Ever wondered how the sneaker market became so crazy with raffles, campouts, resellers, and dedicated secondary market sites? Well, it’s mostly down to the collectability of one particular shoe: the Nike SB Dunk.
To those younger sneakerheads currently losing their minds over OFF-WHITE Air Prestos and adidas YEEZY Boosts, this might sound far-fetched, when you consider that these days most SB Dunks sit on shelves and generate very little media attention. In 2018, you can easily purchase SB Dunks from a multitude of stores and reselling sites — in stark contrast to the tightly controlled distribution and instant sellouts that cemented the SB Dunk’s status as the most hyped shoe of the ’00s.
Nike’s SB division was no fluke success. Having failed in attempts to appeal to skaters previously, SB was the Oregon sportswear giant's final crack at the lucrative skateboarding market. With only Vans and Airwalk really dominating the ’80s vert scene, the ’90s saw an explosion in street skating and an influx of new skater-owned shoe brands. Fledgling companies such as DC Shoes, Etnies, Emerica, éS, Circa, and Osiris made their mark in the “small wheels/big pants” era of skateboarding with their chunky skate shoes.
As street skating became more popular, its clothing style was adopted by kids everywhere and the skate shoe industry started to boom. Looking to break into this lucrative new market, Nike enlisted a young Bam Margera as its sole team skater and launched a trio of lumpy skate shoes that not only resembled awful Skechers mall shoes, but had three of the worst names Nike has ever cursed its footwear with: the Air Choad, Air Snak, and the Schimp.
After a cheesy 1997 TV ad campaign and distribution to general sports stores, the skate community felt it was a poor attempt by a huge, soulless corporation to enter their world, and Nike’s debut foray into skateboarding folded as quickly as it began.
Early in the 21st century, Nike tried its hand once more by including skateboarding in its “Freestyle” TV ad campaign. But the heavily stylized clip, which featured tricks and synchronized skating, once again failed to resonate with the core skate community. The 2001 acquisition of forward-thinking skate shoe brand Savier also folded within three years of Nike's investment, although that deal did lay a foundation with future SB riders Brian Anderson, Brad Staba and Stefan Janoski.
Having learned from previous mistakes, Nike took things back to basics and really looked into where its shoes stood in skateboarding history. Flicking through old copies of Thrasher magazine, you’ll see Tony Alva skating backyard pools in his Nike Blazers, Mark Gonzales and the Bones Brigade rocking Air Jordan Is, Jeff Kendall in Nike Terminators, and Neil Blender wearing Nike Bruins. Nike basketball sneakers were cheap to buy, super comfortable, lasted for ages, and gave great board feel.
When Sandy Bodecker, who sadly passed away this week aged 66, took charge of Nike's new skateboard division in 2001 after overseeing the brand's rise as a soccer giant, he saw strength in the Swoosh’s accidental skateboarding heritage and the importance of core relationships within the skate community.
Abandoning Nike’s usual model of trying to “own” the market, SB under Bodecker did the last thing anyone would expect: it had a quiet, respectful launch with a small core skate team, a tight distribution strategy, and a product line based around an ’80s college basketball sneaker: the Dunk.
This acknowledgment of the past combined with assembling the right team was essential to SB’s success. The line's initial four skaters were as far removed from flashy X Games skaters (those would come later) as possible: Gino Iannucci, Danny Supa, Reese Forbes, and Richard Mulder. Each was a well respected, stylish skater and was given his own SB Dunk colorway as the new line was launched.
The SB manifesto was simple: limited numbers, interesting stories, and a strict distribution exclusive to selected independent skate stores. This was key. Nike was finally supporting skater-owned stores and showing a commitment to the skateboard industry. In exchange, it got acceptance and credibility.
The Dunk itself was upgraded to deal with the abuse it would be subject to while skating. A padded tongue and Zoom Air unit in the heel were added for cushioning and comfort. Not only was the new SB Dunk more wearable and durable, but the creativity put into the line was on another level, with premium (and occasionally skate-unfriendly) materials such as faux fur, perforated leather, ostrich skin, pig suede, patent leather, and metallics adorning different shoes' uppers.
