Who is Chuck Taylor:
Meet the man behind Converse’s iconic sneaker


 

With their unassuming canvas silhouette and utilitarian rubber sole, Converse’s Chuck Taylor All Stars have become the sneaker of choice for everyone from rock gods (Robert Plant and Kurt Cobain were fans) and reluctant screen legends (James Dean, River Phoenix) to anarchists and punks at heart (see: the Sex Pistols, and Kristen Stewart on the red carpet). But before the shoes were co-opted by generations of angsty creatives as a counterculture symbol, they were, in fact, the exact opposite: a commercial sneaker designed for jocks and marketed to basketball’s elite with help from one of their own.

 

Though the brand began in Massachusetts in 1908 as the Converse Rubber Shoe Company that made galoshes, Taylor made the name synonymous with basketball by peddling the sneakers to high-school and college players across the country. He held clinics that were the envy of Spalding execs, at that time the brand’s only competitor, crisscrossing the nation 365 days a year and living out of hotel rooms; he was on a first-name basis with every college basketball coach in the U.S.

But Taylor wasn’t your typical shoe salesman: He played for the Converse basketball team and lived and breathed the brand. He became instrumental in evolving the design of the All Star, imparting the wisdom he learned in his clinics and while coaching to improve the sneaker’s performance on the court. It was Taylor who suggested that designers increase support in the ball of the foot, improve traction by reconfiguring the outsole, and add a patch to protect the ankle, a feature that was introduced in 1923 and remains today, though it wasn’t until 1932 that Taylor’s signature was added. The first U.S. Olympic basketball team wore Chucks in 1936, and they helped usher in the first NCAA Championships in 1939. Despite more than 40 years of service, Taylor never saw any royalties for his work, but he was rewarded nonetheless: Stories of his unlimited expense account are a company legend.

 

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By the 1960s, every major player in the National Basketball Association was wearing Chuck Taylor All Stars. Wilt Chamberlain wore them during his legendary 100-point game, Jerry West led the Los Angeles Lakers to yet another title in them, and Bill Russell got 40 rebounds in those kicks. Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars became the best-selling basketball sneaker of all time, a title they hold to this day despite the dominance of Air Jordans in the national psyche.
 

More than a sports shoe, Chuck Taylor All Stars became a medium of personal expression.

 
As technology advanced, the shoe became obsolete as an athletic sneaker, but gained ground elsewhere. While basketball teams were abandoning them in the 1970s, Chucks found new prominence in the music community thanks to the introduction of new colors and variations on the classic silhouette. More than a sports shoe, Chuck Taylor All Stars became a medium of personal expression.

From there, the shoes took off as a fashion sneaker thanks to a grassroots movement of street-style stalwarts and the creative class. Designer collaborations with the likes of fashion houses Maison Margiela and Comme des Garçons inspire sell-out crowds. Walk into a WeWork office today, and note the “uniform”—Chucks and jeans. And all this despite the fact that the shoe’s basic silhouette remains unchanged from the 1917 version. In recent years, more than 270,000 Chuck Taylor All Stars are sold every single day. It’s a shame, then, that the man responsible for it all, who passed away in 1969, will never know the cultural impact of his name.
 

The sneaker of choice for everyone from rock gods and reluctant screen legends to anarchists and punks at heart.

Written by Jennifer Fernandez. Illustrations by Hallie Heald.

 

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