• Around the world, Chucks have enduring appeal

    By Shelby Meyers

    What could Green Day and the Pink Spiders possibly have in common with a Norwegian nanny in Paris? One word – Chucks.

    No matter what the trend du jour, Chuck Taylors have always sparked a dedicated following, popping up on feet here in the States and around the globe for decades. Formally known as Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars, they’ve been around since 1917, when they became America’s first bona fide basketball shoe.

    Recognizable by the trademark white circle patch and blue star that’s graced the shoes since the 1920s, Chuck Taylor All-Stars have become more than just an American icon in athletic apparel.  

     

         
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    Since the sneakers’ debut, more than 750 million pairs have been sold in 123 countries, according to Converse. International fans of these shoes might not share a common language, but they’re all lacing up colorful Chucks for similar reasons. 

    Chuckie T's are comfortable, cool and practical,” said Nora Grobaek, a twenty-something Norwegian working as a nanny in France. “It's a shoe you can wear with anything!”

    After moving to Paris from Copenhagen, where the sneakers are a stylish essential, Grobaek couldn’t help but notice Chuck Taylors on hundreds of French feet as well.

    “Almost all [kinds of] French people [are] wearing them,” including “a lot of posh French women,” she said. “I even saw a lady once with a huge fur coat and Chuckies on.”  


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    Grobaek isn’t shy when it comes to showing off her new Chucks. She’s the proud owner of new brown and pink pair she found in Germany, but readily admits her first Chucks were blue low tops she got as a child, a staple in Norway in the ’80s.

    How has this simple, low-tech shoe found such longevity? Originally designed for more support while shooting hoops, Chuck Taylors have evolved into a fashion statement off the court, gracing stages, supermarkets and kindergartens around the world. And Converse has responded by making Chucks in a dazzling array of patterns and colors, from hot pink to lime green.

    “Chucks will always be a fashion staple,” said Sarah Johnson, an LA fashion designer working for J.L. Marks. “Chucks will always be cool and a classic.”

    They’re a classic in part because of nostalgia for the ’60s, the ’70s – and even the ’80s, when Chucks found their way onto the feet of break dancers (see the 1981 film “Breakin’”) and quirky high school kids (see Ducky in “Pretty in Pink”).

    “I wear them because I wore them as a kid and I’m kind of like a big kid still,” Johnson said. “They symbolize creativity [and] youth, and they fit any type of style from vintage ’50s sportswear to prom dresses, emo kids, artsy fartsy people and punk rockers.”

    Nashville’s hottest pink punkers and MTV chart-toppers, the Pink Spiders, also are fans of Chuck Taylors, but for more practical reasons.

         
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    “When we were eating out of dumpsters and homeless, Chucks were really the only shoes we could afford,” explained Jon Decious, bass player for the Spiders. “[And] they were giving them away for free at a party last year, so I guess they represent dry feet for us.” 

    The Pink Spiders – always clad in multiple shades of their favorite rosy hues – aren’t the only rockers who enjoy wearing Chucks.

    “Mostly I like them [because] I feel like myself when I wear them, although not exclusively at those times,” said East Coast indie songwriter Adam Richman. “They’re stylish and I’ve enjoyed them for most of my life.”

    “I think for me, it would be for mere simplicity,” said Michael Donahue, lead vocalist of the Alabama group Eyes Around. “They're cheap and go well with anything, even a suit.”

    “It's funny how the [image] of these shoes has changed since their conception,” Donahue continued. “They once represented basketball, now they represent rock. Baseball hats represent hip-hop where they used to represent baseball. Maybe we'll start wearing shoulder pads and change what that represents.”

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    The evolution and cross-over of Chucks – even their long-term existence – would not have been possible without Charles “Chuck” Taylor, a successful high school basketballer who went on to play for the Original Celtics. Unlike the today’s millionaire pros, he needed an off-season job and found one as a salesman for imageConverse. He toured the country, introducing kids to basketball and to what eventually would become “his” shoe and a part of history. Chucks even went to World War II as the U.S. military’s official sneaker. Two years after he joined up with Converse, Taylor’s signature was added to the logo, thus beginning the Chucks journey into American pop culture.

    So how does a basic sneaker move from the court to World War II to the stage? Some claim the Ramones, the first punk rockers, started it all by sporting them on stage in the late ’70s and showing fans that wearing Chucks is a way to express yourself and your individuality. 

    “Since the happy ’80s, I've had a thing for them, probably because the cool guys in my neighborhood wore them back then,” said Lars Løberg, the bass player of Heroes & Zeroes, an indie rock band from Oslo, Norway.

    “Being an essential part of the rock ‘n’ roll-uniform nowadays, it’s ironic in an Alanis Morissette way that they symbolize individuality,” Løberg explained.

    “So I guess my pair don’t prove I’m independent, rather that I try to fit in. [And] since I’m aware of these things, I’m the uncool of the cool. Even though the real cool guys think it’s lame, I kind of out-cool them,” he said.

    Løberg isn’t alone in his way of thinking. “Chucks symbolize conformity to a non-conformist society,” agreed Joe Olstadt, a Minneapolis businessman who wore Chucks until recently. But he hasn’t given up Chucks to make a statement; he’s just trying to be a good boyfriend. “I no longer own a pair because [my girlfriend] said, ‘I can't take you seriously if you're wearing those,’” Olstadt confessed. Not surprisingly, there’s no consensus among their fans about what Chucks represent.

        
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    While some wearers are committed to vintage shoes from the days before Nike owned Converse (Nike made the purchase in 2003 after Converse declared bankruptcy), others are content to shell out 80 or 90 dollars for a brand-new pair in Germany.

    And even a 100-Euro splurge, new-looking Chucks are quite undesirable. “When I had brand new Chucks, my friends always stomped on them to make them dirty, because they thought my shoes too clean,” said Nina Treude, a student at the University of Bonn, Germany.   


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    “Chucks are only really cool and comfy when they’re used and dirty,” Treude explained. “But I like these shoes because when I wear them people can see what type of music I listen to. Like my piercing, Chucks show people that I like alternative music.”

    Not everyone who likes or plays alternative music is fond of Chucks. “I had a pair [in] high school [but] I think the novelty wore off just like the soles of the shoes,” said Charles of the Black Kites, an alternative rock band from Los Angeles. “I think Converse shoes are great for going to see crappy bands like The Foo Fighters.”

     


    “If you thought I was going to say all the indie kids wear them and they know what’s up, sorry,” Charles said. “Most indie kids have no idea what’s going on, [because] they’re too busy buying really cool belt buckles.”

    And some who are choosing other shoe styles to express themselves are opposed to Chucks for more personal reasons. “I’m not such a big fan of Chuck Taylors,” said Marco Hildén, drummer of the Swedish band Logh. “I think they look pretty nice on others, but when I try them on they look strange on me, and my feet hurt.

    For whatever reason, wearing Chucks symbolizes both tradition and individuality, no matter what country they’re in. Defying both high-tech modern shoes and dozens of fashion cycles, Chucks have kept on keepin’ on, sticking to their guns and remaining true to themselves, just like those of us who wear them.

        
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    Shelby Meyers, who writes about pop culture, has done internships at MTV News in Santa Monica as well as at KFAI Radio in Minneapolis and XXXX Radio in Bonn, Germany. She holds the Certificate in International Journalism from Hamline University in St. Paul.