Saturday, April 05, 2008

100-year anniversary sneaks up on Converse

Saturday, April 5, 2008 3:23 AM
A Kurt Cobain Chuck Taylor, left, and a 1933 Rens All-Star from the Black Fives collection

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Hank Stuever | Washington Post

A Kurt Cobain Chuck Taylor, left, and a 1933 Rens All-Star from the Black Fives collection

Half the history of Converse is about basketball, and the rest is more complicated -- about the ways that a plain sneaker is consistently adored by anti-consumer consumers.

And a Converse worn by a teenager is about remaining cool and authentic while selling out in every way.

Who would have imagined perhaps the best trick in footwear history when Marquis Mills Converse started making simple, rubber-soled work shoes at a factory outside Boston in 1908?

To celebrate its centennial, Converse is reissuing $200-a-pair "Black Fives" -- updates of the broken-in brown-leather beauties worn by the legendary Harlem Renaissance basketball team in the 1930s -- as well as shoes that honor the memory of a player and salesman, Chuck Taylor, who hawked original All-Star high-tops out of his car.

For all its heritage in hoopsters, the brand subsists on hipsters -- which explains why the company will unveil next month a series of its famous All-Stars and One-Stars with Kurt Cobain's signature and scribbled excerpts from his journals.

The Nirvana frontman, like many other punk rockers before and after him, almost always wore low-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars, One-Stars or Jack Purcells -- always ratty and dirty.

The new Cobain shoes will sell for $50 to $65 (and be found at Journeys stores in the Columbus area).

Inside one of the soles, a Sharpie scrawl reads, a la Cobain, "Punk rock means freedom."

Collectors have placed orders.

Still, the most impressive reaction is from Converse wearers themselves: Shrug. Whatever.

"This year is the first time we've publicly celebrated the impact Converse has made in the worlds of music, art, sports and fashion," said Geoff Cottrill, the company's chief marketing officer.

Converse is the shoe that never stops rejuvenating its rebellious cachet, resilient to both overkill and fashionizing.

"The Outsiders" all wore plain black or blue Chucks, and the outsiders are still wearing them, in hundreds of colors, patterns, permutations and price points, even as all the outsiders became the insiders.

It is not an angry shoe. It was never that kind of rebellion.

It's the shoe of slacker ambivalence, indecision.

Unlike Vans, Doc Martens and Hush Puppies -- shoes that all rise and fall and rise on rock 'n' roll's whims -- Converse bestows upon its wearer a finely calibrated range of coolness.

Some people say not to buy Converse because the company closed its last U.S. factory as it was going bankrupt in 2001 and shifted manufacturing to Asia.

Nike bought Converse two years later.

In 2007, Converse had revenues of more than $550 million, according to Nike.

Fashion designer John Varvatos began reinterpreting the basic All-Star and Jack Purcell sneakers a few years ago, fraying them at the edges, or fancying them up in leather versions, and finally striking gold in 2005 with a $95 version that elasticized the tongue and created an All-Star slipper, sans laces.

Next, Varvatos introduced an All-Star with a manic number of eyelets laced through and through with a stretchy cord. If $100 sneakers are your thing, check them out at Varvatos' New York boutique.

To get the gloomy, disaffected-teen, suburban-dystopia vibe, you could buy a pair at Target, which unveiled its Converse campaign in February. The shoes are also available at almost any athletic chain and online.

What is unchanged is the delightful feeling of wearing a pair of Chucks all day, even if some people say it's murder on the arches.

Go out in a bright orange pair of Chucks -- the high-tops -- and the trees and flowers sprout in your wake.

Broken in, a pair of Chucks offer all the comfort of bedroom slippers, but also the same support, which is why it's so painful to look at old black-and-white basketball: How did those guys ever play in those shoes?

"Basketball players have the worst feet in the world," says Mike Blandini, 77, who worked in the prototype department at Converse's headquarters in North Andover, Mass., for four decades.

Chuck Taylor's own weary feet might have been saved by the invention of Chuck Taylors, but every player who came after had a whole new kind of hurt, requiring ever-changing innovations in shoe design.

"Larry Bird had a bone spur on his Achilles tendon. I had to go down there and take an impression of (it), and we built the shoe around him.

"They all had these different problems, and it was legitimate, you really did have to make a (new shoe) for each (athlete)."

Whatever the first 50 years of Converse meant on the court, the past 50 have been all pose. A sullen and decidedly nonathletic and everlasting pose, in our all-American, foreign-made, rock 'n' roll sneakers.

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