Star Power

They’re a humble canvas shoe loved by rock stars, royals, mums and dads. So how, after almost 100 years, have Converse All Stars kept their cred?

Black and red high top chucks
If you want a pair of shoes that say you’re a touch subversive, a bit hip, a little different but not remotely flash or elitist, you choose All Stars.

Converse All Stars are the world’s most rock ’n’ roll shoes, with a pop-culture heritage stretching back as far as the invention of the teenager. And yet they’re also supremely democratic and entirely contemporary: everyone can wear them, from trendy toddlers to fashionable pensioners. Which is not to ignore the fact that celebs like Sienna Miller wear them, too.

If you want a pair of shoes that say you’re a touch subversive, a bit hip, a little different but not remotely flash or elitist, you choose All Stars. Like denim jeans, leather jackets, logo T-shirts and all the other sartorial signifiers of youthful independence, or manufactured outsiderdom if you prefer, All Stars are absolutely everywhere and on everyone. Venture outside today, wherever you are, and look around you. I guarantee it won’t take long before you spot someone in All Stars. It could be a suburban dad, an off-duty yuppie, a feckless hoodie or a sensible matron.

Strangely, perhaps this ubiquity — not to mention the uncool associations — doesn’t seem to lesson the shoe’s appeal to the more fashion-conscious sneaker wearer. Somehow, these simple, cheap, entirely unremarkable shoes, made of canvas and vulcanized rubber and sold for $80 AU, have retained their cachet.

The Chuck Taylor All Star — “chucks” to the Americans, “All Stars” to the rest of us — has a status within pop culture that links early rock ’n’ rollers with hippie aristocrats, prototype punks with gangsta rappers, grunge icons with indie rockers. Elvis wore Converse. So did James Dean. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were photographed in his-and-hers pairs in 1969. Erstwhile Savage Gardener Darren Hayes has been seen wearing them, along with members of Eskimo Joe. Paul McCartney has been wearing them since his days in Wings, and when Mick Jagger married Bianca Perez Morena de Macias in St. Tropez in 1971, the groom wore a green three-piece suit and white canvas Converse sneakers. In 1976, The Ramones kickstarted American punk rock in black-leather biker jackets with drainpipe jeans and black All Stars. Post-punks wore them too, as did alt rockers The Pixies and art rockers Sonic Youth. Kurt Cobain died in his [One-Stars]*.

Hip-hoppers are most often shod by the big three brands — Nike, Reebok and adidas — but Snoop Dog has been a tireless campaigner for Converse. Mos Def has advertised the brand and The Game is a fan. Southern rapper Master P based an anti-drugs rhyme around his love for All Stars (“Converse the shoes that everybody love / And I like to wear my chucks when I step in the club”), and a lesser-known MC called T-Money waxed lyrical about his collection on Ma Converse Shoe (“The orange and white is too f..kin’ bright / That’s why I wear them at night...”).

For rock fans, the shoe’s most recent shot in the ankle was provided by The Strokes, whose scruffy schoolboy style continues to influence newer bands like Razorlight and The Kooks, among others. The Arctic Monkeys also immortalized All Stars in song, on A Certain Romance. “Well oh they might wear classic Reeboks / Or knackered Converse / Or tracky bottoms tucked in socks ...”

I’ve been wearing All Stars, on and off, since early adolescence. That’s two decades of brand loyalty. I’m wearing a pair right now, as I write (white canvas low tops, if you’re really interested). On the floor near my wardrobe are another three, pairs, all low-tops, one pair in black canvas, one in all-white leather, another in cream canvas. Over the years I’ve owned a great many more, high-tops and low-tops in postbox red and royal blue and even, I blush to admit, a handsome pair in pink.

They’ve seen me through school and university, foreign-exchange trips, warehouse parties, first dates, park kickabouts, and countless days like today, sitting at a computer. I’ve worn them with T-shirts in the summer, under heavy coats in winter, and even, though I hesitate to admit it, on occasion under suits. I’ve always felt pretty hip wearing them, too, even if to the undiscerning they look utterly unremarkable, boring even. In this way, they appeal to the purist in me, and doubtless many others, in the same way as Levi’s 501’s, Ray-Ban aviators and Lacoste polos.

