole" and then to the textile uppers, so you never get sole delaminations and the upper stays attached. 

And the truth is that while sure we'd all love to think of ourselves as getting out and getting after it in our activities and sports all the time, the truth is that most of the time we are just hanging out or going out, neither of which is really all that demanding on footwear, and a comfy, cheap, canvas, zero-drop 1 pound shoe works just fine.  

So sure, when I am running I'm in running shoes, and when I ride I'm in cycling shoes (though Chucks are clearly the shoes of choice for my cruiser):
and in the winter I'm not in them so much, but for pretty much everything else, my considerable shoe pile can really be boiled down to one thing:

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