The Cult of Converse

Move over, Nike, some feet are still being dressed in Chuck Taylor All Stars

Optical white high top on blue levis
Chuck Taylor All Stars are to sneakers what Levi’s are to blue jeans: timeless, durable and all-American.

Wherever Lincoln Dickison goes, his chucks go. The only time Dickison isn’t wearing his Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars is when he dons a pair of wingtips for work — and that’s only because he has to. Otherwise, the 27-year-old pledges his allegiance to chucks, which he has worn, and worn out, since the seventh grade.

“They’re the most comfortable shoes on the planet,” Dickison said. “They’re not so much a shoe as they are a foot glove.”

He’s not alone in his cultlike devotion to the utilitarian canvas and rubber sneaker with the distinctive star. Fans say Chuck Taylor All Stars are to sneakers what Levi’s are to blue jeans: timeless, durable and all-American. In Converse’s heyday, the shoes were worn by the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who called the shoes “limousines for the feet” in one commercial. Chamberlain once scored 100 points wearing the flat-soled creations.

Today, chucks, available in myriad colors and patterns, continue to survive among a niche market. The former shoe of choice for the NBA and boys in gym class are now more often seen on with-it teens and twentysomethings, punk and indie-rock hipsters and nostalgic baby boomers who grew up with basic black or white chucks. Since the shoe was created in 1917, Converse has sold 575 million pairs. It remains the company’s best-selling product.

Despite the shoes’ enduring popularity, however, Converse Inc., has struggled financially for the past several years. After filing for bankruptcy protection in January, it was purchased by Footwear Acquisition Inc. this spring for $117.5 million. Under the restructuring plans, Converse closed its North American factories and announced it was moving production to Asia. Since then, there has been a run on the remaining inventory of Chuck Taylors, as many wearers attempt to purchase the last of the “Made in U.S.A.” shoes. Some say the American-made chucks - named for Chuck Taylor, a semi- pro basketball player and Converse salesman whose signature was added to the ankle patch in 1923 - are on the verge of becoming collectors’ items.

“They’re getting harder and harder to find,” says Rob Gilmer, owner of Refined, Combined and Left Behind, a vintage goods shop at 101 S. 15th St. “Everyone wants the American-made ones.” The appeal, he said, lies in their “retro Americana” quality. “They’re a classic American shoe,” says Gilmer, who sells the shoes as fast as he finds them. “Everybody remembers wearing them as a kid.” Gilmer, a 38-year-old transplanted New Yorker, has worn Chucks since he was a kid and will continue to buy them as long as they’re not “made in a sweatshop somewhere.”

The popularity of the rubber-toed sneakers started fading in the 1970s. By the 1980s, athletic shoes were becoming souped-up mini- machines with cushion linings, pumps and gels. Converse couldn’t keep up with the new technologies or the research and development dollars behind them, said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon’s College of Business in Eugene. “Chucks got repositioned from being an athletic shoe to a fashion shoe to a counterculture shoe, and fashion is a tough position for an athletic shoe manufacturer,” Burton said.

Converse also found itself tied to manufacturing plants in the United States while competitors were making their products more cheaply overseas. Then there were internal factors, among them a disastrous acquisition of apparel maker Apex One in 1995 that strangled Converse in debt. Converse saw its share of the athletic-shoe market drop from 80 percent to today’s 1 percent.

Count Tim McEvoy in that 1 percent. McEvoy, 31, started wearing chucks when he was 14. His favorite punk rock musicians sported chucks, and McEvoy said wearing them was a way to rebel against footwear giant Nike. “I like the different colors they come in,” he said, “and they’re cheap.”

McEvoy remembers buying chucks for $18 at Richman Gordman and then from the Converse outlet store on 72nd Street before it closed a couple years ago. He recently purchased three pairs - light blue, orange and red - online for $34 each. McEvoy said he’ll continue to buy chucks even if they’re not made stateside. “I’ll take what I can get, but I’d rather have the American ones.”

Though chucks aren’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of athletic shoes, the shoes score points for style, said Gary Church, owner of American Athletics in Charlotte, N.C. The online and phone-order business has sold Converse products exclusively since 1993 and predominantly sells chucks - some 2,500 pairs a month. “They’re a fashion statement,” Church said. “I’m 53 years old and I wear them. I’m happy that people recognize that this brand is an American icon or a little company like mine would be out of business. As an independent, we probably sell more than anyone else. Our business has literally doubled over the past year.”

Ever since Converse announced that its shoes no longer would be made in the United States, Church said, he has polled his customers about whether they’ll buy the foreign-made versions. About 60 percent of those responding said they don’t care where the shoes are made; 25 percent said they’d never buy chucks again; and the remaining 15 percent said they hadn’t given much thought to it. At the time of this interview, Church was preparing to unload a shipment from Converse’s national distribution center of 1,200 pairs of “Stars and Bars” Chucks, which commemorate the Fourth of July. “We cleaned them out of their warehouse. They’re American-made, too.”

Dickison, who plays guitar in local bands Putrescine and The Monroes, owns five pairs of chucks — three black, one red and one blue. His first pair were gray high-tops that cost $12.50. In junior high, Dickison said, he used his chucks as a doodling pad when he was bored in class. In high school he wrote the names of his favorite bands on his chucks. “It stinks,” Dickison said about the shoes no longer being made here. “But I think as long as they don’t change the shoe itself or make them unreasonably expensive, I’ll still buy them.”

— from the Omaha World-Herald

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