One hundred and two years in the making, the story of North Andover-based global footwear juggernaut Converse is the stuff of a bestseller. In 1908, Marquis M. Converse founded what started as a rubber company, with a capital investment of $250,000. The most seasoned of businessmen couldn’t have predicted that the footwear line—boots and rubbers—would not only weather the harshest North Shore winters, but that Converse as a brand would withstand the test of time, revolutionizing basketball and the face of sports.
On October 15, 2010, Converse, paying homage to its local roots and independent spirit, opened its first stand-alone full-price retail shop on Newbury Street in Boston. Two weeks later, its first Community/Employee store in North Andover followed. “We consider ourselves locals,” says Dave Powers, vice president of global retail for Converse. “We are absolutely a local brand.”
By “local,” Powers is referring to Malden, where Converse began. There, in the two years after its launch, The Converse Rubber Shoe Company began producing boots and rubbers to the tune of 4,000 pairs daily. Next came winter shoes for men, women, and children, followed by tennis shoes and, shortly thereafter, the 1917 debut of what became a century-long love affair with the “All Star” basketball shoe.
When Charles “Chuck” H. Taylor, once an All-American high school basketball player, stepped onto the court for the original Boston Celtics wearing “All Stars,” both Taylor and Converse were launched into the annals of sports and pop culture. Chuck Taylor became an advocate for the sport of basketball and, soon after, the first player-endorser for Converse. Sports fans and consumers around the world came to view Converse as the brand that created an American icon. Thus, the choice of Boston as the site of the first-ever retail store seemed a natural fit.
At 348 Newbury Street, Converse’s first concept store was designed as a haven for the creatively minded urban consumer. The first floor of the nearly 4,000-square-foot split-level space is dedicated to Converse’s bold foray into men’s and women’s apparel and accessories. “Skinny jeans, black denim, fleece, tee-shirts—it’s urban apparel for [customers] ages 6 to 60,” says Jon Tappan, General Merchandise Manager of Specialty Retail. “From thrift shops to high-end, kids are mixing it up.”
But the look of its apparel wasn’t the only matter of concern for Converse. Being affordable and efficient is also part of the game, according to Tappan. “We aren’t trying to bankrupt anyone,” he says. In fact, 80 percent of the apparel on Newbury Street sells for less than $100. “In a world where people are paying from $158 to $200 for denim, we’re offering quality, lightweight jeans for $78 to $98,” he adds. Perhaps completing the business trifecta along with style and price is selection. There are six styles of slim-fit jeans for men and women in 15 or so different washes. Printed pockets and studded or herringbone details add to the array of choices.
On the store’s second floor is where shoppers will find the largest selection of Converse footwear offered in the United States: 40 to 50 styles, exclusive to the Newbury Street location, including the Chuck Taylor All Star, the Jack Purcell, the Star Chevron, the One Star, and styles in the Converse by John Varvatos line. Here, one will also find the premium collaborations and special-edition shoes, including All Star Jimi Hendrix in Black Cheddar Orange, or the All Star Slim, a modern take on the Chuck (purportedly a big seller among European customers), and a Chuck Taylor All Star Dr. Seuss limited edition.
It’s also on this floor where the consumer can become the designer. Here, a design counter is outfitted with iPads that are loaded with hundreds of images for customers’ choosing. Once a shopper settles on a look for his or her product, “Customization Maestros” set to work applying the design (they run from $15 to $25, plus the cost of the product), often with an audience of intrigued onlookers who view the embossing process on an adjacent screen. The final product is placed into an oven, and moments later the personalized creations are ready to take home.
Converse’s loyalty to Boston and its surrounding neighborhoods has been a recurrent theme throughout the launch of both retail spaces. Powers says the overall goal for the local market is to “mix tourists with locals.” He likes the idea of Boston, the students, and the international flavor. The fact remains: “The localization has been great—we believe in it and we understand it because we are a hundred-year-old brand. We’re on the floor of the Boston Garden.” He points to the artwork that adorns the walls of the Newbury Street store, created by local kids. “We encouraged kids to bring in thoughts that represented who they are. We feel like locals—we understand the local culture,” he says.
