Design Icons: Converse All-Star
How a basketball shoe became a blank canvas for fashion
Words— Jeremy Freed
Chuck Taylor didn’t design the world’s most famous basketball sneaker, but without him you probably wouldn’t have a pair of Converse All-Stars in your closet. The story begins when the Massachusetts-based Converse Rubber Shoe Company came up with the design for a new kind of athletic shoe in 1917. It had a vulcanized rubber sole, a canvas upper, and a logo patch on the inner ankle. Initially dubbed the “Non-Skid,” it was designed to maximize performance on the basketball court. The patented diamond-patterned sole (the same one found on today’s Converse) enhanced traction on slippery gym floors, the high-top canvas provided support, while the logo patch was placed on the inside to protect the athlete’s ankle. By 1920 it was dubbed the “All-Star” to play up its on-court credibility.
“I think that when it first debuted in 1917 it was in keeping with a number of other sneakers at the time,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, Creative Director and Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum. “That high ankle covering-style dates back to the 19th century, so it was kind of copying of a style of boots that men were wearing then. But by adding the ankle patch they are beginning to make a shoe expressly for a specific sport.”
In 1921, a basketball player from the Akron Firestones approached Converse about making some improvements to their shoe. His name, of course, was Chuck Taylor. Taylor was a decent basketball player, but he was an even better salesman, so not only did Converse incorporate Taylor’s changes to the All-Star, they offered him a job. Taylor travelled the country holding basketball clinics, helping bring new players into the game while extolling the virtues of the All-Star as the choice of pro ballers like himself. Taylor’s lobbying was so successful that Converse became synonymous with the growing sport of basketball and he became the company’s head of sales. By the early 1930s he had renamed the shoes Chuck Taylor All-Stars, and by 1936, when basketball debuted at the Berlin Olympics, the American team took home gold while outfitted in red white and blue Chuck Taylors. A few years later, when war broke out in Europe and thousands of recruits trained for military service in the United States, they were issued All-Stars, too.
Chuck Taylors maintained their popularity both on the court and off until the 1970s, when, thanks to the changes in fashion brought by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the athletic shoe market exploded. Suddenly brands like Nike, Adidas, Puma, Keds and New Balance, were all vying for sneaker supremacy, and Converse wasn’t the sporting powerhouse it used to be. Chuck Taylor All-Stars, once a common sight on basketball courts, became increasingly rare. As their relevance in basketball waned, however, the shoes’ popularity among the counterculture grew.
“When the “Me Generation” becomes focused on high-end, high-tech footwear, Converse keeps chugging along,” says Semmelhack. “There are many people who embrace it because it’s a never-changing icon, but there are others who say it’s not worth considering anymore because it never changes.” Among those embracing it most enthusiastically were punk rockers like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, who gave the shoes an unexpected new life as symbols of grungy teenage rebellion.
After years of struggling to stay afloat in the face of stiff competition, Converse was bought by Nike in the early 2000s. While this saw production move from the US to overseas, it also heralded a new era for the Chuck Taylor All-Star. Since its takeover, Converse has enticed fashion designers to collaborate on countless limited editions. Commes des Garçons added their beady-eyed heart logo, JW Anderson covered them in pink glitter, and Virgil Abloh swapped the canvas upper for translucent vinyl. The All-Star’s century of popularity speaks to the strength of its initial design, but the shoe’s ability to stay relevant in the age of the collab might speak to something else. For all of its importance as a pioneering sports shoe and a potent cultural symbol, the Chuck Taylor All-Star’s greatest strength might be completely accidental: thanks to those iconic woven uppers it is, quite literally, a blank canvas for expression.