A Brief History Of The Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Sneaker
Converse Non-Skid All Stars, 1923. Photograph courtesy of The Converse Archive
Ostensibly, 1917 is an unlikely year to start a success story. WWI was still raging, and the devastation of the Spanish flu pandemic was imminent. “Talk about a difficult moment!” Ms Elizabeth Semmelhack, creative director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and author of numerous books charting sneaker history and culture, tells MR PORTER. And yet, it was during this annus horribilis that the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star made its debut; a basketball shoe that would go on to achieve an illustrious level of ubiquity in the sneaker world. Here, in the inaugural edition of The Journal’s series on the history of iconic kicks, we take a closer look at the birth of this century-old basketball shoe.
Founded in 1908 by Mr Marquis Mills Converse in Malden, Massachusetts, the Converse Rubber Company spent its formative years doing what most of the industry were doing at the time: “Really anything you could make out of rubber, we tried to make something out of rubber,” says Mr Sam Smallidge, the brand’s in-house archivist. Early areas of expertise included but were not limited to galoshes, leather duck-hunting boots, automobile tires, tennis shoes and then, eventually, basketball shoes, which were initially introduced to keep Converse’s seasonal staff on the assembly line all year-round.
“They only made rubber products in the fall, winter and spring, and [Mr Converse] wanted to keep those people working through the summer months,” Mr Smallidge says. “And then those tennis shoes quickly morphed into a fully realised basketball product line by around 1916.”
While the timing was far from perfect, it made sense that a company based in Massachusetts would turn its attentions to a new sport that was taking the state by storm. Invented in 1891 in Springfield, less than 100 miles from Converse’s HQ, basketball was becoming hugely popular on the East Coast. Unlike baseball or American football, both of which required large outdoor playing fields, basketball could be played in a much more confined space, meaning the pastime caught on in the playgrounds of urban and collegiate neighbourhoods, of which there were plenty in Converse’s hometown. “There are a lot of colleges and private schools in the area. It was definitely one of the most populous parts of the country, so you had a lot of young people who would be looking for newer sports to play,” Mr Smallidge explains.
Though the All Star certainly wasn’t the first basketball sneaker, or even Converse’s earliest foray into the market, it did boast certain features that gave it an edge over competitors. These included the heel patch, which was placed on the inner (rather than the more conspicuous outer), a feature supposedly designed to protect the ankle bones of players, according to Ms Semmelhack. But the diamond tread pattern, which is still present today, was really the bedrock of the design, Mr Smallidge explains. “The shape allowed people to push off in multiple directions and stop quickly,” he says.
Converse athletic footwear catalogue, 1971. Photograph courtesy of The Converse Archive
But what of the other half of its name, Chuck Taylor? In the early years of basketball, brands would start their own teams and send them around the country to advertise their wares. “A lot of shoe and rubber companies at the time, had these [clubs]. Basically, they used them as promotional tools,” Mr Smallidge explains. Converse’s own team – also dubbed the All Stars – was headed up by Mr Charles “Chuck” Taylor, who was hired in 1922 as a coach and salesman. “What set Chuck Taylor and Converse apart was that they would show up and not only play games, but they would put on clinics for coaches of players, as well,” Mr Smallidge says. “After all these clinics they would take the coaches down to the sporting goods stores… and they would have all the coaches order the All Star shoes. Then, year after year, the coaches would remember, ‘Oh, who taught me how to play basketball? Chuck Taylor. And what company did he work for? Converse. And what shoe was he selling? The All Star itself.’”
There’s a stark contrast between Mr Taylor and star players of the later era, the likes of Messrs Michael Jordan and Walt “Clyde” Frazier, whose names are still used to sell sneakers nowadays. The Converse coach’s celebrity didn’t come from his prowess on the court – there’s no real evidence to suggest he even played the sport professionally – but through his association with All Stars.
“One of the real gifts that Chuck Taylor had was that he was extremely affable,” says Ms Semmelhack, who characterises the relationship between the Converse, Mr Taylor and the sport of basketball as symbiotic. “He wasn’t brought onto the company because of his success as a sport hero… Chuck Taylor is seeding interest in basketball. He’s going around places and expanding the popularity of the game, he’s thereby expanding interest in footwear to be worn for the game. I think that’s really where his genius lies.”
This relationship came into its own in the following decade, as the worst effects of the Depression hit in the early 1930s and brands scrambled to find new ways of bolstering diminishing sales. “There’s little money to go around,” Ms Semmelhack explains. “Companies are looking for ways to diversify their products, to make it really stand out.” Converse’s answer was to capitalise on Mr Taylor’s name, which by this point had become synonymous with the sport. In 1934, the words “Chuck Taylor” were added to the shoe’s signature heel patch, where they remain today.
“In 1934, the words ‘Chuck Taylor’ were added to the shoe’s signature heel patch, where they remain today”
As is only fitting of a garment of this renown, a certain degree of lore has come to surround the All Star. Mr Taylor’s moniker might have been stamped on every shoe but, contrary to what you might have read in other column inches devoted to this subject, the coach was not directly involved in the shoe’s design, nor did he refine it.