Next year, Converse celebrates 100 years of selling shoes. Founded in 1908 by Marquis Mills Converse, the Converse Rubber shoe Company of Malden, Massachusetts, launched the All Star, the first ever “performance basketball sneaker” in 1917. At the last count, in 2003 it had sold 750 millions pairs in 144 countries, making it the world’s top-selling sports shoe.

It didn’t become the Chuck Taylor All Star until 1923*, when the firm recruited basketball player Charles H. Taylor as an adviser and representative. The shoe would become standard issue for pro and amateur basketball players throughout the 1920’s, 1930’s and ’40s and remained in use as a sports shoe even until the 1970s, when another Converse endorser, Julius Erving — basketballs beloved “Dr. J” — was redefining the sport at the New York Nets and then the Philsdelphia 76ers. Ironically, it was Erving’s pioneering of “above the rim” basketball — he out-jumped his competitors, basically — that set in motion the development of other, sturdier shoes that could offer increased bounce and cushioning.

Converse tried to modernize but by the mid-1980s — and with the arrival of Nike’s first Air Jordan boot, endorsed by the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan, who began his basketball career in Converse — the sun had set on the All Star as a sports performance shoe, and on the brand itself as a rival to the major sports apparel makers.

The skater-style Converse One Star, introduced in 1970 as an improvement on the All Star, have ever since been a byword for “naff”. There’s a passage in Robbie Williams’ autobiography Feel in which the self-confessed sneaker snob recalls his first-ever meeting with his future Take That bandmate Gary Barlow. Williams remembers noticing with dismay, was wearing Converse One Stars.

But just as Converse faded as a sportswear brand from the 1960s onwards, the All Star became a fashion item. Until the ’60s it was available only as a high-top “boot”, with the circle patch on the inner upper, and only in black or white, but in 1962* the low-top or oxford, shoe was introduced and four years later new coulours (red, navy, pink) became available. Popularised as leisure shoes by surfers and other subcultures (beats, hippies, et al), soon they were being worn by anyone without a white-collar job to go to that day.

It’s not all been plain sailing, though. Converse first went into receivership in 1928 after a disastrous diversification inot the car tyre business, and through its history it has been serially acquired by companies that make ribbon cables (Eltra), aircraft electronics and car parts (Allied) and furniture (Interco), with varying degrees of success.

In 2001 Converse entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States, with debts totalling $180 million US. Production ceased, the number of sneakers manufactured each year having already dropped dramatically from 83.4 millions pairs in 1998 to 3.9 million in 2000. The company staggered on* in private hands until a white knight arrived in 2003 in the shape of Nike, which bought it for $305 million US — an event observed with a slightly sardonic smile by some sportswear aficionados.

Today, All Stars are made in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam in multiple variations. They are available in denim, in “distressed leather”, with double tongues, with multiple eyelets, knee-high, as a slip-on, and in an extrodinary array of garish colours and print designs. There’s a special, pricier collection produced in collaboration with American fashion designer John Varvatos, as well as a range of all star slide and thongs [flip-flops], plus a kid’s collection that look similar to Vans, another US footwear staple that has been appropriated from its original design mission — to help the wearer stay on a skateboard — for everyday use.

But all these tinkerings are, to the All Star enthusiast, unnecessary diversions from the briliant purity of design of the originals. Most aficionados will allow cupboard space to the 1966 colours, but for the most part we’re sticking to white or black; we certainly won’t be sproting graffiti-emblazoned high-tops with Velcros fastenings anytime soon.

Somewhere in the world, one suspects, a bunch of unknown kids are today preparing to reinvent rock ’n’ roll all over again. but before they strap on their guitars and head outside to the tour van, they’ll be lacing up their cheap black canvas and rubber sneakers.

*Editor’s Note: Some of the facts and dates do not match what we have discovered in our research. The “Chuck Taylor” All Star was first produced in 1932, and the low cut model was introduced in 1957. After the 2000 bankruptcy, the Footwear Acquisition Company was very succesful in reorganizing Converse and regaining its market share; Nike bought the company to increase its overall market share in the athletic shoe business.

by Alec Bilmes
Courrier-Mail Staff Writer
Sydney, Australia

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