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Converse History

Converse trainers have long had levels of popularity that most brands can only dream of. They’re so successful that a nickname for one of their styles has become almost as iconic as the main brand name. Even parts of their history - such as their beginnings as a purpose-built basketball boot - are pieces fashion lore. However, their sporting heritage is only scratching the surface of what is surely one of the most fascinating histories in fashion history.

The early years

As with any venerated brand, the beginning of Converse’s story are shrouded in the mists of time. Legend has it that Marquis Mills Converse, a manager at a footwear manufacturer, stepped out of his house one freezing Massachusetts morning and almost instantly found himself in a heap at the bottom of his steps.

He resolved to take his business expertise and combine it with the abrupt, painful lesson he’d just learned. At the time, rubberised soles were a rarity, and he aimed to simply fill the gap in the market.

Over the next few years, the company produced a range of shoes, mainly aimed at the winter market. As Converse expanded and began to establish themselves, they decided to try and produce a shoe that still featured the rubberised sole as its base, but would be used more frequently in summer. This proved to be a success and Converse continued to grow in the early 1900’s. Known for being lightweight and offering great grip, Converse began to dabble in sporting footwear with tennis shoes, but in 1917 they found the style which would define the company to this very day.

The All Star

In 1917, basketball was still in its formative years, having been created less than 30 years before in the same state that Converse hailed from. Crucially, unlike baseball and American football, the US’s two most popular sports, basketball was played the year round, and unlike ice hockey, didn’t have a footwear style dictated by the playing surface.

Realising that basketball offered a consistent market, as opposed to the seasonal efforts they had previous produced, Converse created a boot they called the All Star. It featured a high top, with multiple eyelets to ensure a tight fit that wouldn’t loosen as games progressed. A rubber toe cap and textured outsole served to protect the wearer. And of course, the rubber sole made them both durable and provided the wearer with a stable, grippy platform from which to move.

The shoes sold well, and rapidly became Converse’s core product. In 1921, a semi professional basketball player named Charles "Chuck" Taylor joined the company as a salesman, and set about refining the design, including adding the now iconic ankle patch. By 1932, his evangelical espousing of the All Star’s virtues earned him a place in history, as he was immortalised in not only the shoe’s name - now the Chuck Taylor All Star - but on the ankle patch as well. He worked for the company until his death in 1969.

Thanks to the shoe’s superb design, Taylor’s ingenious promotion tactics, and the fortuitously-timed rise in prominence of basketball, “Chucks” exploded in popularity. In 1936, the sport was introduced competitively to the Olympic games for the first time, and Team USA strode out onto court in the newly-commissioned all white All Stars, designed by Taylor himself. They won all their games that year, and began a streak of seven gold medals in a row - all while wearing All Stars.

On-court success

The NBA was established in 1946, and All Stars continued to be the trainers of choice for players. They had been the footwear of choice for the New York Renaissance, an all-black team that remains one of the most successful and dominant teams in all professional sport.

They also played a pivotal role in setting one of the most famous sporting records of all time. On March 2nd, 1962, a promising young player named Wilt Chamberlain did what few had believed possible when he scored 100 points in a single game. Despite the countless household names that have played in the intervening five decades, none have come close to beating the record.

The period between the 1940’s and 1960’s was considered as the golden era as Converse became the most popular sneaker for any athlete activity. This amazing period brought much success to Converse and at their peak they controlled 80% of the US sneaker market. Throughout this period, Converse expanded and released more styles, including the iconic black and white Chuck Taylor All Star, in 1949, and the low cut Oxford chuck, in 1957.

Chucks were still used in the NBA until the end of the 1970s, when other manufacturers began to take basketball seriously. Converse did remain in the sport with various new designs, most notably "the Weapon". By then, however, they had moved far beyond being just a sports shoe manufacturer. During the mid 70’s Converse released another style; the One Star, a suede low-cut sneaker which featured a solitary star, inspired by the centerpiece of the Chuck Taylor ankle patch.

Although, there was increased competition from giants, such as Nike, Adidas and Puma, Converse continued to succeed in basketball and managed to secure the official sponsorship for the Basketball Olympics in 1984.

Pop culture phenomenon

Converse had first realised the dexterity and versatility of the All Star when modified versions were used by the US Army during World War II. This set in motion the series of events that led the company to the eminence it currently enjoys.

Their use by the Army introduced their comfort and effortless style to a huge demographic who before would have little knowledge of Chucks. This, combined with the emergence of a distinct youth culture in the 1950s led to their widespread adoption as a casual shoe. In 1955, the shoes were worn by Elvis - the first of many rockers and entertainers to don them over the coming decades.

In ‘57, the company made what is to date their final major alteration to the Chuck Taylor All Star, introducing a low cut “Ox” edition, which only enhanced their burgeoning reputation as a relaxed shoe. The ‘70s saw the introduction of new colours, and since then countless patterns, prints, and celebrity-endorsed special editions have been produced.

Despite financial difficulties in the 1980s and '90s, the All Star and the growing number of other lines remained ubiquitous in all walks of life as well as pop culture. In the 80’s and 90’s there was a brief revival of Chucks fuelled by the grunge culture. With musician Kurt Cobain as their poster boy, this marked a change in the brand's direction. Historically being known as an affordable choice of footwear, the new released styles and colour attracted many sub-cultures.

The future

Nike acquired the brand in 2003, and has overseen continued growth in Converse’s popularity, after the release of the Converse Re-issue, which provided the classic original shoe in a variety of different colours. It’s estimated that 60% of all Americans have owned a pair of the brand’s footwear, and a pair of All Stars are sold every 43 seconds.

Converse pulled out of the basketball market in 2012, although they still sell several of their most beloved basketball-inspired lines, including the Weapon and, of course, All Stars.

One of the advantages that Chucks have had over their numerous competitors for the crown of the world’s favourite casual shoe is the endless possibilities that they present designers and fans - the upper is, quite literally, a blank canvas.

With that in mind, the future is limitless for Chucks and Converse as a brand, who continue to produce highly popular twists and tweaks on the classic All Star formula, effortlessly entrancing new generations with their unimpeachable standards of old school cool. They’ve been around over 100 years now, and you can bet they’ll still be here in 100 more.

Images courtesy of Wordpress, Beyond Retro, The Style King and Counter Kicks.

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