Inside Converse's Design Studio, Where Chuck Taylors Are Born
In early 2014, Ryan Case and Damion Silver sat down at a table in a modest room in Converse’s old headquarters in North Andover, Mass., to slice through a bunch of Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers with an X-Acto knife. The pair spent a couple months dissecting and examining every piece of the shoe, from sole to tongue. They called the workspace the Pit—after the violent, gritty mosh zones found at punk rock and heavy metal concerts—and stayed holed up inside it every day for nearly a year. Late-night pizzas were common. The building's custodial crew didn't have a key to the workshop, so everything was left untouched, ready for tinkering the next morning. The Pit got really grimy.
Out of the Pit emerged the Chuck II, Converse’s reimagined version of its marquee shoe. Its release last summer marked a new era for the 108-year-old shoemaker. Worn over the years by John F. Kennedy, Kurt Cobain, and David Bowie, Chucks are one of the bestselling shoe styles ever. (The company sells around 270,000 pairs daily, worldwide.) Apart from slight differences in material, its design has remained unchanged for decades. Case, Converse’s 36-year-old global footwear product director, and Silver, 42, the design director, were given the intimidating task of messing with that formula.
“I don’t think anybody was super-comfortable about doing it,” says Case. “One of the big things we say in the building is: Don’t f--- with the Chuck.”
On March 1, Converse will release the first new iteration of its Chuck II sneakers, with reflective print designs that improve visibility in the dark. The idea is to provide shoppers with some kind of benefit, aside from how the shoes look. Reflective shoes can be a safety benefit at night, for a bicycle commuter, skateboarder, or roadside worker. Or they can just make you stand out.
Sitting at a high table on the sixth floor of Converse’s new offices on Boston’s Lovejoy Wharf, Case fiddles with one of the Chuck II samples yet to hit stores. This design studio is much glossier than its predecessor was, a symbol of the company’s newfound devotion to, well, newness. The space is industrial chic, with exposed concrete columns and floors, jet-black metal railings, and wood detailing salvaged from a jetty. Rows of desks overflowing with cardboard shoeboxes, papers, and sneakers lie in an open floor plan. A pair of cut-open kicks is strewn about a table in a spacious meeting area, and thousands of sneakers, from Converse and its competitors, sit on nearby racks. About 40 designers work here, alongside product managers.
Once, Converse relied on the perpetual, near singular success of its Chucks. Designers would simply update the colors, the graphics, and the collaborations each season. "It was very—I hate to say it—cut and paste," Case says with a sigh. In 2014, executives decided this was no longer enough. As they see it, shoppers forced Converse's hand. People had begun wanting more than just pattern updates and needed a better reason to drop another $60 on their second or third pair of Converse sneakers. The Chuck II needed to be more than just a cool, disposable canvas shoe. It needed to do something.
"Consumers are jamming through the city all day, riding bikes, skateboarding," says Silver. "Reflection adds that useful element."
At first glance, the new, reflective Chuck II looks no different from a regular canvas one. Reflectivity is built only into certain parts of the shoes and dispersed through the printed patterns. It's not as if they're neon or glow-in-the-dark. Any excessive gaudiness would undermine the low-key Chuck name.
Indeed, when the first Chuck IIs became available in July, many sneaker-heads approached with caution. The Converse All-Star patch on the side of the high tops is embroidered, instead of stamped. The tongue is webbed and padded in place of the original canvas. The shoelace eyelets are monochrome, not shiny silver. Though many styles sold out quickly and reviewers lauded the comfort, these shoes could never be true Chuck Taylors. "There's no doubt that these shoes lose a bit of style compared to their classic older brother," the Verge said. "It doesn't feel like a Chuck Taylor," wrote Nylon. "Is it even a Chuck Taylor if it doesn’t turn to s--- over time?" wondered Gizmodo.
It was also the first time Chuck fans could really see the hand of Nike Inc., Converse's owner, in their favorite shoe. When it acquired Converse for $305 million in 2003, Nike kept the brand's management team intact and has since left Converse largely to its own devices. The Chuck II features Nike Lunarlon footbeds and was the result of 18 months of true corporate research and hand-wringing. The designers sampled everything from materials used on NASA space ships to simple craft fabrics. They looked at 15 different versions of the Converse patch. They had meetings to debate the length of the little plastic cap on the ends of the laces. (Those are called aglets, by the way.) They surveyed wearers to figure out what people liked and disliked about classic Chucks, from artists to skateboarders. Twice, Case took his team to the U.K. to go on tour with a budding rock band called Zoax. Someone even quizzed a burlesque dancer.
Converse has grown to become a reasonable slice of Nike's overall business. In 2003, Converse had annual sales of around $200 million. In 2015, it hauled in nearly $2 billion, about 6.5 percent of Nike's total sales. The brand's sales increased an average of 15 percent over the past three years but stumbled in each of the last two quarters. Though sales remained strong in the U.S., the company has blamed a weaker euro and anemic sales in the U.K. for the slowdown. It's unclear how the Chuck II has affected Converse's performance. The company declined to share specific sales numbers for the shoe.
Jim Calhoun, the chief executive officer who took charge of Converse in 2011, told Bloomberg last year that with change comes pushback. "One of the curses of having an icon is a fear—particularly in the midst of success—of doing any changes," he said.
Despite some of the resistance, Corinna Freedman, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets, says the tweaks to Chuck's winning formula will help Converse in the long run. A constant flow of new designs and fresh performance advancements build excitement for shoppers, making them more interested in replenishing their shoe wardrobe. It's a tactic Nike has used with much success.
Meanwhile, designers such as Silver have had to shift mindset. Instead of just finding the latest trendy hues or cool new artists, he makes occasional trips to Nike's skunkworks across the country in Beaverton, Ore., to get the rundown on all the latest sneaker tech. Silver says Converse is just beginning to have bigger conversations with Nike about integrating more performance parts, but everything comes back to the comfy insides.
"It's comfort first, then other bits to follow," says Silver.
So what's next? Chuck slippers? Rain Chucks? Chuck cleats? Maybe not. But the company remains tight-lipped about its plans, assuring only that there's more on the way. Case did say that counterparts who work on Converse's other brands, such as Jack Purcell and Cons One Star, are "scrutinizing the product the same way we did with Chuck II."
“This is not where we’re going to end,” says Case. “This is the beginning of a new phase.”