Last week saw Converse’s announcement of the All Star Modern: a new take on the classic sneaker. It follows the aesthetic blueprint of the Chuck Taylor, but brings to the table technologies like Phylon foam and Hyperfuse construction from Nike, Converse’s parent company since 2003.
It’s a premium take on what is the most omnipresent sneaker in the known universe. According to the brand, Converse sells 100 million pairs of Chucks per year. For scale, adidas’s best-selling sneaker, the Stan Smith, sold 40 million units in as many years.
The All Star Modern is the second update in the last 12 months, after last year’s Chuck II, a more restrained update focused on modernising the materials and minute tweaks to the detailing.
They present two starkly contrasting solutions to Converse’s main problem, albeit a luxurious one: how do you modernise an archetype – and how do you improve on perfection? How do you create a ‘Gram-able event out of a 99-year-old shoe? And when your key sneaker sells 270,000 pairs a day, how do you upgrade ubiquity?
032c looked at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the shoe.
The All Star Modern pushes things a little further, though there are still no plans for it to return to the basketball court where it started. We’re familiar with the vulcanised sole that has largely been a constant, but the switch to a cup sole is a point of difference that lets the All Star Modern shed precious grams, as well as the shackles of the past.
It cranks up the price tag too, taking it into premium rather than buy-annihilate-replace wardrobe staple status (the Modern low-top retails at $130, compared to $55 for the most basic Chucks). It comes complete with a couple of premium leather makeovers by Nike’s HTM collective — the trio of Tokyo’s veteran tastemaker Hiroshi Fujiwara, footwear design giant Tinker Hatfield and Nike, Inc. CEO Mark Parker.
Given Fujiwara’s longtime relationship with the Chuck and regular reworkings as part of his Fragment brand, or Hatfield’s All Star inspiration in earlier sketches of the self-fastening Mag and in the DNA of the forthcoming HyperAdapt 1.0, the first HTM project outside Nike makes a certain sense – and is the just the first of more HTM Converse releases.
Converse’s global footwear product director Ryan Case and his team had the unenviable task of remaking what’s largely considered, well, perfect.
Case himself is a diehard fan of the best iteration: “I love the Chuck 70 too. I was part of the team that made that and we aren’t going to walk from our past but the consumer moves so fast right now. We have an obligation to evolve. The array of options that they have on the marketplace means that we have to give them something new.”
For Converse, the stewardship of the shoe affectionately shorthanded to Chuck, after the front man of the design in its early days, is a blessing and a considerable challenge. Writing as someone who believes that the 1970s iteration is the greatest shoe of all time, with the regular version proving to be a deeply uncomfortable, narrow, flat-footed ordeal, any alteration is a hard sell. Those of us who think we’ve found perfection are unlikely to explore further.
But while it’s common to recoil at any alteration to the All Star, it’s important to understand that the design was regularly altered, from the day it debuted 99 years ago up to the present. Far from being heretical, the All Star Modern is really only the latest in a long line of tech updates and diffusions.
The All Star began life in 1917 under another name — the Non Skid, a rustic brown creation with a traction outsole design that’s still visible in a modern All Star’s sole pattern. Born in a time when duck canvas, rubber and horsehide were a shoe’s regular ingredient, 1919 editions of the Non Skid already bore familiar details like a diamond pattern and leather ankle patch, and in 1920, its name was changed to the All Star, though, oddly, for a short while, a white version still had the Non Skid name.
It was around 1922 when a keen basketball player and aspiring salesman called Charles Hollis “Chuck” Taylor joined Converse. At the time, like other rubber and sportswear companies, the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. had its own basketball team, coincidentally called the All-Stars, which Taylor played on. His sales skills at basketball clinics across America ultimately sold enough shoes to warrant the addition of his signature to the ankle patch in 1934.
A 1950’s version of the All Star.
Right up to today, the All Star has been refined, remade and tweaked. Whether that’s minute aesthetic adjustments like the introduction of a now-universal white canvas USA-friendly colorway for the 1936 Olympic basketball team that commemorated basketball’s first time as a medal event, the appearance of the black canvas with white sole and contrast stitch edition in 1948, or storied changes like a Harlem Globetrotters wear-test causing Converse workers to slash the canvas to make the low-top Oxford edition before it debuted in 1957, the All Star is a living shoe. There were even short-lived blue-toed, lead-lined late 1950s version for strengthening ankles, and 2008’s radical, if swiftly forgotten, pivot back to the court, the All Star Revolution.
The All Star Modern’s use of tech and textiles are, in themselves, nothing new. In our age of performance fabrics, one-piece builds and 3D printing, the notion of playing in canvas and rubber seems absurd and possibly career ending, but at the time, this was cutting-edge. With the shoe now called the All Star, advertising from the mid to late 1920s extolls the technology it contained. Cushioned heel support was something new in 1925, resounding to the evolution of the game, and a 1929 blow out diagram image of the All Star — which by then, bore the familiar star on the heel patch, boasted taped seam reinforcement, a comfort insole, a cushioned heel and arch, eight ply toe construction, smooth toe lining and a shank stay. That was a formula that dominated courts until around 1970, when the traditional All Star was retired from basketball in new bold colors to become a fashion statement.
For a new audience, what came before is largely moot. Some might stick with the tribute to a 46 year-old incarnation, but given that the shoe celebrates its first century next year, some evolution is necessary.
Working for such a storied brand, the realization that we can’t lean on history for complete support is a wake up call for designers like Case: “That means pressure. It’s stressful. We have the most iconic style ever. I’ve been entrusted in my role over the last four or so years to be the steward of this icon with my team. We struggle daily to make it better and better and never mess it up.”
Getting into the head of someone that exists in the now necessitates a partial reset: “I was raised on punk rock and skateboarding during the era of Michael Jordan. Those reference points made me want to wear and make sneakers. Now I’m making them for a generation that never saw Jordan play a game of basketball, or Jason Jessee’s frontside ollie in two different colors of Chuck Taylor. They never saw that. I have to set them aside and make things for a [new] generation.”
Stay tuned for upcoming SWOT Analyses.