China Laces Up Its Chuck Taylors

Feb 9, 2012
Originally published on February 9, 2012 8:34 pm

Stroll along a street in downtown Shanghai for very long, and you're likely to run into someone wearing Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. One recent afternoon, Xu Jing was heading back from lunch to her job at an ad company in a pair of raspberry-colored Chuck Taylors.

"They have a young image, upbeat and outdoorsy, sporty," said Xu, 27, explaining the appeal. "Young people with an artistic sense prefer Converse."

Xu was accompanied by Chen Xiaolei, a co-worker who owns three pairs of Chuck Taylor high-tops.

"The shoes are pretty light, good looking, they go with skinny jeans," said Chen. "Nowadays, young people like these shoes because they're fashionable."

Yes. Fashionable.

Nostalgia Factor

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 Chamberlain 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 and 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 comparatively affordable. Pairs sold for as little as $35 during the recent Chinese New Year celebrations.

Promotional Help

Until relatively recently, Converse licensed its brand here to a Taiwanese company that marketed the shoes as sportswear. In 2007, Converse took the brand back and began emphasizing a more casual, youthful image.

Steve Parker, vice president and general manager for Converse Asia Pacific, says the company partnered with street artists and built on existing, influential customers like Yang.

Converse underwrote a tour for P.K.-14 and another Chinese band, Queen Sea Big Shark.

"We put them on a bus. I think they traveled through nine different provinces, and it ended up in a big party in a show in Beijing right at the time of the Olympics," Parker says.

Converse still gives Yang and his band free sneakers, but it also gets marketing help from people with whom it has no relationship.

Kenny Lee runs My Tee in Shanghai. It's a Converse store/museum with no connection to the company.

Lee says he carries 1,300 different Chuck Taylors, including limited editions from Tokyo and New York. He shows me a two-toned shoe that fuses styles from the 1960s and the 1980s. I ask how much it costs.

"This pair is priceless," he says. "Many people offered me $1,500 or $3,000 and I wouldn't sell. No matter how much money you offer, I am not going to sell."

A potential customer, Zhu Lingling, walks in and looks at a fur-lined Chuck Taylor. Zhu used to wear the brand as a college student. She now designs cosmetic packaging and recently had a child.

"Now that I work, I don't wear these shoes as often," she says. "But sometimes I still want to chase the memories of my college days."

Lee wants $160 for the shoes. Zhu says she loves them, especially the fur, but can't see paying that much for nostalgia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's go from scientific discoveries to a rapidly emerging market – China - which has a consumer market than its massive - 1.3 billion people. Breaking into that market is not easy. Some products from the United States, like doughnuts, have not done so well. But an old American sneaker has become a success - the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star, which you may just call Chucks. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains how a cheap canvas basketball shoe became popular in the middle kingdom.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm walking along a side street in Shanghai around lunchtime - there are a lot of people out - and there's a woman walking along here wearing a pair of raspberry-colored Chuck Taylors. In fact, in the last five or 10 minutes I've seen two other people wearing Chuck Taylors as well. The girl with the raspberry sneakers is Xu Jing. She's a 27-year-old who works for an ad company. I asked her why she likes the shoes.

XU JING: (Through translator) They have a young image, upbeat and outdoorsy, sporty. Young people with an artistic sense prefer Converse.

LANGFITT: Chen Xiaolei, Xu's co-worker, owns three pairs of Chuck Taylor high-tops.

CHEN XIAOLEI: (Through translator) The shoes are pretty light, good looking, they go with skinny jeans. Nowadays, young people like these shoes because they're fashionable.

LANGFITT: Yes. Fashionable. The canvas-and-rubber shoe that dates to 1917 Massachusetts is now considered reasonably cool among 20-somethings in Shanghai. Last year, about five 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

LANGFITT: Then in the 1970s, punk rockers began adopted the shoe. The Ramones wore Chuck Taylors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO BE SEDATED" )

LANGFITT: As did Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

LANGFITT: 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 PK-14. He's been wearing Chuck Taylors for years. Yang thinks they're popular because of their price and image.

YANG HAISONG: It's quite cheap compared with others like Nike or Adidas. And the second one, the reason is people like to look back. Zhongwen zhao fugu.

LANGFITT: Fugu means retro in Chinese. And Chuck Taylors can sell for as little as $35 a pair - cheap by current standards. Until relatively recently, Converse licensed its brand here to a Taiwanese company that marketed the shoes as sportswear. In 2007, Converse took the brand back and began emphasizing a more casual, youthful image.

STEVE PARKER: I'm Steve Parker. I'm the VP, GM, of Converse Asia Pacific.

LANGFITT: Parker says the company partnered with street artists and built on existing influential customers like Yang Haisong.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LANGFITT: Converse underwrote a tour for PK-14 and another Chinese band, Queen Sea Big Shark.

PARKER: We put them on a bus and we traveled through I think it was nine different provinces. And it ended up in a big party in a show in Beijing right at the time of the Olympics.

LANGFITT: Converse still gives Yang Haisong and his band free sneakers, but it also gets marketing help from people with whom it has no relationship. Kenny Lee runs My Tee in Shanghai. It's a Converse store/museum with no connection to the company. Lee says he carries 1,300 different Chuck Taylors, including limited editions from Tokyo and New York. He shows me a two-toned shoe that fuses styles from the 1960s and the 1980s. I ask how much it costs.

KENNY LEE: (Through translator) This pair is priceless. Many people offered me $1,500 or $3,000 and I wouldn't sell. No matter how much money you offer, I'm not going to sell.

LANGFITT: A potential customer, Zhu Lingling, walks in and looks at a fur-lined Chuck Taylor. Zhu used to wear the brand as a college student. She now designs cosmetics packaging and recently had a child.

ZHU LINGLING: (Through translator) Now that I work, I don't wear these shoes as often. But sometimes I still want to chase the memories of my college days.

LANGFITT: Kenny Lee wants $160 for the shoes. Zhu says she loves them, especially the fur, but can't see paying that much for nostalgia. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.