February 9, 2012


China Laces Up Its Chuck Taylors (FRANK LANGFITT, 2/09/12, NPR)

The canvas-and-rubber shoe that dates to 1917 Massachusetts is now considered reasonably cool among 20-somethings in Shanghai.

Even some seniors wear them. Xuan Zhihui, a 62-year-old retiree from a state-run factory, strolls past the city's glass-and-steel towers in brown, 15-year-old high tops her daughter handed down to her.

Last year, about 5 million pairs of Chuck Taylors were sold in China -- not counting all the fakes. That's not a huge number in this giant market, but it's up 50 percent from 2007.

To understand the shoe's emerging popularity here, it's worth looking at how its image has morphed over time.

The Chuck Taylor spent its first decades as a hoops sneaker. When Wilt Chamberlin scored 100 points in a single game in Hershey, Pa., in 1962, he was wearing Chuck Taylors.

In the 1970s, punk rockers began adopting the shoe: The Ramones wore Chuck Taylors. As did Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in the 1990s. The shoe finally arrived in China in 1993, and Chinese rockers followed the fashion lead of American groups they admired.

Yang Haisong sings with the Beijing indie band, P.K.-14. He's been wearing Chuck Taylors for years. Yang thinks they are popular because of their price, image and the sense of individuality that comes with the shoe's variety of colors and styles.

"It's quite cheap compared with Nike or Adidas," he says. "The second reason is people like to look back."

It's retro. That stripped-down look contrasts with the prevailing trend among increasingly wealthy Chinese consumers: the rush for showy, status brands like Louis Vuitton bags and Bentley sedans. And Chuck Taylors are comparitively affordable. Pairs sold for as little as $35 a pair during the recent Chinese New Year celebrations.

Growing up in the 'hood, you were only allowed to wear Chuck Taylors and never black ones and never low-tops.  For awhile, the fad was to wear white hightops with colored laces.  So the Mother Judd gave me my $13 one Saturday and I rode to Bloomfield to buy a pair and red laces.  

Rode home through Bloomfield Park, happy as a clam....then got home and realized that the puddles I'd been whizzing through had made the dye in the cheap laces run and my cool sneakers were pretty much pink.  Washing them in bleach didn't work, so she had to--and I mean had to--buy me another pair.  God bless, Mom.
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Posted by at February 9, 2012 6:43 AM

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