Although the word ‘timeless’ is thrown around a lot in fashion, there are very few products that design and purpose have actually stood the test of time. And the Stan Smith is without a doubt one of them. So many other brands have tried to copy its minimal aesthetic and adidas itself has dropped countless versions and collaborations, but almost 50 years since it first hit the court and it hasn’t lost any of its character or iconicity.
Like many of the most revered sneakers, the Stan Smith’s story starts in performance. Originally endorsed by the French tennis player Robert Haillet, the clean, white sneaker was the first leather tennis shoe, setting a new benchmark in performance sneakers at the time. In 1971, Adi Dassler’s son, Horst Dassler, approached Stan Smith with the offer of repurposing the sneaker as Stan’s pro model in hope of gaining traction on US soil. After a short cross-over period where the shoe carried both Haillet and Smith’s signatures, the adidas Stan Smith became the shoe we as know it in 1978 with the iconic green heel patch and Stan’s portrait on the tongue.
“I’ll never forget looking down at this shoe when I was playing, one of the first times I had the shoe with my face on it, and I kept looking at the face, kept looking at the shoe. I said, “This is really weird.” My face actually on the shoe looking back at me,” explains Stan Smith on this episode of Why It’s Cool. “The other thing that I remember is that I remember losing to a guy, wearing my shoe for the first time. I really didn’t think it was appropriate for a player to beat me, wearing my shoe.”
The Stan Smith didn’t just leave a lasting impact on sneaker culture, it opened up the floodgates for a new generation of female sneakers and fed into the casualization of workwear as a whole. Marc Jacobs honed the off-duty designer look when he wore Stans in the mid-2000s, but it wasn’t until 2014, when Phoebe Philo took her bow at Paris fashion week wearing an olive green turtleneck, straight cut black pants, and a pair of Stan Smiths that the shoe was widely embraced by the discerning female fashion consumer. That grown-up, minimal look broke new ground in fashion culture, ushering in a new era of casual style and prompting greater acceptance of sneakers as a whole beyond sports and streetwear.
Elizabeth von der Goltz, the global buying director of online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter, tells, ”I remember when even in my old work in the official handbook of how you dress you were not allowed to wear sneakers to work. I think in most workplaces you actually weren’t even allowed to wear sneakers.” She continues, “Phoebe Philo, for every woman and man out there, she’s the epitome of quiet, sophisticated luxury. For her to wear something like a Stan Smith is a statement cause they’re like, “She’s the epitome of kind of innovation, coolness, style. And that’s how she runs around all day.”
After a two year hiatus, adidas relaunched the Stan Smith in 2014 succeeded by a number of high-profile collaborations with Raf Simons, French boutique Club 75, and Japanese label NEIGHBORHOOD among others. “It’s the perfect shoe to do a collaboration with because it’s such a blank canvas,” says Gary Aspden, curator of adidas Spezial. “There’s so much you can kind of add to it because there’s nothing on that shoe really that doesn’t have a good purpose being there. It is to me, almost like one of the ultimate pieces of modernist design within fashion.”
From David Bowie’s 1977 press shots to the Manchester and Salford Perry Boys and Naomi Campbel’s cover shoot for the face in 1993, the Stan Smith has, over its lifetime, been co-opted by a number of fashion-savvy individuals and subcultures, and even featured in Jay-Z and A$AP Rocky’s lyrics.
“When my daughter was 14, so when was this? Probably 15, 16, 17, 18 years ago, she came home one day and said, “Dad, you’re famous.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Jay-Z has you in some of his songs.” At the time, I said, “Who is Jay-Z?” It was funny that he actually had lyrics of up my shoe in several of his songs, but one of them was, “I’m just sitting here chilling in my white Stan Smith adidas.”
But it’s hardly a surprise. With its minimal, clean aesthetic, the Stan Smith has surpassed fleeting trends and maintain unfailing popularity over the decades that has transcended it beyond a simple piece of footwear to a cultural icon. The title of Stan Smith’s book, “Some People Think I’m a Shoe”, a statement inspired by a question asked by his daughter, sums it up. The former world number one’s legacy is equal to, and arguably outweighed by, that of his eponymous sneaker.
Listen to the full episode above for the full story and stay tuned for a new episode of Why It’s Cool next week.