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:
"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.
Next Varvatos introduced an All-Star with a manic number of eyelets laced through and through with a stretchy cord. If $100 sneakers are your thing, you could check them out at Varvatos's newish Manhattan boutique. That space, as all hipsters know and are still officially wistful about, used to be CBGB, the venerable punk hole-in-the-wall. One is torn, or goes through the appearance of being torn about this. (If you want to feel even less punk about a shoe purchase, Neiman Marcus also sells Varvatos-designed Converses.)
You might get more of a gloomy, disaffected-teen, suburban-dystopia vibe if you bought a pair at Target, which unveiled its own Converse campaign in February. Or you can buy them in almost any athletic chain, or at little shoe stores in trendy loft-living neighborhoods, or order some online. This covers all the bases, from mundane to insane.
Through all these layers of trend marketing and the co-opting of anticonformity, people who wear Chucks still intuit something in one another. A friend remarked, during the first Internet boom, that the white-collar world was now divided into people who can wear All-Stars (and One-Stars and Jack Purcells) to work every day, and people who aren't allowed to. Graphic design or banking. In the movie business, when you sit down for interviews with film directors or pick up credentials at screening festivals, the first thing everyone does is regard one another's pretty sneakers, and ask where the wearer picked them up. (One never "buys" a pair of hip sneakers. You pick them up, collecting, like a harvest, like they're free. "Fred Segal? Really?")
What is unchanged is the delightful feeling of wearing a pair of Chucks all day, even if some people say it's murder on the arches. Go out in a bright orange pair of Chucks -- the high-tops -- and the trees and flowers seem to sprout in your wake. Go out in a black pair and invite rain clouds and delicious brooding. How is it possible that a shoe can make you feel happy and yet sad, jouncy and yet forlorn, like Joey Ramone and Elvis Costello and Cat Power and Lily Allen all at once?
Broken in, a pair of Chucks offer all the comfort of bedroom slippers, but also the same support, which is why it's so painful to look at old black-and-white basketball: How did those guys ever play in those shoes?
"Basketball players have the worst feet in the world," says Mike Blandini, 77, who worked in the prototype department at Converse's headquarters in North Andover, Mass., for four decades. Chuck Taylor's own weary feet may have been saved by, well, the invention of Chuck Taylors, but every player who came after had a whole new kind of hurt, requiring ever-changing innovations in shoe design. "Larry Bird had a bone spur on his Achilles tendon. I had to go down there and take an impression of [it] and we built the shoe around him. . . . They all had these different problems, and it was legitimate, you really did have to make a [new shoe] for each [athlete]."
Blandini started as a "service boy" in the Converse factory in 1948, and retired from the prototype lab in 1995. By then, All-Stars were being worn by scrawny rockers, One-Stars were being worn by skateboarders and Jack Purcells were being worn by retro-minded writers, artists and preppies. Blandini himself likes a comfy hiking-style shoe that the company now makes, and he keeps a variety of custom All-Stars on hand to wear on special occasions. He has Christmas Chucks and Fourth of July Chucks. Even now he looks at everyone's feet to see what they're wearing.
You look for the Converse person, and pretty soon they walk by -- softly, often slouching. You could go into almost any high school and find an unhappy teenager expressing her angst with a blue Bic ballpoint pen, marking up the sides and soles of her Chucks during geometry class. She does not have a case of March Madness, but she does have a persistent case of lo-fi blues.
Or, thanks to her Chucks, she has that vibe. Whether or not she has Sonic Youth records on vinyl is immaterial. Nobody sells out anymore, because everything's been sold. ( That should be the 100-year sales campaign of the All-Star.) Whatever the first 50 years of Converse meant on the court, the last 50 have been all pose. A sullen and decidedly non-athletic and everlasting pose, in our all-American, foreign-made, rock-and-roll sneakers.