“Don’t fuck up the Chuck!”
That is what was running through the mind of Converse’s Bryan Cioffi, the brand’s vice president and global creative director, as he set about developing a second edition of the classic Chuck Taylor sneaker.
Since the original Chuck Taylor All Star debuted in 1917, the shoe has been worn by everyone from Wilt Chamberlain, who had them on when he scored 100 points, to Elvis Presley to The Strokes. The Smithsonian has a pair in its archives, and every second, two pairs of Chucks are sold somewhere around the world. (The shoe is sold in more than 160 countries). Put simply, the Chuck is an icon.
So there was a lot riding on the redesign of that icon. When Cioffi received the initial product brief two years ago, he actually gasped. But with today’s release of the Chuck Taylor All Star II, it’s clear that Cioffi and his team paid appropriate tribute to the past while also moving the sneaker forward.
From a distance, it may be difficult to notice the difference between the Chuck II and the original. But once you get closer, the changes become more apparent. The new sneaker uses a premium canvas that is durable yet soft and will still break in and take on a patina the way the standard Chuck does. Padding was added around the ankle and tongue to wrap your foot and make the shoe much more comfortable and easier to put on. Also on the comfort front, the Lunarlon cushioning from Converse’s parent company, Nike, was used to make the sneaker feel as soft as a pair of running shoes.
To find out more about the Chuck II, which will be available in a low ($70) and high top ($75) version starting July 28, we sat down with Cioffi in Boston.
What was your first pair of Chucks?
The first ones I can remember are the pair that I had for T-ball. They were robin’s egg blue, and I wore them until both ankles broke off and cried when my mother threw them away. I followed those up with the Joker Chucks from the Michael Keaton Batman movie. My brother got the Batman pair and I needed the Joker pair. Those are the first two pairs that got me addicted to sneakers and got me into product really.
While you were working on the Chuck II, what was the biggest hurdle?
One was holding it as pure to the original idea as we could until the end. It was always about giving the consumer more and not messing it up and holding onto the iconography. Once we knew we had it, how do you not rush and really finish it before you get it out to market? We had something big and when you work at a product brand and there’s a really good product floating around, it’s hard to convince people that it’s not 100% done yet and that with patience it will be perfect as opposed to really, really good. That was tough and I am super proud that we did it.
How extreme did you guys get in your design process, even though you wanted to maintain the silhouette?
This design process was much different than our normal innovation. I used to run the innovation team and we would do weird, wild, amazing stuff and go to crazy places. This process was different. We decided early on that we were going to hold the iconography so it was more of a really deep, deep dive into construction, materials and the way that we put it together. I have this amazing memory: The project management lead and the lead designer basically locked themselves in a room and listed every single piece of the Chuck Taylor and put it up on the wall. Then they put every option up there of things that we could do. That room was full of things. They just kept going and testing out every idea one by one. It was by far the deepest product creation process I’ve ever seen.
You mentioned going through 42 different iterations of the ankle patch, what did they look like?
We had this really interesting discussion-slash-friendly, loving argument at the beginning. We actually had a discussion about keeping it white on white, just circular, so that you see the circle and then when you get up close to it you see the Converse All Star on it. It was everything from that to embossed, debossed, different embroidery techniques, different printing techniques. Every single thing that all of our partners could make for us, we wanted to try out. I remember that meeting we went in and they were all on the table and it was great because the one that we picked really stood out.
How did the naming summit go down where you settled on the name Chuck II?
The naming summit was a bizarre and amazing meeting that I’ll take to my grave. It was like, “OK, we’ve got a couple names, let’s get all the creatives and throw some stuff up.” We were looking on thesauruses and we’re making things up and combining things and trying Latin and all kinds of bizarreness. Then Ian, our marketing guy, was in the meeting and he got up to have a cigarette and just kind of went, “Let’s just call it Chuck II” and walked out. We laughed and laughed and then we drew the Roman numeral 2 on the board and were like, “That’s it!” That was a joke, but that’s completely it. Sometimes it just happens serendipitously like that. It was a quick little joke but it was like a bolt of lightning.
Could it ever evolve to where the Chuck II just becomes the Chuck and the original goes away?
I think it’s really important to give choice. It’s the “and” proposition where we’re strong and the thing that I’m really proud of our brand for. We don’t make a value judgement for people. There’s no reason people can’t have one, the other, or both. I actually think as people get to know this product a little more, they’re going to have both because they’re different. One’s definitely not better than the other. And that’s not just the company line. The original Chuck is just the essence of classic, timeless design. The II is modern innovation with the lines you know. When you spend time with them and put them on and wear them, you see the difference. And I love that we would never choose for the consumers.
Is there one design element that you’re especially proud of?
I think the toe down [look] from a visual perspective is one of the things I’m most proud of and most excited about. The team really sweated getting that right and that’s one of the big differences. I think it’s perfect.