From Hoops To Hipsters

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

Half the history of Converse is about basketball, and the rest is about something far more complicated, about the ways a plain sneaker is consistently adored by anticonsumer consumers. A Converse on a teenager now is about remaining authentic and cool, while selling out in every possible way. It is perhaps the neatest trick in footwear history, and who would have thought it, when Marquis Mills Converse first started making simple, rubber-soled work shoes at a factory outside Boston in 1908?

First, basketball: To celebrate its centennial year, Converse is reissuing $200-a-pair "Black Fives," updates of the broken-in, brown-leather beauties worn by the legendary Harlem Renaissance basketball team in the 1930s, as well as shoes that honor the memory of player-salesman Chuck Taylor, who hawked original All-Star hightops out of the trunk of his car. There are reissues inspired by the Pro Leather series from the '70s and the Weapon from the '80s (afros! tube socks!). All in service to the days when Converse owned the court as the NBA's official shoe, until more expensive basketball shoes came along from other makers -- the sort of shoes that kids sometimes murdered one another for.

But basketball is not what made Converse what it is. That would instead be irony, iconoclasm, a permanent customer base of misfits who all own several pairs of Chucks. Converse owes an enormous debt to rebels, greasers, juvenile delinquents, punk rockers. For all its heritage in hoopsters, the brand subsists on hipsters, which is why the company will soon unveil, without a smidgen of blasphemy, a series of its famous All-Stars and One-Stars with Kurt Cobain's signature and scribbled excerpts from his journals.

Kurt Cobain! Who shot himself 14 years ago and whose lifeless body was partially pictured in a memorable news photograph from the scene of his death, where you can see that he died in his Converse One-Stars. Like every punk rocker on the planet who came before him and after him, the Nirvana frontman almost always wore low-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars or One-Stars or Jack Purcells, and they were always ratty, dirty, holey -- and on him, in the end, holy.

The Cobain shoes will sell for the unpunk price of $50-$65, suggested retail; inside of one of the soles is a Sharpie scrawl that reads, a la Kurt, "Punk rock means freedom." From fans of Nirvana this has elicited only slight dismay -- Courtney Love strikes again, etc. From Converse collectors, there are advance orders. But still, the most impressive reaction is so very like Converse wearers themselves:

Shrug. Whatever.

"This year is the first time we've publicly celebrated the impact Converse has made in the worlds of music, art, sports and fashion," said Geoff Cottrill, the company's chief marketing officer. A new campaign emphasizes "disruption." At the same time, Converse wants the jocks and the dweebs to somehow peacefully coexist, in a "connectivity"-themed campaign, linking, somehow, Hunter S. Thompson and James Dean (Converse sneaker-wearers) to the company's current highly paid pro baller, Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, who sports his own Converse, called the Wade.

Converse is the shoe that never stops rejuvenating its own rebellion cachet, curiously resilient to both overkill and fashionizing. "The Outsiders" all wore plain black or blue Chucks, and the outsiders are still wearing them, in hundreds of different colors, patterns, permutations (stilettos!) and price-points, even as all the outsiders became the insiders, like pregnant teen/America's sweetheart Juno MacGuff.

It is not an angry shoe. It was never that kind of rebellion. It's the shoe of slacker ambivalence, indecision. (Which is weird, because the basketball court is a place of hustle and aggression and the fastest decisions a person can make.) All that "shoegazing" rock of the last decade or so? They were gazing at Converses.

Unlike Vans, Doc Martens and Hush Puppies -- shoes that all rise and fall and rise again on rock-and-roll's whims -- Converse bestows upon its wearer a finely calibrated range of coolness, and that may or may not be so cool. People now give tiny versions of Chucks as coy, counterculture baby presents to expectant alternamoms and alternadads. The company now urges you to buy its (Product) Red versions to help prevent disease in the Third World, since everyone knows that altruism trumps anarchy. Never mind the bollocks; do as Oprah and Bono say.

Speaking of the Third World, some people tell you not to buy Converse because the company closed its last American factory as it was going bankrupt in 2001 and shifted manufacturing to Asia. Nike bought Converse two years later, only adding to the anticonsumer soul-searching. (A small-time competitor called No Sweat sells knockoff Chucks with the promise of happy labor behind each pair. Converse and Nike insist measures have been taken to manufacture their sneakers in a kinder, more equitable way. In 2007, Converse had revenues of more than $550 million, according to Nike.)

Fashion designer John Varvatos began reinterpreting the basic All-Star and Jack Purcell sneakers a few years ago, fraying them at the edges, or fancying them up in leather versions, and finally striking gold in 2005 with a $95 version that elasticized the tongue and created an All-Star slipper, sans laces. Office art directors and videogame designers everywhere went nuts for them, in every color.

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