Every SB Dunk had some kind of story behind its design or colorway, leading to all manner of interesting nicknames being attached to each release. "Heineken," "Bison," "Shark," "Reverse Shark," "Hemp," "Buck," "Jedi," and "Hulk" were just a handful of the monikers dished out to different SB Dunk colorways.
Collaborations were a huge part of the SB Dunk's appeal. Skateboard hardware brands such as Chocolate and Zoo York, stores like Slam City Skates and Supreme, clothing brands including Levi’s and Stüssy, music acts as diverse as Dinosaur Jr. and MF Doom, and artists from Pushead to Futura all put their stamp on the sneaker. The mix of diverse collabs, ever-changing shoe boxes, and exclusivity all combined to make the SB Dunk the most collectible sneaker of its time.
So how did the SB Dunk take off? Back when Nike SB launched in 2002, there was no social media, so sneaker enthusiasts around the world shared their knowledge and passion for shoes via online forums such as NikeTalk and Crooked Tongues.
Having been out of general production for several years, Dunks were pretty hard to come by, particularly in Europe. In Japan, the Dunk was so revered as an underground cult shoe that it was awarded its own limited-edition Nike Co.Jp line in the late ’90s. A few of these Co.Jp Dunks, such as the "Halloween," "City Attack," and "Samba," made their way to a handful of Stateside stores, including Supreme in New York, and the fuse had been lit for Dunks in rare and unusual colorways.
A pivotal year for a new generation of Dunk fans was 2001, with legendary variations such as the "Viotech" and "Ugly Duckling" pack coming out alongside seminal collaborations with Stüssy and Alphanumeric. With Nike SB set to drop its first four Dunk colorways early in 2002, the stage was set.
Skateboarding was more popular than ever, the streetwear scene was growing, and sneaker culture was booming. Nike SB took the most sought-after cult shoe of the moment, updated it, and mixed it with the hottest collaborators, dipping it in interesting hues and keeping availability limited. It struck an instant cord with sneakerheads, collectors, and resellers alike.
With the SB Dunks initially selling exclusively in independent skate stores, a huge new demographic descended on these small shops desperate for the latest hot release. It felt like a triple win: credibility for Nike, profits for the skate shops, and the feeling of exclusivity for the customer.
Demand outstripped supply, so a secondary market erupted and reseller culture was taken to new heights. Nathan Wallace is one of the world’s biggest SB collectors, with more than 400 pairs of Dunks in his stash. His explanation of the SB Dunk’s appeal is simple: “It may not be the most comfortable shoe, but it looks sick. When I started to dig a little deeper and go into the materials, stories, and inspirations behind all the designs, I was hooked.”
Having skated in the slightly beefed-up Dunk Pro B the previous year, I first came across the debut SB Dunks while on vacation in Boston in the spring of 2002. In a little basement skate store, I was surprised to see a small collection of Nike Dunks on the shelves. It seemed strange. Having been both a skater and a sneaker guy since the ’80s, I'd never seen Nikes in a skate shop before. Of the four shoes available, I picked up Iannucci's subtle obsidian colorway and Supa’s classic New York Knicks version.
It wasn’t until I returned to the UK that I realized the hype around these things. Message boards and blogs were going nuts for these first four SB Dunks, available only in select skate stores in North America and Japan (European distribution would follow the next year).
Later in 2002, Nike SB collaborated with Supreme on a pair of Dunks in a classic Air Jordan III elephant print colorway and people lost their minds. Exclusive to Supreme’s own stores in NYC and Tokyo, this was the first time I’d really witnessed sneaker lineups outside stores. The collaboration raised the profile of both parties, making Nike SB and Supreme the two most desired brands of the era.
Alex Corporan, Supreme’s NYC store manager at the time, recalls the impact it had on the brand's small downtown skate shop. “The change was huge," he says. "The whole sneaker culture really shifted the demographic of people shopping at the store. The Dunk itself had its own cult following in and out of skateboarding, so those limited-edition colorways caused frenzy amongst sneakerheads. Sneaker resale culture became a big thing and that brought a huge new set of eyes to Supreme because we carried the largest stock of the Nike SB line in NYC.”
