The politics, art and fashion of All Stars

When Marquis M Converse opened his rubber manufacturing company in 1908, little did he know that it was the start of an iconic brand that would transcend generations.

Converse has become synonymous with rebellion, the cool crowd, arty types and fashion mavericks.

The manufacturing company’s big move into sport and legendary status came when American basketball player Chuck Taylor contacted the company.

He wanted to design something that was more ergonomic and offered more support for his ankles.

In 1918, Taylor put on his first pair and began playing for several major basketball teams. Long before Michael Jordan endorsed Nike, Taylor was already on to something.

Recently, Converse celebrated 30 years of originality and iconic branding in South Africa. My own experience with the brand dates back to when I was 11.

I nagged my dad week in and week out to get me a pair.

Eventually, he caved in and we set off for the Oriental Plaza. I was a size four, but the shops had sold out.

I was devastated. On the verge of tears, I took a bigger size. “You’ll grow into them,” my dad consoled.

I tied that blue pair up so tightly that the laces left marks on my feet.

Eventually, well into high school, they fitted me properly. But by then they were so worn out the soles were coming apart at the heel.

They made me stand out in primary school – being one of the first to get them – and in high school, they helped me fit in.

But that’s the point of Converse – their social influence extends far beyond a pair of shoes.

In the 1950s in the US, they solidified this socioeconomic, rebellion status.

Remember James Dean looking suave in a white tee, leather jacket and faded jeans rolled up above a pair of Chucks? The epitome of bad-boy cool.

Their influence in South Africa hasn’t been much different.

The evolution of the brand, however, is what sets it apart from the Nikes and Adidas of this world.

From the grimy streets of the ghetto to the boardroom and everything in between, this is what makes the brand so successful and legendary.

When the brand first entered the South African market at R9.95 in the 1980s, they certainly became a status symbol.

According to Estie du Toit, marketing manager at Skye, the company that oversees the Converse brand, it took some time for the sneakers to catch on.

“Initially, it entered the country as a normal canvas shoe, which was pretty much the only type of ‘takkie’ available at the time.

“It took a while for people to really get into the Converse All Star brand, but because it was branded with Made in the USA in those years, it was perceived as a better quality product and therefore widely supported.

The quality is indeed great, and the All Star following grew rapidly because of the durability of the shoes.”

Flash forward to the 1990s and the rise of kwaito ensured that Cons would reach their height of coolness as Dickies fans took to the American brand.

Arthur, Trompies and Ishmael were the faces of that township flavour and those Cons were what got them through performances, rehearsals and signing record deals. Who didn’t want a pair?

The brand has certainly grown in leaps and bounds since then.

And despite the on/off debate about whether kwaito is dead, one thing remains certain: owning a pair of Converse All Stars is still cool.

Trend forecaster Dion Chang is one man who is never seen without his All Stars – even in his most expensive suit. He says: “They are an iconic brand with an iconic design.

The brand has a heritage behind it and people are moving away from the fast or quick brand with no substance. There is a sense of history behind them.”

According to Natasha Jacobs, FHM fashion editor: “You can go to just about every country in the world and find the brand, proving just how global its impact has been over the years.

And they’re perfect for almost every occasion that doesn’t call for a supersmart suit-and-tie shoe.

“Partying the night away, playing basketball with the boys, chilling at the pub, rocking your babe’s party at the posh restaurant – a pair of Cons is perfect for all these occasions.

“And while they still offer the old-school Chuck Taylors, they have kept up with the fashion industry when it comes to designs, so no matter what your style, you’ll be rocking in a pair of Converses.”

Fashion and trendiness aside, the brand has kept its reputation of individuality.

Freshlyground’s Zolani Mahola is never seen without them, while songbird Thandiswa Mazwai is the unofficial brand ambassador.

Says du Toit: “Everybody wears them.

Our consumer base used to be skewed towards the lower LSM as the shoes gained cult status in the townships, but lately we find it difficult to pinpoint who the main consumer base is.

“A lot of the yesteryear’s township kids are CEOs, directors and in the top management of companies today.

They still love and wear the brand. It has been well accepted in the higher-earning brackets, and the different styles and ranges available also appeal to a different market.”

To date, the brand is still kicking ass around the globe, having sold more than 70?million pairs of shoes since inception.

Internationally, Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Jessica Parker and Justin Timberlake are firm fans.

Converse keeps reinventing itself, the latest example being its “design your own range project online. Really, what could celebrate individuality more than creating your own pair of Chucks?

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