HOW THE CONVERSE ONE STAR WAS BORN AGAIN (AND AGAIN)

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NOTE: I wrote this a year ago and it was meant to run somewhere else in its entirety, but it never happened. Looking through the replica of Japan’s 1976 issue one of Popeye magazine the other month and spotting the One Star (before it was called the One Star) reminded me that I should probably throw it up here.

Simple design has a curious habit of affecting subcultural style. The blank slate approach allows for statements to be made far beyond a design’s original intent and the humble athletic shoe in its most stripped-down form has long held a tendency to connect with the most discerning and critical audiences possible. You can’t buy credibility, just as you can’t preempt those moments when the everyday becomes a must-have. In this case, a basic basketball shoe design found its purpose beyond the court. The Converse One Star’s impact is substantial, despite being a relative failure on its original release.

Firstly, here’s a little background on the star: Converse’s star logo harks back to a time after the Converse Rubber Shoe Co., based in Malden, Massachusetts, made the decision to expand from tennis to multi-purpose gym use with the 1917 All Star shoe. When the shoe debuted, 98 years ago, it was the its logo was a ‘C’ containing what looked like an ‘X’ (it’s a shoe that was sold with a similar partner shoe for a few years too — the white canvas Non Skid with a different sole, or the the ‘Hickory’, again with a different tread). It’s a model that underwent a multitude of alterations during the first few decades of its existence.The star would emerge when basketball player and Converse salesman Chuck Taylor requested the star patch logo that debuted in the early 1920s (according to Abraham Aamidor’s Chuck Taylor biography, Chuck Taylor, All Star, his signature was added in 1932).

The late 1960s were a pivotal time for basketball design. While a shoe like the canvas and rubber Converse All Star had reigned as a favourite for several years in the big leagues, it was 52 years old by 1969. The game was changing, new rules, new players and the American Basketball Association had been founded in 1967. Suede (via PUMA) and leather were superseding the old style materials as players needed something more sophisticated for the sport. The Chuck was looking a little dated when it came to performance.

In 1969, the Leather All Star was introduced —a more premium response to the emergence of German brands (adidas had been taking advice from American consultants in the early 1960s regarding the basketball market, having only made careful steps into the sport prior to 1965) onto the courts, with a similar profile and the same sole traction, but new details, like a foam filled ankle, snugger counter cut silhouette, no slip tongue, new last, shock absorbing sponge and heel cushion, that made it a more progressive follow-up to a bestseller. The Leather All Star’s branding was different too — a single star, cut out to reveal the underlay material, surrounded by two angular lines. As showcased in Bobbito Garcia’s seminal book on NYC’s sneaker disciples, Where’d You Get Those? players like Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld wore a pair during his college career, and the shoe, as the shoe was offered alongside its predecessor in a handful of team colours.

To navigate a brand’s archive successfully, we need to anticipate occasional contradictions that derail a convenient narrative. Anybody hunting the One Star in the 1970s will struggle, given that it was simply an All Star on its introduction — alongside an array of other models with the All Star name. It’s assumed that the shoe debuted in 1974, but a 1971 advertisement for the All Star shows four colours of suede All Stars — similar to the One Star — with a solitary star, no lines and a Chuck Taylor style sole, complete with a stripe on the foxing. Another 1971 catalogue displays a set of similar coloured All Stars in suede, but with the 1969 style branding. In 1973, the Suede Leather All Star was sold in seven different makeups.

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Another early solitary star design was the Converse All Star for tennis — a vulcanised shoe with a plain suede upper and the branding placed on the heel. The 1974 version — the Tennis All Star — available in leather or suede, was effectively a One Star on a plainer court sole.

1974 catalogues would make the Leather All Star and the Suede Leather All Star the highlight when it came to basketball, This was the One Star as we know it. Seven different shades of suede (with corresponding foxing stripes), plus a black or white leather and a rarely-seen hi-top version. Supple suede, a leather lining to prevent colour bleeding, a foam backed tongue, plus the benefits of the 1969 upgrade, all brought the funk to the shoe. Marketing materials indicate that Converse wanted this to be considered the All Star from this point. Explosive fan favourite Bernard King would wear a pair in his college career ahead of entry into the big league. But after 1975, the shoe that would be known as the One Star would disappear completely.

A rebrand would give shoes — including the All Star (with the new edition worn by Tree Rollins, one of the few who still wore the Chuck in games) — the now-familiar star chevron combination. Converse signed, hooking and dunking ABA phenomenon Julius “Dr. J” Irving and the cup sole Pro Leather basketball shoe would make the One Star design look basic by comparison. And so, the basketball shoe continued to evolve in subsequent years.

By 1992, modern athletic footwear was engaged in an attention-grabbing war of technologies. There were dissenting voices though, with a variety of tribes digging for dusty suede and leather rather than play keep-up. Japanese vintage collectors were paying big money for the contents of old sports stores, a jazzier strain of clubland had chosen 1970s and early 1980s basketball and training shoes (the Campus, Superstars and Clyde were also incredibly popular — the descendants of the shoes that pushed Converse to release suede and leather styles over their traditional materials) as part of its uniform, the Beastie Boys were publicly pledging allegiance to footwear as old as the samples they picked, Seattle’s rock scene spread a grungy blend of plaid and basics globally, and skateboarders — now almost underground in their activity after its late 1980s boom — had become adept at adopting old favourites and repurposing them. The media would bestow an “old school” name to the interest in these relics and reissues, while influential stores like New York’s Union, Los Angeles’ X-Large and London’s the Duffer of St. George peddled them to an escalating audience.

