Wednesday, February 15, 2017

‘The Kids Think I’m a Shoe’

Stan Smith the man & Stan Smith the sneaker.

The island of Hilton Head in South Carolina is shaped like a sneaker, and Stan Smith lives on the laces, right off the river. Inside his house, the six-foot-four retired tennis player with the straightest back I’ve ever seen walks out of the second of his two closets and into the living room carrying five pairs of Stan Smiths, the sneaker, but he still can’t find the one he’s looking for. He has 40 pairs in 30 different styles, more or less.

The sneaker’s fame — and its longevity — takes even its namesake by surprise. You see, the Stan Smith is really the most basic of all possible sneakers. Its narrow white leather body is cushioned at the front with an almost-orthopedic round toe. Its three understated Adidas stripes are nearly missable perforations, as if they don’t care to be recognized, and it has just two spots of color, most classically in green: a tab on the back of the ankle and Smith’s face printed on the tongue. They are essentially anonymous, the saltine cracker of tennis shoes. They were endorsed by Stan Smith just after he won his first Grand Slam singles title in the summer of 1971 and just before he won his second, and last, the next year. He was, in other words, no Serena Williams, not even a Rod Laver.

Nothing about Smith or the simple design of the sneaker itself — neither has changed much since 1971 — explains how Adidas was able to sell 7 million pairs by 1985. Or how that number had grown to 22 million pairs by 1988. Or why Footwear News named it the first-ever Shoe of the Year in 2014. Or how it surpassed 50 million shoes sold as of 2016. Or how the sneaker grew far beyond its start as a technical athletic shoe and became a fashion brand, its basic blank slate evolving and taking on new meaning and purpose. (...)

With his Adidas contract, Smith became one of the first American tennis players to receive an endorsement deal. It was the very beginning of the modern brand-athlete pairings that would, a little over a decade later, lead to Michael Jordan’s very own Air Jordan line, and three decades after that, to LeBron James’s reported $1 billion lifetime endorsement deal with Nike. But when Smith was playing, none of that existed yet. If you made it to the Roland Garros main draw, you would get “six shirts, a vest sweater, a regular sweater, socks, and that’s about it,” he says, counting the items off on his fingers. “You wanted to get in the main draw, so you could get the full set of clothes.”

His agent, Donald Dell, negotiated the picture of Smith’s face on the tongue, a savvy move that made the man inseparable from the sneaker, but Haillet’s name remained on the shoe until 1978, when Smith took over for good. It was by then the premier tennis sneaker. Smith remembers being beaten by opponents wearing his face on their feet. “I didn’t think it was appropriate,” he says. There was an Argentine player named Ricardo Cano, Smith recalls, who was signed to another brand but wore Stan Smiths anyway and drew the other company’s logo on the side of the shoes. The Stans were just that much better.

Smith retired from tennis in 1985. How the sneakers, 43 years after their creation, became suddenly ubiquitous is a case study in how “cool” is created and disseminated from image-makers to mainstream consciousness. In the mid-’90s, while Nike consumed the American sneaker market, a small circle of offbeat celebrities and influential marketing professionals latched onto the shoe as a sort of anti-fashion fashion statement, part of a Waspy, but not too Waspy, vintage style they helped pioneer: tucked-in Brooks Brothers shirts with ill-fitting corduroys or khakis. It helped if you drove a vintage Mercedes.

Stan Smiths fit perfectly with this aesthetic. Here was a shoe that you could buy new, but it looked the same as it had in 1971. The skateboarder Rick Howard wore Stan Smiths in a 1993 skate video sponsored by Girl Skateboards, a company co-founded by Spike Jonze. Mike Mills, who recently directed 20th Century Women, but back then designed album covers for the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, was more into Rod Lavers, another Adidas tennis sneaker from the ’70s, but his friend Roman Coppola, who founded the ad agency the Directors Bureau and who later wrote Moonrise Kingdom with Wes Anderson, preferred Stan Smiths. “I’ve owned a few pairs over the years, but don’t remember any specific movement or discussion around it,” he says. His sister Sofia Coppola wore them, too. By the early aughts, branding experts such as Andy Spade, who had launched and popularized his wife Kate Spade’s company, were starting to reinterpret the retro-nostalgia look for the likes of J.Crew, Warby Parker, and Shinola, to great financial success.

