Converse: Where Will This Shoe Take You?

In 1965, Gary Kizziar and Joe Baustert were two typical teenagers from different walks of life wanting to excel in sports. At the top of the list of facts necessary to accomplish their goals was owning a pair of the famous Chuck Taylor All Stars, commonly known as “chucks”.

As I interviewed these men separately, it was evident how the influence of a product can affect the self-esteem of youth. Gary Kizziar, from an upper-middle class city background, definitely understood the absolute necessity of performing in a pair of chucks. He is certain that his success in basketball would not have been nearly as great without his chucks. He felt he could perform better, jump higher and run faster, thus gaining the nickname “Shoes”, which is still with him today.

Gary had no concerns about getting his first pair of chucks; they were supplied through the school for any basketball player. However, owning his first pair of casual chucks became extremely important. The color of choice for Gary’s casual chucks was green. It did not take long for Gary’s chucks to increase in importance. About one week after owning his green chucks, he went fishing with his granddad. For the first time ever, Gary caught the biggest fish. From that moment on Gary was not often seen without his green Chuck Taylors. According to Gary, “The holes don’t matter, but I need the soles,” so at the age of twenty-six he finally threw out his last pair of Chuck Taylor All Stars.

green high top chucks
Gary’s favorite chucks were green.

Joe Baustert’s experience with chucks was on the other side of the spectrum, he never wanted to throw his away. Joe, from a lower class country family knew the impact of not owning a pair of chucks. For three years he watched as many kids his age were rising the popularity ladder by having a pair of chucks. He wanted to fit in so much that he once painted the All Star emblem on his TG&Y look-alikes. The only problem was that Joe painted Chip Taylor instead of Chuck Taylor. You can only imagine the embarrassment he endured. Finally, after selling many pop and beer bottles, Joe could afford his ever so desirable white Chuck Taylors. He now felt normal and knew that everyone else saw him that way. Today Joe realizes that chucks are just a fashion statement, but in his youth he absolutely believed they made him a better person.

wearing optical white high tops
Optical white chucks were the way to go for Joe.

What I discovered from these two individuals is that, whether country or city, rich or poor, athlete or not, chucks were a necessity to gain the goals both men sought. So I ask myself, just what was it that actually started this obsession with the Chuck Taylor phenomenon.

The Shoe Makes the Man

Charles “Chuck” H. Taylor, the ambassador to basketball, was the man responsible for the promotion of the world’s first basketball sneaker. As a basketball player for the Akron Firestones, he knew the advantages of owning a pair of All Stars. Chuck Taylor believed in the shoe so much that in 1921 he joined the Converse sales force. Traveling across the United States, he hosted many basketball clinics and shows to promote and endorse the All Star. Taylor’s input at Converse led to important changes in the original shoe. In 1923 his name was added to the famous ankle patch.

The Converse Corporation opened in 1908 in North Reading, Massachusetts. They soon recognized the need for a shoe that people could wear while playing basketball. At this time basketball was the major and most enjoyable sport. It was not until 1917 that basketball was forever changed by the production of the first version of the All Star Chuck Taylor. Originally the shoe only came in one color, black. Soon the off-white high tops were produced. The off-white Chuck became the official sneaker of the Armed Forces. During World War II, the soldiers did all their exercises and fitness training in their workout consultants — their chucks! During this time chucks were the best shoes on the market. They would improve your image and somehow relieve some of the tension in your life, either by playing basketball or just taking a day to relax in the sun in your chucks. It seemed that Chuck Taylors were a symbol of simplicity. They helped people realize that keeping life simple and not worrying so much about the small stuff was not so hard after all. Getting away from the monotony of everyday life or stress from any work seemed easily accomplished with your chucks. Everyone loved their chucks, but soon the black and off-white became boring and the public wanted more. Kids, teenagers, and especially basketball teams across the United States were wanting style, excitement, color and fashion!

