MarketInsight | A Brief History of the Sneaker
Who was Chuck Taylor?
A lot of people think the popular Converse sneakers must be named after a famous athlete or specifically after legendary basketball Coach Fred Taylor who led Ohio State to the NCAA title in 1960. They are not. Chuck Taylor was a Converse salesman. He haunted gyms for decades selling shoes to every high school and college coach he met. He was so successful that Converse named the shoes after him.
Chuck, a former high school and semi-professional basketball star, would roll into a town with a trunk full of Converse All-Stars and arrange with the local coach to put on a basketball clinic for the kids. While he taught, he wore the shoes. Afterwards, everyone wanted a pair. Chuck also put out his own magazine featuring his own national champion and his own All-America team. Converse All-Stars are the best-selling sneaker of all time.
Why are they called Adidas?
Adolph and Rudolph Dassler owned a shoe company in Nazi Germany called Dassler Brothers. Before the war, they made athletic shoes. They custom designed a pair for Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics. Owens wore the shoes to win two gold medals in the 200 and the long jump. Some credit that event with being the first celebrity endorsement of an athletic shoe.
The 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, were meant to highlight Hitler’s notions of Aryan Supremacy. The Germans collected their share of medals, but there was no question that the hero of those games was the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave. Owens won four gold medals, two of them in German shoes.
After the war, the brothers had a falling out and went their separate ways. Some sources blame their wives. Adi Dassler called his new company Adidas. Rudy Dassler called his Puma.
Why are they called Nike?
Legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman had a long history of crafting custom-made shoes for his distance runners like Steve Prefontaine. He was obsessed with making the shoes lighter and his runners faster.
One day in 1971 Bowerman was experimenting in his workshop making new rubber soles using his wife’s waffle iron. The waffle iron was destroyed, but the new shoes, called “waffle trainers,” would help launch an empire. They say Mrs. Bowerman was not happy.
Bowerman and a local businessman started a company to sell the new shoes. They named it Nike, after the Greek goddess of victory. The iconic swoosh logo was designed by a student at Portland State. She was paid $35 for her efforts. Later, the company gave her some stock. That stock is now worth more than a million dollars.
Bowerman was obsessed with making runners faster, not making money. He gave away most of his shares to loyal employees. Still, he kept enough that when he died, he was worth $400 million — which will buy a ton of waffle irons.
Scott A. Grant is a local columnist, author, speaker, and historian. By day he is a fiduciary asset manager and president of Standfast Asset Management. He welcomes your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.