The classic Chuck Taylor sneaker has been a lot of things in its nearly 100-year run: Basketball shoe. Rebellious teen uniform. Cultural icon.
One thing it hasn’t been: Comfortable.
That could be changing, as Converse says it plans to release a new version of the old classic. The Chuck II will have more support and be lighter, using technology from parent company Nike.
The new version, which arrives in stores next week, will sport Nike’s lightweight Lunarlon foam and, yes, arch support, the company says. High-tops will retail for $75, compared to $55 for the original model.
The traditional, and cheaper, Chuck Taylors aren’t going away, but the redesign represents a risky bet by a brand that made its name by being unchanging.
Die-hard fans have balked at even minor tweaks to the original, and observers say Chuck Taylor purists are likely to scoff at an overhauled shoe. The company is also dipping its feet back into the competitive athletic shoe business that has swelled since Converse reigned supreme.
In a statement, Converse chief executive Jim Calhoun called the release a "ground-breaking moment" for the company, saying it was "ushering in not just a new sneaker, but a completely new way of thinking."
But change can be fraught territory for Converse. Just ask E.C. Frederick, its research and development chief in the ’90s.
When the company switched factories, looking to make a more comfortable shoe with fewer inconsistencies, its die-hard fans — “Chuckheads,” he calls them — revolted. They missed the imperfections in the rubber tape that lines the base of the shoe.
So the company found a way to put them back in, and Frederick says he learned not to fiddle with the shoes’ famous exterior.
“That’s the thing with a fashion icon is, it’s supposed to be exactly like it always was,” said Frederick, who now runs Exeter Research, a shoe design consulting firm in New Hampshire. “You better not screw with the construction or the profile, at least externally.”
But changes underneath the surface? Converse is betting that could help the shoe catch on with people who like the style but want more support, even if purists balk at them.
Fans who grew up wearing Chucks but who have found them more and more uncomfortable as they aged, may be drawn back, said Frederick.
“Older demographic, more complaints,” Frederick said. “They always talk about reasons not to buy, and one of those would be, ‘Yeah, I like the way this looks, I like the color, but it’s just too uncomfortable.’”
The current design dates to the early days of sneakers. Before they were Chucks – the stuff of teenage rebellion and rock ’n’ roll — they were just Converse’s All Stars, basketball shoes introduced in 1917 by a company that had mostly been making galoshes.
In 1934, the autograph of Chuck Taylor, then a Converse salesman who put on basketball clinics around the country, was inked on the side, and eventually his sneakers supplanted his basketball career in America’s collective memory, a celebrity endorsement of sorts that spawned its own celebrity.
“Basically, he was Converse at the time,” Abe Aamidor, author of “Chuck Taylor, All Star,” said in an e-mail.
Chucks ebbed in and out of style as generations of young people rediscovered them, but hardly changed as the shoe business transformed around them: Footwear became more supportive and styles more elaborate.
Chucks remained popular even as its parent company lost money and went bankrupt in 2001 thanks to a series of botched business deals, including a failed clothing line for Magic Johnson, Aamidor said.
The shoes still sell well. Converse’s sales jumped 18 percent to $2 billion in its latest fiscal year, which ended in May. That pushed it to $517 million in pre-tax profits, according to Nike, which bought Converse in 2003.
“The brand is very much on top of their game right now,” said Matt Powell, an NPD Group analyst who writes the blog “Sneakernomics” for Forbes.
That’s why Powell thinks it makes sense for Converse to give a revamped Chuck Taylor a try. It’s not desperate to pump up profits, but it could get a boost if people who thought the shoes were too uncomfortable before give them a second chance.
Frederick remembers wearing them to play basketball in the ’60s; they were more comfortable than the competitors then, he said, and pros such as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain wore them.
“There are famous basketball players that played in Chuck Taylors — that even kids have heard of,” said Ben Osborne, editor of Slam Magazine, who curated the book “Slam Kicks: Basketball Sneakers That Changed the Game.”
Today, that amazes Dr. Alex Kor, a podiatrist at Johns Hopkins Bayview in Baltimore. The old-school Chucks are “really, really bad,” he said, so playing a full season in them without getting hurt is almost unfathomable.
Other doctors such as Dr. Farah Siddiqui of George Washington Medical Faculty Associates steer patients with foot troubles away, saying they’re essentially “just a fashion statement,” not a supportive shoe. Siddiqui says Chucks come up a few times a week, mostly with younger patients, "especially when they’re entering the workforce and are on their feet a lot more."
That speaks to their staying power, as the shoes transformed from a symbol of childhood after World War II to one of mid-century athletic prowess to one of anti-establishment authenticity among musicians and rebellious teens in the ’70s and ’80s, said Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum.
But Chucks today lack a single meaning, Semmelhack says.
“Now, the Chuck Taylor can be embraced for multiple reasons,” Semmelhack said. “Nostalgia. Authenticity. Some are anti-fashion and anti-establishment. I mean, it depends on how they’re worn and who’s wearing them.”