Another important collaboration was 2005's “Team Manager Series.” For this small capsule, Nike SB worked alongside major players in the skateboard community — Real Skateboards, Stüssy, Alien Workshop — but lesser-known hardware brand Diamond Supply Co. ended up trumping them all. Its “Diamond” SB Dunk (aka the "Tiffany") was designed by brand founder Nick Tershay and was inspired by jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co.'s blue diamond gift boxes.
“I sent Nike SB the black and Tiffany colorway with a gray Swoosh, but when the first sample came back, I decided to upgrade the upper to faux crocodile skin and make the Swoosh silver to represent platinum instead of just gray," Tershay says. "As it was Diamond’s first collaboration, I really wanted the shoe to look luxurious. Once the sample was updated with these changes, I knew people were going to trip on it because it was so different to anything else out there.”
Prior to the SB Dunk, there had been sneaker collectors and resellers, but the SB project took everything to a new level. SB hype saw the arrival of endless lines and campouts outside stores, sneaker magazines, sneaker-related apparel brands, sneaker consignment stores, online sneaker stores, sneaker swap-meets, sneaker conventions, sneaker lace companies, specific sneaker cleaning products, and in the case of Jeff Staple’s SB Dunk "Pigeon" release in New York in 2005, full-on sneaker riots.
Eventually, though, SB Dunks started to flood the market, with distribution expanding from core stores to mainstream retailers. Everything has a life cycle, and skaters started to shun the chunky SB Dunk in favor of slimmer, low-key vulcanized sneakers such as Nike SB team rider Janoski’s own model and classic Vans.
As tastes shifted, technical Nike models such as Air Max, Flyknit, and Huarache became the sneakers of choice for collectors, resellers, and the mainstream. To hardcore SB fans like Wallace, this was something of a blessing. “With the craze dying down, it was easier to cop new releases and the resale value dropped considerably," he says. "Specialist forums like N-SB and NikeTalk kept the Dunk alive for us collectors when the hype died down.”
But could the SB Dunk turn out to be the sneaker industry’s latest comeback kid? In recent times, we’ve seen a new generation of celebrities and social media stars proudly flexing their Dunks online.
Round Two owner and designer of Nike’s Air Max Day "Vote Forward" 2017 sneaker Sean Wotherspoon has been vocal in his love of the SB Dunk and how it kickstarted his passion for collecting sneakers at a young age. Virgil Abloh was seen wearing his "Michigan" Dunk Highs at Paris Fashion Week. And music stars like A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean have delved into the SB vaults from time to time.
But the celebrity figurehead pushing the return of the SB Dunk hardest is undoubtedly Texan rapper Travis Scott. Although he released his own signature collaborations on other Nike and Jordan Brand silhouettes this year, Scott can often be seen rocking some serious SB heat on Instagram, including "Medicom" Dunks, the "Three Bears" pack, the "What The Dunk," and even some rare "Don Quixote" samples from 2006. La Flame even posted a photo to shout out his vintage SB supplier Project Blitz, the LA-based reseller to the stars whose business was originally founded on buying and selling pairs of the “Paris” SB Dunk in the early ’00s under the eBay moniker "Croatianstyle."
With celebrity culture now such a driving force in the sneaker market, it would be surprising not to see the SB Dunk make a comeback on the back of such high-profile endorsements. The legendary "Diamond" SB Dunk looks set to make a return, with a third iteration (a high-top version came out in 2014) reported to be dropping later this year. Designer Tershay is delighted by the colorway's staying power but coy about the new version: “I grew up a sneakerhead my entire life, so it’s an honor for something I designed with my favorite sneaker company to be named one of the best Dunks of all time. As for the next one, you’ll have to wait and see!”
Sadly, Sandy Bodecker, the person so instrumental to Nike SB's success, won't be around to witness the sneaker's rebirth. But should the SB Dunk rise again, it'll be a fitting tribute to a Nike great.
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