Every brand would dig in their archives to resurrect old favourites and reproduce them for a new market. adidas created a smaller-scale, early version of their Originals division (in 1992, just a collection of a few styles) to feed the nostalgia market and PUMA’s classics made a return too .Throughout the early 1990s to the early-oughties, the concept of the “cool hunter” was a frequent topic for articles and documentaries. This new kind of marketeer was a trendspotter in cool kid clothing, and the One Star played a role in some of its earliest case studies. Then-Converse employee Baysie Wightman is credited as playing a crucial role the One Star’s renaissance in a 1997 article by storytelling journalist and researcher Malcolm Gladwell during his time at the New Yorker. On visiting a Boston boutique Placid Planet in 1992, Wightman met owner DeeDee Gordon who later put her onto a resurgence of lo-fi footwear. The reissue of the 1974 Suede Leather All Star as the One Star the following year was a response to that. Gordon went on to run her own cool hunting company.

Converse had made deliberate bids to enter the skate market in the 1980s, sponsoring stars like freestyle innovator Rodney Mullen, trendsetter Jason Jessee and fallen idol Mark ‘Gator’ Rogowski with Chucks, Pro Leather and more progressive Cons hi-top designs (as worn by the era’s archetypal rock frontman, Axl Rose). By the decade’s close, that presence had begun to fade in favour of skate-specific brands.

The shoe now billed as the Converse One Star fitted the bill for the spirit of 1993 — just obscure enough and with the simplicity and ease of wear that could infiltrate youth crews with ease. A fifty buck price point made it just premium enough, and at the and of that year, it would be promoted in the store adverts in magazines like industry bible, Thrasher, alongside more established basketball low tops. With some resilience in the upper, plenty of flex and the necessary feel, in the era of the giant pant, the One Star was now, in a reissued form, a skate shoe. The contrast coloured stitches and slight alterations that only the trainspotters would be able to see aside, little had changed. What the shoe had supported the players of 1974 with was now taking the blows of legions attempting to master the hard flips they’d seen on VHS twenty years later. Converse ran their first campaign in the skate press in half a decade, with wilfully edgy black and white photography of Generation X characters being mildly disobedient.

As with the Jack Purcell photographed on James Dean’s feet (decades before the design was acquired by Converse), a shoe on a legend who never saw their thirties can be an icon by association. Doomed circumstances are hardly glamorous, and as Kurt Cobain entered 1994, his unwanted icon status and personal problems helped push him towards suicide. The press-appointed face of grunge style’s anti-fashion band tees, sunglasses, plaid shirts and cardigans had become imitated enough to make him a tortured kind of tastemaker (Marc Jacobs grungy 1993 collection for Perry Ellis would get the designer fired after it was shown in late 1992) , and as a regular All Star and Purcell wearer, a shift to the One Star — according to Charles R. Cross’ biography of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, his sole pair of shoes as of April 5, 1994— would grant the shoe a dark moment for a global audience. For those looking for a image of their fallen hero after his shotgun suicide, an intrusive photo of Cobain’s right leg and arm captured his well-worn Levi’s and black and white One Stars (the band tee for Maryland’s untuned art bunkers Half Japanese was out of shot).

Another poster child for the disenfranchised, Richey Edwards of Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers (whose self-harming image was used in Raf Simons’ A/W 2001 collection, one of many jewel in the David Casavant archives worn by Kanye West and Rihanna in recent years), also wore a pair of One Stars in Matthew R Lewis’ photographs for an early 1994 issue of i-D magazine. After the troubled Edwards’ disappearance a year later, images of him alone or with the band became iconic, giving the shoe another famous wearer beyond grunge. Notably, like Cobain, he was 27 at the time of his departure.

On the skate side, street skate legend Matt Hensley would switch from big Cons hi-tops in the seminal Shackle Me Not video and have his legions of followers moving to Chukkas in the early 1990s, before wearing One Stars for a few influential magazine shots. Another cult favourite of the mid 1990s, Long Beach’s Larry Moore, was seen in a pair as well.

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Then there was Girl. Incorporating folks in front of and behind the camera from the pioneering Video Days VHS, Every Girl video altered the course of the way skateboarding would be presented. A young veteran called Guy Mariano’s appearance in 1996’s Mouse made history, with its hardflip nose manuals, halfcab flips, picnic tables and bench domination, switching stances, and switching shoes. All to the sounds of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man. An entire generation watched in slo-mo to grasp just how Mariano did it — lines that are still considered the greatest ever. That influence would extend to what Mariano wore. As well as some Vans designs, two kinds of Converse cropped up in the Mariano segment — the Pro Leather and the One Star, and it’s the latter that’s most identified with Mariano in Mouse. The director, a young filmmaker and Girl’s co-owner named Spike Jonze (who was also one of the minds behind DIRT magazine — a short-lived publication aimed at young males that ran advertising for the shoe) would also direct a TV spot for the One Star. Flowing product to Girl HQ made a splash with the most important skaters of the era.

