When I was a kid playing tennis in California in the ’70’s, I wore amongst other shoe brands, Stan Smith’s. I don’t remember particularly liking or disliking them but I certainly wore lots of other brands, who remembers Bata’s? A really ugly shoe, but super light and comfortable. The ‘big thing’ was poly-urethene soles, they were supposed to last longer etc.
Now, 40 years on, I see quite a few pairs of Stan Smith’s being worn by kids today. Apparently they never went away.
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.
In the United Kingdom, soccer fans in Liverpool and Manchester fight over who got into Stan Smiths first. In Greece, Smith says, where it is traditional to give babies white shoes on the day of their christening, Stan Smiths became the white shoe of choice. There’s a professor of theoretical physics in Sweden who owns more than 200 pairs. Both Will Arnett and Hugh Grant have said they kissed their first girl while wearing Stan Smiths. Stan Smith the man once met a reporter from GQ Japan who told him he’s worn his eponymous shoes every day for the past 13 years. (Smith’s response: “I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ ”) More recently, they’ve been taken up by Céline’s Phoebe Philo, as well as Marc Jacobs, A$AP Rocky, and North West, coming to define both a retro and minimalist movement in fashion just a few years after they were sold on the bargain shelves.
“Margie!” Smith calls out to his wife of 42 years, who’s planning his surprise 70th-birthday party in the kitchen. “You know that shoe with the white bag? Do you know where that is?”
Smith’s U of blonde hair is brushed perfectly down, as is his mustache, which he’s had since he could grow it, except for a few weeks when Adidas happened to take the picture that would go on to appear on the tongue of every Stan Smith shoe. His red-and-gray-checked shirt is neatly tucked into blue pants that match his blue suede Stan Smiths. It’s his eyebrows that stand out, the only unruly thing about him; each single hair living its own best life, swooping in and curling out, flailing like one of those blowup guys outside a car dealership, just trying to find somewhere to land.
For the community of the sneaker-obsessed, there is an event called “unboxing” — its closest relative is porn. It goes down on YouTube: A reviewer, or whoever’s first to get his hands on a new release, analyzes the sneaker from the moment he opens the shoe box. The person comments on how it looks tucked into the packaging, how it feels when touched for the first time, examining and fawning over each of its new and improved features.
Smith seems to know about this. Margie brings him the shoe, and he leans forward from his plush floral-printed chair toward the white bag, which also has his name on it, and begins the unboxing ceremony. “So this is kind of neat.”
He pets the bag, rubbing it between his fingers: “This is a parachute material.” He uses both hands to take the shoe box out and then slides one palm across the top. “And there’s a special white box, with three stripes made of holes, just like my shoe.” He opens the box: “You see this paper? They had special wrapping paper made with my signature on it.” It’s the same signature you’ll find on all Stan Smiths; there’s a single, extra-tall S that acts as the first letter for both his first and last name, a firsty-lasty so sure of itself it is ever connected in writing. Finally, he lifts the paper and pulls out the shoe. It’s the very pair of structured white leather sneakers with a green back tab and three understated stripes you can’t walk but five blocks in New York without seeing.
But here the leather is grayer and thicker. The picture on the tongue is different too. Smith has a mustache in it, as he does sitting in front of me today. He looks much older. “So they sent me this shoe with my current picture.” He smiles wide. All his teeth show. “I like the old one better.” Smith is the only person in the world who owns this pair. They were sent to him in January 2014, in the very early stages of what has become the greatest sneaker-revival story of all time.