During the early sixties the Converse Corporation realized this and did something about the demands. Anything from basic white, tie-dyed, flowers and the Batman symbol was put on Chuck Taylors sometime during their existence. By this time Converse owned eighty percent of the entire sneaker industry and in 1968 Chuck Taylor was added to the basketball Hall of Fame.

tie dye high top chucks
Chucks were tie-dyed and made with different patterns starting in the late sixties.

In the 1960’s Chucks symbolized the ultimate cool in footwear. The young basketball sensation Julius Erving aka Dr. J, appeared in ads for Converse. His ads dubbed the All Stars with the saying “Limos for the feet”. This meant that no matter what, sun, rain, snow or mud, you were always in your chucks. Along with Dr. J, many basketball stars wore Chucks. The Celtics gave All Stars a little push in their popularity. Back in 1923, the Celtics convinced Converse to add a sturdier sole, more traction, and high-top ankle support. Then in the sixties, Bill Russell and Larry Bird started a small revival for chucks, but it did not last long.

One Foot in the Grave

The All Star was the only basketball shoe for a few decades and is still considered a classic enduring object, but nothing can stay great forever. From approximately 1969-1980 the All star was basically lost. The creation of many high tech basketball shoes shut out Chucks. “I want Nikes”, “I want Air Jordans”, “I want Reeboks”, were the cries and requests that almost all parents heard from their children. The all-new designs, comfort and style of the new brands left Converse in their wake.

Nike, who is now the largest shoe company, surpassed the Chuck Taylors easily. By the end of the seventies decade, Nike was expanding aggressively into basketball and other sports. It surpassed every shoe company and became number one. The amount of money that Nike was making was too large for Converse to match. Converse tried by increasing its advertising spending to three million dollars from three hundred thousand, but it still did not find its way back into the mainstream.

The Chuck Taylor did appear in many films and television shows during this time, but that was basically the only place you would see them. Popular movies such as Rocky (1976), Animal House (1978), and Grease (1978) featured Converse Chuck Taylors. Television shows that contributed to the holding on of Chuck Taylors included Happy Days (1974), Welcome Back Kotter (1975), Laverne and Shirley (1976), and Taxi (1978). These movies and shows featured the chucks because of their popularity in earlier years. Although no one wore them anymore, everyone remembered the ultimate shoe. It was not that chucks were no longer appreciated and liked, but the fact that all-new designs were taking over.

We all know that the Chuck Taylor did not disappear forever. During these neglected years the population was only doing what is normal for everyone. We feel we must try out new things and make a decision of what we like best. On the basketball court the Chuck Taylors were no longer the best decision, but as a fashion statement they were on the top of the list. Everything in life has its down times and rightfully so. How would we learn and grow without all the imperfections life throws our way? The Converse Corporation dealt very well with the problem of being famous for the “classic” shoe. It did not give up or give out. During the reign of the Chuck Taylor, we have seen them promoted and endorsed through many resources. In addition to movies and television shows, you saw them in magazines, recreational activities and sporting events. All of these avenues for promotion continue today.

Back On Your Feet

In the recent movie Never Been Kissed, Drew Barrymore wants to fit in the cool crowd. Her brother tells her that she just needs one cool person to like her and she would be cool. The same thing happened to Converse in 1987. The all time favorite basketball movie Hoosiers came out and chucks were back in style — the keyword being style. The Chuck Taylor would no longer be seen on the basketball court, but as a fashion accessory to many different types of groups. Skaters, free-style bikers, rock and roll stars and even some academic teams wore chucks to spice up their wardrobe.

Hoosiers DVD cover
Original Hoosiers DVD cover.

Through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Converse Corporation decided to let go of the basketball dream and target the fashion industry. Chucks would no longer be endorsed by famous basketball players, but by people of all different ages, backgrounds and work environments. Some people were even lucky enough to wear them at work for promotion purposes. Converse sold ten million pairs of Chuck Taylors in 1992 and did not see the need to follow in the footsteps of Reebok and Nike by paying big bucks for endorsement to athletes such as Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal and Michael Jordan. Converse is now aimed at being the footwear of fashion. It wants to have a sexy and streetwise image.

