Inside Converse's grand plans to reenter the NBA landscape

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A full century after the original introduction of the Converse All-Star, the brand is reemerging in the performance basketball space with a fully modernized update to its longtime classic sneaker.

The All-Star Pro BB marks a new direction and new approach, as Converse leaned on its parent company, Nike Inc., and longtime vice president of design and innovation, Eric Avar, to not only help design the model but also infuse it with Nike materials and technology.

A little more than two years ago, Nike and Converse executives jointly made the decision to begin crafting a new viewpoint on performance basketball for the brand once worn by the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Dwyane Wade on the game’s biggest stage. Over the past year, the NBA has also seen brands such as Puma, New Balance and AND1 reemerge in the space as companies look to tap further into the culture of the sport and the global growth of the game.

While other brands have made splashy player signings for their relaunches, Converse looked to Phoenix Suns swingman Kelly Oubre Jr., a 23-year-old known equally for his daring off-court fashion and his versatile skill set. After taking pitches from other resurgent brands, the appeal of Converse’s heritage and roots in the game won him over.

“It’s a different vibration when it comes to someone who is trying to reinvent themselves in something that they started,” Oubre Jr. said after signing with the brand. “It’s not necessarily someone trying to come in and disrupt the game or someone trying to step onto the scene as newcomers again. We started this.”

Behind the scenes, a dozen Nike and Converse designers and engineers were working on the upcoming relaunch sneaker. While most of the corporate Converse team is based in Boston, two designers work from Nike’s Innovation Kitchen in Beaverton, Oregon, on advanced concepts. The starting point for Converse’s first new shoe in nearly a decade was almost instantly identified.

“You have to honor the past in order to create the future,” Avar said.

Simply dubbed the “Non-Skid” when it was originally introduced in 1917, the sneaker was the first of its kind made specifically for basketball, highlighted by its durable toe cap and protective canvas collar. Five years later, a player-turned-coach joined the brand as a salesman and began hosting a series of basketball clinics in tandem with his sales efforts on the road. The sport itself was only in its infancy, of course.

His name was Chuck Taylor. As the brand began to outfit full rosters of teams in the shoe by the following decade, the Non-Skid was renamed the “All-Star.” The salesman and camp instructor’s name was added to the model in 1934, as his camps grew in popularity and the shoe became adopted around the country.

When Nike acquired the Converse brand for $305 million in 2003, it was largely driven by the appeal in the equity of the singular Chuck Taylor All-Star shoe.

A year after the acquisition, more than two million pairs of All-Stars were sold. By 2011, around 70 million pairs of the sneaker were sold annually. In recent years, that number has ballooned to north of 100 million pairs per year — or more than 270,000 pairs per day.

Converse now boasts nearly $2 billion in annual revenue. Nike has been understandably pleased with the purchase.

While Michael Jordan earns a 5 percent royalty on his brand’s nearly $3 billion in annual revenue, Chuck Taylor famously never demanded a royalty, even as his namesake shoe rose in popularity throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He simply hoped for an expense account as he traveled the country conducting basketball camps for young players in hopes of growing the game.

His connection to the sneaker has long outlived him and will soon enter into a second century as the brand gears up to reintroduce the design to a new generation.

“There’s a beautiful simplicity and purposeful design to the original Chuck,” Avar said. “It gives you everything you need and nothing else. The very essence of a Chuck Taylor is a very versatile product.”

With that starting reference in mind, Avar looked to keep the simple nuances of the original look while layering in a series of more current technologies under the hood. One of Nike’s top designers since joining the brand in the early 1990s, Avar has long worked with Kobe Bryant, helping to shape the innovation of his sneaker line and earning the respect of ballplayers in the decades since.

“Not having been invested into that [performance] space and knowing that we could leverage the tool kit of the some of the great work that was going on at Nike, for us, that also helps with the initial credibility of what we’re doing,” said Damion Silver, Converse associate creative director of men’s footwear.

Just as the Converse project was getting off the ground, Avar and Bryant released their latest addition to his Nike series, the $200 Kobe AD NXT. The shoe was by design overly minimal, with support elements, added flexibility and a spongy foam sockliner for cushioning. According to Avar and his fellow innovation lead, Thomas Bell, the modernized All-Star began with principles of fluidity and versatility in mind.

“We just landscaped what modern materials and new technologies we had that could deliver a new method of modern performance [for Converse],” Avar said.

Many of the insights and learnings from the Kobe model helped inform the construction of the new All-Star Pro BB, such as its full-length React foam drop-in insole, the quad-axial mesh and the thin, computer-designed rubber traction pattern. The Nike-termed “Quadfit” upper material was also recently featured on its $350 auto-lacing Adapt BB.

“It’s a great transformation of what looks like a canvas, hearkening back to the Chuck Taylor, but in a high-performance way,” said Brandis Russell, Converse’s VP of footwear.

Like any performance product that Nike releases, the shoe underwent months of early prototype testing at the Beaverton campus before nearing its release in mid-May.

“We had zero branding on the product, and people didn’t know if they were testing a Nike shoe or not,” Bell said. “We heard numerous times, ‘Is this a modern-day Chuck Taylor?’ We knew we were on the right track.”

Along the way, Oubre Jr. arrived to arenas in flashy fits and Converse sneakers, then fittingly wore a variety of Kobe Bryant models in games throughout the season. He also provided feedback and input during closed-door practice settings on the upcoming All-Star Pro BB.

“I’ve had the pleasure of testing the shoe out for the past four months, and it’s been incredible,” Oubre said. “The whole process has been dope. My favorite thing about the shoe is they’re light, [the] technology is next-level, and they’re super comfortable and stylish. They’re wavy. They’re fire.”

A 6-foot-7 wing known for his playmaking ability and defensive potential, Oubre Jr. is coming off a post-trade-deadline stretch in Phoenix in which he averaged a career-best 17 points and five rebounds per game in less than 30 minutes of play. A muse during the design process, he’ll headline the sneaker on the court next season.

“We built this shoe through the lens of where the game is evolving — that positionless aspect of basketball,” Russell said. “This is geared for players that have a more fluid style of play, and Kelly really evokes that in how he shows up on the court.”

Oubre Jr. signed on as the first face of the Converse Basketball relaunch this past fall, and the brand will look to sign additional players in advance of the 2019-20 NBA season, as well as keeping a focus on style influencers and designer partners.

“We definitely want to surround Kelly,” Russell said. “Really casting that net within the culture of basketball, just as equally as the sport of basketball.”

In many ways, Converse will look to represent a fusion of style and performance within the Nike Inc. umbrella, in between its big brother categories of Nike Basketball and Jordan Brand. The brand could utilize Nike Inc.’s wide-ranging partnership with the NBA, which has seen the Jumpman logo featured on All-Star game jerseys as a way of uplifting the full portfolio of Nike brands, for more visibility.

For now, the starting point will be a renewed commitment to performance products created for the sport’s highest level while sticking to the elements of style and utility that have been the hallmarks of the Converse brand over the past century.

“This is the start of a long journey,” Avar said.



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