Then came Phoebe Philo, the creative director of Céline. In March 2011, Philo took her bow on the Céline runway at the end of the fall-winter ready-to-wear show in Stan Smiths along with low-slung black trousers and a gray turtleneck, hair tucked in. The timing could not have been better. Philo was at the peak of her influence and power. Every editor and professional fashion woman from New York to London to Paris was shopping at Céline between the shows. Kanye West had just name-dropped her in his comeback album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and was so completely bewitched by her ideas that he performed wearing women’s Céline. It was right after the label came out with the luggage bag but just before it became the only bag that seemed to matter. At this height, Phoebe Philo on the runway wearing Stan Smiths was like a gift. Here was something Philo did that everyone could copy for only $75; you could even buy a pair on Amazon. The shoes took on a new meaning. J.Crew started carrying them. The Stan Smith became fashion’s most important sneaker.

At the time, though, Adidas saw things a bit differently. While the sneaker was becoming popular in the fashion world, it was still sold almost exclusively in sporting-goods stores and often at a discount. “We weren’t really happy with how it was seen and where it was found,” says Torben Schumacher, Adidas’ vice-president of product. Adidas wanted to recalibrate how the shoe was presented.

To do that, Schumacher and Adidas decided to take the sneaker entirely off the market. “The idea of not having the model wasn’t really something that went down well,” says Schumacher, especially since it was just starting to get recognized by this new trendsetting crowd. (Smith’s first thought: “That’s interesting. I don’t really like that too much.”) Still, Schumacher and his team at Adidas spent a year and a half convincing the rest of the company of the merits of the plan. Adidas couldn’t truly reintroduce it to a new higher-end clientele, Schumacher argued, if it was still readily available in the bargain bin. “We wanted it to get the respect it deserved and the conversation about it that it deserved and for it to be seen as a commodity item,” he says. “We thought it needed something bold and drastic to prepare everyone for the story again.” By the time Adidas stopped selling the Stan Smith to places like Foot Locker, the company already had a plan of how and with whom it was going to bring it back. In 2012, the sneakers disappeared.

They began reemerging, subtly but purposefully, the next year — notably in the November 2013 issue of Vogue Paris, for which Gisele Bündchen posed naked, apart from white socks and Stan Smiths (“One of our sons saw that, we had no idea,” Margie says. “It was funny”). On January 15, 2014, they went back on sale in higher-end, fashion-focused stores like Barneys New York and the Parisian boutique Colette, still for under $100. They were instantly devoured. Later that year, Philo formally announced the Stan Smiths return, once again wearing them while taking her runway bow, this time with wide-leg pants and a camel sweater.

The trickle-down was immediate. In 2015, Adidas sold 8 million pairs of Stan Smiths. Adidas won’t confirm how many it sold in 2016, but some industry experts throw around numbers like 15 million — more than double what it moved in the shoes’ first decade of existence — the same side part and crooked smile leading them wherever they go.

Smith is the first to recognize Philo’s importance. He brings her up on two different occasions over the course of our time together. “She was one of the first to start wearing the shoe,” he remembers. “And then Pharrell Williams,” who basically bowed to Smith when they met at the U.S. Open this summer and now regularly designs his own versions of the sneaker, as does Raf Simons. “Those cost like $400 or something, and it’s the same shoe! It’s really weird, actually.”

For Smith, the sneakers are far more successful, monetarily, than he ever was in his tennis career, during which he made “$1.7 million, or something like that. I read it once,” he says. “The shoe has certainly been more than that.” In the beginning he collected an annual sum for his endorsement. These days, though, he’s paid in royalties.

Smith’s contract with Adidas expires about every five years (he’ll sign next in 2018). So why does Adidas keep Stan Smith around? Why does it need him when it has Phoebe and Gisele and Pharrell and Raf and Kanye? Turns out this 70-year-old former tennis player, who was really more of a doubles star, who has eyebrows like the flailing blowup guy at car dealerships, is the only thing that makes its shoe the original. Which is especially valuable when everybody else in the business is trying to knock off its success.

by Lauren Schwartzberg, The Cut |  Read more:
Image: João Canziani