The Converse Chuck Taylor is the longest-running sneaker in history, having barely changed since 1917. Until this week, when the Chuck II was finally unveiled to the world. Jeff Carvalho unpacks what this landmark moment means for the company.
If you think yesterday's release of the new Converse Chuck II is just another sneaker drop, think again. The Converse Chuck Taylor All Star II represents a major shift in the brand’s approach to innovation – and here we’re talking about a company that has left things unchanged for almost a century. It also marks the first new injection of energy in decades. So, the questions on everyone’s lips are, "how much hand did Nike have in this?" and "what does it mean for the Converse of old?"
The bloodlines of Converse and its mothership could not be further apart. Since it was purchased by Nike in 2003, Converse has remained relatively independent in both thought and focus, leaning as far away from the treadmill of innovation as possible in order to focus entirely on their core customer. That customer is one who appreciates dependable familiarity over continual reinvention, and Converse understands that forcing change upon them is a risky proposition. It has much to lose, after all…
In the Chuck Taylor, Converse has a certified capital “L” Legend of the footwear market. Its presence is so ingrained in youth culture that it has outlasted entire generations of people, literally. Every kid owned a pair of Chuck Taylors and they probably still have one now that they're grow up. Fucking with that heritage is not something Converse took lightly.
What has helped the Chuck Taylor achieve such perennial longevity is, paradoxically, its very disposability and uniform nature. Dweebs, jocks, nerds, preppy kids, rebels and style gods all wear Chucks exactly the same way. It’s a classless shoe worn by every man, woman and child. You don’t line up for Chucks; you don’t collect Chucks. You beat the shit out of Chucks; you batter them until you need another fresh pair, which you’ll then go and do the same thing to.
At least, that’s how I and the weirdos around me wore ours. I didn’t show them love and they sure as hell did not love me back. In fact, in almost all cases, Chuck Taylors kicked your ass: their footbeds being so primitive that they wore both you and the shoe out in no time. Ask some people and they’ll tell you it’s an endearing quality of the Chuck Taylor – one that we just lived with for generations. Think about that, more than a billion pairs of the Chuck Taylor have been sold since its creation, and we’ve just lived with the discomfort of wearing them.
The same was true for the Converse Jack Purcell, Chuck Taylor’s “summer beater” cousin. That is, until October 2014, when Converse privately previewed a new, fully upgraded Jack Purcell Signature to select media – the first major revamp to the original in more than 80 years. It was this that foreshadowed the major change we’ve seen today.
Of the 18 modifications that overhauled the Jack Purcell Signature, none was more important than the decision to borrow Nike Air Zoom insole technology. That simple addition is monumental to understanding what is seemingly a new line of thinking at Converse – one that understands the need to address modern demands while keeping business running as usual. Interestingly, Converse didn’t kill off the original JP; instead, it sits alongside its upgraded brother on retail stands with complete disregard for the confusion caused by having two competing products that look just the same, yet feel so different. For Converse, that was the only option; had they axed the original, there would have been bomb threats…
With the success of the upgraded Jack Purcell behind them, Converse then turned its attention to the "Main Event." For those paying attention, it was clear that the Chuck II was an inevitability – the brand just needed to work out a way to execute it without fucking things up.
I got my first glimpse of the Chuck II after signing a heavy NDA and walking behind a black curtain (literally) during spring previews this past January. There, stood aloft on a series of black podiums, was the new Chuck II, looking every bit like its older brother in its traditional colors. On the inside, though, they took things further, with a tongue that now won't slip to the side when you walk (a repeated frustration of classic Chucks) and an insole lifted from Nike’s highly successful Lunarlon family, leading to what is arguably the most comfortable Chuck of all time.
Then, last week in Boston, Converse invited press from across the globe to experience the Chuck II in an event so grand in scale that it felt, at times, to stray quite heavily from the brand’s humble core. This was followed up by bombastic launch events in cities around the globe, such as the large-scale paint fight thrown in New York on Monday night. All these moves speak to a new direction for Converse – one that looks increasingly more like a footwear brand of this century, rather than the last.
Just look at some of the other recent announcements to come out of the company: the Boston launch party was also an opportunity to unveil their new world headquarters, right in the heart of Boston’s North End. Standing next door to the TD Garden, Converse HQ took a decrepit building on Lovejoy Wharf (one I even attended a rave in, many years ago) and revived it as a world class business center that’s sure to help attract a whole new creative class to the city – a place that's in desperate need of new energy. And I can say that, having lived there for 18 years. Boston needs creatives to drive it forward.
Converse CEO Jim Calhoun also announced that the company would build an innovation lab (think Nike’s Innovation Kitchen) just down the road in the old Schraftt’s Candy Factory in Charlestown. This is surely where the future of Converse will take shape. Having now opened the floodgates with the biggest and most disruptive change in the company’s history, one thing’s for sure: we won’t be waiting another 98 years before we see the next one.
So make no mistake, this week saw not only the launch of the Chuck version 2.0, but the dawn of Converse version 2.0 as well – and with it you can expect a whole lot more innovation coming over the horizon.
NB. While Lunarlon is being first introduced into the Converse mainline through the Chuck II, the Nike insole has been used by Converse in the past. In 2011 Lunarlon was hidden inside the footbed of the experimental, super-lightweight Converse First String Straight Shooter, and more recently it has been a prominent part of the Converse CTAS Pro Skate collection.