“There’s actually no proof of that,” Ms Semmelhack says. Converse’s own records back this up. “Unfortunately, we don’t have anything in our archive that shows that he made modifications,” Mr Smallidge says. “He might have gotten feedback from coaches and players, which would have then been passed along, but the idea that he was in a workshop tinkering away creating improvements is not based in reality. He was more of a coaches’ coach and a salesman than anything else.”
That is not to say that design tweaks weren’t made along the way. “Looking at the first decade and a half of its life… they are constantly updating, tinkering with it in little ways, making improvements to it, whether it was different weights of canvas and rubber or adding corrugation, the little grooves around the outsole,” Mr Smallidge explains.
One particular upgrade, the addition of a so-called “pivot button”, was because the sport itself was evolving. “They found that the game of basketball was actually speeding up as time went on and players were pivoting on the front of their foot, so they needed add extra rubber to stop the shoe from wearing out.”
It was feedback from players and coaches, too, that spurred the release of the low-top “Oxford” iteration of the All Star in 1957. “They wanted a less-restrictive version of the All Star with more ankle mobility,” Mr Smallidge says.
Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, circa 1971. Photograph courtesy of The Converse Archive
By the end of that decade, the All Star’s sporting futures were nevertheless a cause for concern. The advent of more advanced sportswear technology and increasing demand for leather basketball shoes left Converse’s humble canvas shoe with dwindling representation on the court. Off the court, was a different story, though, with the introduction of the low-top silhouette a few years earlier bringing the shoe to the attention of a non-sporting audience.
“Converse had set itself up perfectly to transition from being a basketball shoe into being the perfect lifestyle shoe,” Mr Smallidge says, citing the example of a brand salesman who couldn’t understand why his numbers were climbing while his colleagues, operating in sportswear markets where the All Star had already well and truly saturated, had dipped. “He went out to his stores and asked what was happening. Essentially the feedback was, ‘Oh, those kids who go surfing down at the beach are buying the All Stars now’. They liked the comfort and feel. It had those features that made it a great legendary performance shoe but, because it was a low-top now, you could kick it on and off at the beach easier.”
Another turning point came 1971, when Converse launched coloured canvas for the first time as a way for collegiate teams to coordinate with their school colours, and for spectators to show their allegiance. “They weren’t thinking that far ahead, but having those colours allowed the All Star to become this badge of self-expression for youth,” Mr Smallidge explains. Eventually the shoe would become associated with individualism and counter-cultures, paving the way for it to become the preferred choice of punks in the 1970s, metalheads in the 1980s and the grunge scene in the 1990s.
“The All Star becomes a part of culture… It goes on to have meaning in many different realms outside of basketball”
Converse might have cultivated a reputation over the years as a wholesome all-American brand, but Ms Semmelhack says its newfound fans during this time were taking a distinctly anti-fashion and anti-consumerist stance by donning a relatively inexpensive pair of sneakers.
“The All Star becomes a part of culture in ways that Converse had never really originally intended… it goes on to have meaning in many different realms outside of basketball,” she explains. “It’s not about popping tags and having a crisp white pair – you wore what you had and you wore it to death.”
That authenticity, or “rawness” as Ms Semmelhack puts it, is part of why the All Star endures, more or less in its original form: rubber sole, canvas upper and the all-important heel patch. “I think it’s remarkable that somebody can continue to wear a basic design and not look like you’re dressing up in your great-great-grandfather’s clothes,” she says. It also goes a long way to explaining why sportswear behemoth Nike saw the brand as a good investment when it secured a sale for $305 million in 2003.
While access to Nike’s roster of state-of-the-art technologies certainly comes in handy, for Mr Brandon Avery, Converse’s current VP of Innovation, who heads up the company’s lab in Boston, that psychological bond with the heritage of the All Star is just as important as the shoe’s functional properties. “It’s a spot where Converse has some deep roots; we have this unique connection to emotion. When we think of the Chuck Taylor and the journeys that people go on with that sneaker, there is a physical design – it was birthed through innovation – but the emotional connection, based on how you wear it and how it gets better with time, is really strong,” he says.
One of the main focuses for the last five years, he tells MR PORTER, has been the brand’s “Converse Renew” initiative. “When it comes to sustainability, we know that that’s a point of value within our brand and also a connection point with our consumers”. The project’s aims so far have been to explore waste-less material alternatives, including a denim line made from upcycled jeans, “Renew” cotton part manufactured from the brand’s canvas scraps that end up on the cutting room floor, and a partnership with First Mile to turn plastic bottle pollution into canvas.
According to Mr Avery, the hardest part of achieving the latter was keeping it consistent with All Star’s legacy. “If you think about the iconic lines and the DNA of the Chuck Taylor, those things stay the same, but how we make that product [changes],” he explains. “The true innovation wasn’t turning plastic into a material. The true innovation here was, ‘How can we make it feel like our core Chuck Taylor canvas?’”