If the most influential skater in the world opts to wear a shoe, it’s destined to make an impact. Mariano had already signed a deal with Converse before Mouse released and would front their fledgling skate line for a short while, with ads announcing his shoe size (10.5) and their 1 800 206 SKATE telephone number. The troubled Mariano would make a well-documented disappearance into the darkness (from his own accounts of his late 1990s to 2004 habit, he flew close to joining the 27 club) that seemed to add to the legend, before another comeback.

The popularity of the old school basics, with their unencumbered simplicity and unintentional board feel, was a last hurrah before an era of super-padded shoes on steroids. Wide and ultra detailed designs became a new norm. The One Star remained a favourite with alternative tribes, hitting the American rave scene too. Converse’s new skate program, with style master Kenny Anderson on the books, revolved around chunky signature models that were built to last. Curiously, in what seemed to be its twilight years, the One Star was transformed into a loafer and given the flip-flop treatment to become the hugely popular One Star Thick, a shoe created in line with Gordon’s feedback after meeting in Boston years prior.

Now established as an icon without any need to know about its brief career on the court, the One Star was promoted in catalogues alongside some of the most excruciating pseudo street slang ever committed to paper. Those rock star credentials would be put to work in the 2000s, when Converse released an official One Star Kurt Cobain edition in May 2008, alongside an All Star and Jack Purcell in association with the late singer’s estate. Decorated with lines in Cobain’s own handwriting from 2002’s published Journals, it captured the artist’s dress sense and artistic outlook, but conjured up a macabre scene in a bid to celebrate his life.

American designer with rock and roll inclinations, John Varvatos, has reworked the One Star as part of his ongoing Converse range and Japan’s Number (Nine) remade it with some unorthodox asymmetric lacing — given designer Takahiro Miyashita’s grunge influenced collections on catwalks, the cultural connection was far from tenuous. Japan’s Converse licensee took the One Star into new territories of colour and material, despite being confined to sale in a single region.

American discount retailing colossus Target carrying their own range of Converse footwear and apparel under the One Star brand name is liable to cause some understandable confusion for unwary Google shoppers searching for the shoes of their misspent youth — their One Star designs with an All Star style rubber toecap are liable to make purists baulk, but, from a glimpse at the disparate sizes on a store’s shelves, they seemed to do brisk business.

When Converse relaunched its skateboarding category as CONS, the prequel 1969 All Star design was channelled as a former CONS team member Anthony Pappalardo’s signature shoe and reissued as the One Star Academy (though it’s known as the Jack Star 60s in some territories, and a similar shoe from 1999 was called the Premium All Star). Up to this point, there had been no CONS skate-specific One Star. After the premiere of Supreme’s first full-length skate video in 2014, the All Stars worn by the new breed of skaters in the film caused a “Cherry effect” to match the “Mouse effect” of 1996. Converse sponsored Los Angeles born skater Sage Elsesser — whose memorable no comply and knack for impossibles made him one of Cherry’s breakout stars — had been wearing John Varvatos One Stars in a rare Supreme print ad, before becoming a logical choice of face for the skate version. The equally talented Sean Pablo’s welcome to the Converse team came in the form of a signature leather One Star Pro, cementing its relevance with the market that matters.

It’s curious that last year’s CONS One Star — never the the most comfortable of shoes in its basic form — was the first real skate-specific update of the model. If any lesson has been learnt during the last 15 years of skate shoe design, as the padded excesses subsided to a minimalism rooted in past masterpieces, it’s that fixing the unbroken is doomed to failure. For every successful skate shoe update, there’s a dusty pile of duds. The CONS team made several internal alterations — a Lunarlon sockliner, rooted in Nike’s 2008 performance running foam breakthrough (Lunarlon was originally added to the spring/summer 2013 CONS CTS reworking of the All Star — two years ahead of the recent Chuck II release, with its more engineered inner-workings) for the kind of impact cushioning that the old sole unit can’t compete with (a godsend for older kneecaps), and a slight toughen up on the upper.

The One Star’s comeback in a more comfortable form has proven timely, with a resurrection of grunge looks at catwalk level — September 2013’s Vogue, with its throwback Mert and Marcus spread, was an early sign that the resurrection was official, as Saint Laurent’s Fall 2013 and Summer 2016 shows turned the catwalk into a more warmly received tribute to early 1990s Seattle than Jacobs’ too-soon showcase.

One Star, many moments. These, of course, have just been the most obvious examples where the One Star proved to be a participant. The Forrest Gump style lifespan of this basic shoe that was pulled from shelves relatively quickly is a countercultural case study that’s unique to Converse’s creation, but just one of many other elevations of the ordinary. After 41 years, the shoe that hardly set tills ringing is enough of a staple to be taken for granted. It wasn’t the only great shoe to get overlooked back in the mid 1970s, but as sole survivors go, it’s a superior case study.

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