A nearby table displays another best-seller: tee-shirts featuring 15 different designs—hand-drawn art depicting Boston’s neighborhoods, including Southie, Beacon Hill, SoWa, and Allston—which are $28 apiece. The same concept was interpreted for Converse’s New York customers and is showcased in the company’s Manhattan store in SoHo, which opened November 26. Graphic tees sold exclusively at that location feature all of New York City’s boroughs, plus neighborhoods like SoHo, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Coney Island, and Hell’s Kitchen.
The interiors of both the Newbury Street store and its Andover counterpart serve to remind customers of Converse’s unique local heritage, with sports meeting lifestyle in a combination of exposed brick, subway tiles, old high school bleachers, handrails trimmed in basketball leather, staircases with concrete “Chuck” treads, an Argentinean candy fixture, and antique refrigeration tables.
With all the newness suddenly surrounding Converse, its customers have found themselves inspired to freshen up their own collections of the brand’s shoes and clothes. But novelty doesn’t always trump familiarity, and Powers says some Converse customers have had a hard time parting ways with their beloved old “Chucks.” One particular show of sentimentality from a customer, Powers explains, ultimately led to a new concept at the Newbury Street store—the “shoe cemetery.”
According to Powers, when a couple came in to purchase a new pair of “Chucks,” the gentleman was clearly grieving the loss of his originals. “I told him he shouldn’t just throw them away,” Powers recalls. Instead, “He signed them and threw them up onto the ceiling. That’s how the cemetery started. And now we’ve got people carrying on the tradition. People love their ‘Chucks.’”
In North Andover, the Converse Community/Employee Store comprises nearly 6,000 square feet and is a few blocks from the company’s corporate headquarters. While the goal was to be more of an employee store, the location is also accessible to the general public, offering retail and outlet products, as well as customization.
The grassroots marketing has paid off, and events at local schools in and around the North Shore of Boston have been instrumental in expanding the Converse brand. Charitable giving will continue to be a focus moving forward, and a larger part of that will include giving back to communities in and around Boston: the same communities that helped shape Converse’s history.
As for bringing on a current Boston athlete to act as spokesperson, Powers says, “We are about the everyday athlete…if, some day, they become stars, the best in the game, more power to them. But we are about the everyday creative kid.”
A spirit of independence was established early on and characterized with these words in a 1913 Converse catalog: “Our company was organized in 1908, fully believing that there was an earnest demand from the retail shoe dealer for a rubber shoe company that would be independent enough not to follow every other company in every thing they do.” So far, so good.
Up and down the court with Converse; a timeline.
1908: Marquis Mills Converse starts the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in Malden.
1915: Production of canvas footwear begins, offering year-round work to Converse employees.
1917: The world’s first performance basketball shoe, the Converse All Star sneaker, comes off factory lines.
1918: Chuck Taylor laces up his first pair of All Star sneakers.
1930s: Chuck Taylor’s signature is added to the All Star ankle patch, marking what has been referred to as the first-ever signature basketball shoe. Taylor himself begins his 35-year tour across the country.
1935: Badminton champ Jack Purcell designs his innovative and durable signature court shoe.
1939: First NCAA championship game held with both teams playing in Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers.
1942: Converse shifts production to support the war effort, designing the A6 Flying Boot—worn by the entire U.S. Army Air Corp—and Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers for basic training.
1962: Converse develops a low-cut version of the All Star sneaker—the “oxford”—which soon became the shoe of choice for both pro players and those looking for a laid-back, West Coast vibe.
1974: The One Star sneaker drops in, the low-cut performance shoe that would become a skate staple.
1975: Converse signs Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
1976: Julius Irving puts his stamp on the Pro Leather—a shoe eventually dubbed the “Dr. J.”
1984: Converse is official footwear sponsor of the L.A. Olympics; the U.S. men’s basketball team wins gold while wearing Converse.
1992: The All Star sneaker celebrates its 75th anniversary, with 500 million pairs sold globally.
2003: Converse is purchased by NIKE, Inc. making it a wholly-owned subsidiary. Converse partners with famed designer John Varvatos for an ongoing collaboration of premium footwear, “Converse by John Varvatos.”
2008: Converse celebrates its 100th anniversary.
2010: Converse opens its first-ever specialty retail store on Boston’s Newbury Street. The company’s second and largest U.S. retail specialty shop opens in Manhattan just a few weeks later.