Chuck gets comfortable

The iconic sneaker by Converse, the Chuck Taylor All Star (above), has been altered to be more wearable.
The iconic sneaker by Converse, the Chuck Taylor All Star (above), has been altered to be more wearable.PHOTO: CONVERSE

NEW YORK • When you have the world's most successful sneaker, why mess with it?

For almost 100 years, Converse, maker of the Chuck Taylor All Star, that flat-footed, star-sided, toe- capped flexible number beloved by everyone from Rihanna to Michelle Obama and Lil Wayne to the Jonas Brothers, did not.

Last Thursday, however, it did the previously unthinkable: Change the Chuck.

Daring to tweak an icon is always a dangerous move.

Just consider the branding controversies surrounding New Coke or even Saint Laurent, which got into trouble when it dropped the Yves from the name of its ready-to-wear line. And even though the Chuck Taylor All Star II looks, to the naked eye, not that different from the original Chuck Taylor, it does involve 16 alterations, most focusing on the addition of Nike technology. (Nike has owned Converse since 2003.) Also, "more premium canvas".

So what explains the sudden strategic switcheroo?

Interestingly enough, the same thing that caused Levi's this month to unveil the most comprehensive rethink of its classic women's jeans in 80 years. In a word, "comfort".

Actually, that was the word used by Mr Richard Copcutt, vice-president and general manager of Converse All Star.

And he said it was the word repeated most often during Converse's most comprehensive market research effort ever, involving thousands of consumers in four regions and lots of talks with "creative individuals" such as actors, dancers, chefs and designers, not to mention time spent in a tour van with the British band Zoax. Rockers have a thing for Converse.

"They told us they loved their Chucks, but they weren't the most comfortable shoes," Mr Copcutt admitted.

And these days, said Alan Flusser, the tailor and author of Dressing The Man, "comfort is the driving force for many consumers".

Combined with the explosion of sneaker culture and the need to cater to the "constant thirst for the new," it dawned on Converse that "it would be naive of us to think we were an exception", Mr Copcutt said, or that the company could rest on its laurels, even if it is on track to sell more than 100 million pairs of Chuck I's this year.

After all, he added, "every year there are more 14- to 15-year-olds getting into sneakers who neither know nor care about the heritage of Chucks".

In the past, Converse catered to the demand for variation through limited-edition collaborations with designers such as Missoni, Comme des Garçons and DC Comics, but the basic shoe never changed. The Chuck II is a more radical and systemic variation.

However, the brand also realised there was a danger in being seen to abandon the original Chuck. So the company decided it would do what neither Coca-Cola nor Yves Saint Laurent did when they embarked on their big branding changes: It would keep the old alongside the new.

Now the Chuck I and the Chuck II are being sold side by side, though the Chuck II, starting at US$70 (S$96), is slightly more expensive.

In any case, a door of sorts appears to have been opened.

"We are already working on sequels to this launch," said Mr Copcutt, who added that he was also in discussion with all of his product teams (apparel and accessories) to see what tweaks could be incorporated in other product areas.

Could a Chuck III be in the pipeline? A Chuck IV? The mind boggles.

"We have a lot of new ideas," he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'Chuck gets comfortable'. Print Edition | Subscribe