To achieve this goal Converse began to advertise chucks in a completely different way. They are focusing the advertisement of the chucks on teens. The campaign is aimed at the core twelve to eighteen year olds and will appear in magazines such as YM, Spin and Transworld Skateboarder. Converse already took over the skate boarding shoe industry with its invention of the Chuck Taylor Skateboarder. Targeting small groups like these is what has kept Converse alive.

Converse markets to teenagers by running ads on MTV, VH1 and network television shows. The advertisements consist of real life situations. One such ad shows a group of kids hanging out and not everyone is wearing chucks. Although no other name brand is shown, they get the point across that, of course, not everyone in a group is going to own the same type of shoe, but that the chuck is still there after all these years. Being a teen myself, this type of advertisement is far more appealing to me than those far-fetched, completely unrealistic advertisements shown by other companies.

Another aspect of targeting teens is the price of the All Star Chuck Taylors. Unlike other name brand shoes, Converse is still cheap! The shoe industry has become ridiculous and pricing itself out of a lot of income levels. I, as a student, can not afford a pair of $125.00 Filas or Nikes. Chuck Taylors, on the otherhand, sell for around thirty dollars a pair. That equals out to where you could buy about four pairs of chucks for one pair of some other well-known brand. The chucks are a bargain and who does not appreciate a great bargain!

Converse also appeals to the baby boomers by keeping it “original”. These are the people that started the whole Chuck Taylor fashion. So the industry sees no reason to change something already loved by a whole generation.

Of course Converse marketing understands the importance of appealing to the new kids on the block. Although they still produce the original All Stars they have come out with a slightly modified design. They introduced the All Star 2000 Superchuck. It was released in 1996 and was the first new All Star in seventy nine years. It is red, white and blue with the famous ankle patch and the outside is leather, no longer canvas. The commercial for the All Star 2000 Superchuck starts as young basketball players enter a gymnasium of old and famous basketball players. The original canvas All Star in the middle of the gym floor morphs into the new All Star and a voice announces, “The shoe that started it all is back in ball”. This shoe will never replace the original, nor will any other, but Converse must accompany the changing times and styles if it wishes to compete and win.

The Chuck Taylor came, it went, it is back and it is still an All Star. As the icon of tennis shoes, Kevin Wernet’s words define the everlasting appeal of the “Bright Blue Star”

There is a man I’d like to meet
His shoes help me go far
His autograph is on my feet
Around a Bright Blue Star

Chuck Taylor’s Converse All Stars are
The world’s greatest shoe
If other shoes were on my feet
I wouldn’t know what to do

They’re perfect shoes for anything
Like work or school or play
And best of all these shoes are made
Right in the U.S.A.

Colors vary oh so much
Like purple, red, or white
Blue, black, or green, they always seem
To match your clothes just right

Con shoes are so affordable
Unlike those darnn Nikes
I buy my Cons and still have left
Cash to get new CDs

I love All Stars, they make me feel
As big and bold as brass
If you don’t like my favorite shoes
Then watch them kick your ass

Play On Chuck!!

After researching the history of the Chuck Taylor All Star, it behooves me to say I have never personally owned a pair of these famous shoes. Being a better than average athlete in basketball and tennis, I now must ask myself could my own personal chucks have made the difference in me being above average to excellent? Could I have jumped higher, ran faster, stopped quicker? Oh yes, of course, I understand it is all a mind game. Or is it? I think today I will own a pair of chucks, yellow chucks, bright yellow chucks! I think I can already feel it; I know I can! I will be better!

yellow high top chucks

How about you? Isn’t it time you joined the ranks of those who strive for the excellence that the famous Chuck Taylor All Star embodies? Of course it is! The only remaining decision is what color you will choose?

—Callie Kizziar

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