Words & Photography: Alex Synamatix
Converse continue to push further into the realms of innovation, unveiling the All Star Modern in New York this week. We caught up with Ryan Case, Global Footwear Product Director at Converse, to discuss the All Star Modern, why Converse are focusing on innovation, and the first non-Nike HTM product.
It seems like an “energise” switch has been flicked on at Converse HQ in the last few years as they start to play with Nike technologies in an attempt to revamp and/or expand both their product offerings and their brand, shifting it into the realms of innovation. It’s an interesting time for a brand that most people love for their oldest and most classic and offerings – the Chuck Taylor All Star and the Jack Purcell. Last year saw the arrival of a modernised Chuck Taylor silhouette with a lot of under-the-hood redesigning and technology, dubbed the Chuck II, so we were more than intrigued and in all honesty a little confused to hear about their latest product – the All Star Modern. Surely the Chuck II as a modernised All Star is already the All Star Modern? How does this revamp of their iconic silhouette offer the consumer a different story? With that in mind, I put exactly that question to Ryan Case, the Global Footwear Product Director at Converse…
Before we jump into the interview, it’s worth highlighting a few key points about this product release, because it’s hugely significant. Whether you like the product itself or not, it’s an important moment in the history of Converse, Nike, and Nike Inc. for various reasons; the product includes a selection of Nike innovations that haven’t previously made their way over to Converse, including Phylon, but more significantly the release also sees an HTM double pack. This marks the first time that the HTM project has worked outside of the Nike brand. Of course, Converse is owned by Nike Inc. so it’s not a crazy leap, but it’s still a huge moment in the rapidly evolving story of Nike Inc. and Converse becoming less shy about their relationship. It wasn’t too long ago that Converse put Lunarlon in their skate shoes, marking the first moment that they used a Nike innovation and admitted their ownership to the consumer, not that it was ever hidden, but it definitely wasn’t flaunted. Fast forward to this week and HTM, a shining beacon of Nike as a brand, have collaborated on a Converse product that is only available through NikeLab retailers. That’s very big news and almost certainly the start of a whole new chapter in this story. So big is that news that when that little bomb was dropped at the product launch my attention shifted almost entirely from the product itself and on to the fact that HTM was working with Converse. But then again, I’m a touch more excitable about these kinds of details than the average consumer.
It’s a very intriguing time to be a consumer watching Converse move into new territories. There’s most definitely a large consumer group out there who don’t want Converse to be anything other than a select few classic silhouettes, in a very select few colourways and materialways, but as Ryan mentions, there’s an even larger consumer group who are looking for more from Converse. And let’s be honest, if Converse decided to only bang out the usual Chuck and Jack Purcell, alongside premium options like the Chuck 70 collection, those same fanatics would also probably complain that Converse is going stale. So here we are, at a point in the history of one of the most important footwear brands in the world where they are once again starting to embrace technology and innovation in both materials and design. It has my interest and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops when they feel they can start to move on from the Chuck silhouette. For now, the latest part of the story is the All Star Modern (note the lack of any Chuck Taylor).
One last thing – a huge shout out to Ryan for his honesty and openness throughout this interview. It was a huge pleasure to speak with him and I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed the conversation.
Internally, how do you see the All Star Modern as being different from the Chuck II?
I think there are more than a few differences with the evolution of the product. Chuck II is something we’re not gonna walk away from and I’ll make it crystal clear that we’re continuing to amplify that product as well as classic Chucks and Chuck 70s. This is a broadening of our product portfolio.
Right now the consumer and market is moving faster than it ever has before and it’s hard to keep up with. If you don’t evolve, you die, right? Converse made a strategic decision a couple of years ago when we started building out the Chuck II – the Chuck II was gonna enrich and start to close that gap and make sure that we evolve quicker and create product quicker. Consumers are physically asking for it from us. So I think that the differentiation between the two is just the evolution of the brand and to be honest it’s the tip of the iceberg for us.
How do you respond to the consumer that doesn’t want you to mess with the original DNA of the All Star? Some times it can feel like innovation is being done for the sake of innovation, rather than because the product needs to update.
That’s a good question. That’s an honest question and I’ll give you an honest answer…
We toil with those types of questions daily. We anticipate every single thing that someone’s going to ask us – a lot of anticipating, but also a lot of hearing it from the consumer. We have a lot of consumers that are like “I’m good. I’ve got classic Chucks. I’ve got Chuck ‘70s. I don’t need those” but there is an even bigger group of consumers that are saying “Cool, check, got it. You do classic Chucks, I get it, but I want something else from you guys. I want something from you that I don’t want to get from another brand because I don’t wear that brand.” We’ve been asked by a lot of consumers to dare to create new things and that’s the reason why we’ve done this.
This is not a bunch of city tie dudes sitting in a boardroom going “Wow, innovation is what everybody is doing right now, let’s do it as well.” That’s not it. This has been in the works for a long time. To do it right, to do it fore the right reasons, took a lot of planning and a lot of strategy. We have a longterm roll out plan for this type of stuff – like I said, it’s the tip of the iceberg. We’re not gonna walk away from the other stuff we’re doing by no means. We’ll continue to provide Chuck ’70 collections for the guys and the girls that love that product, but we need to broaden our aperture to make sure that we’re providing an assortment of products for todays consumers.
You talk about how consumers are happy with what you currently offer but want something different from Converse also. With that as your brief, why have you decided to stick with the All Star silhouette rather that creating something entirely new and different?
Again, that’s a good question. Everything we’re doing right now is very strategic. I’d love to say let’s set a time two years from now where we can sit down and re-ask this question because unfortunately there’s a lot of things that I can’t share with you at this moment, but everything we’re doing right now is very strategic. We’re taking the consumer and the marketplace on a journey and the reason that we went from the [Chuck Taylor All Star] classic to the Chuck II to the All Star Modern is that the whole thing is a journey and we’re gonna continue the journey for seasons to come and that question will start to become a lot more clear as you see the things that we’re working on. We don’t want to go from 0 to 60 as fast as we possibly can and wear ourselves out and wear the consumer out, we want to take them on a journey and slowly introduce them to new things and facets of the brand. We’re going to start to broaden our portfolio from a product perspective. I think you will be pleasantly surprised as you see what comes after.
While we’re discussing an evolution of product portfolio, Converse has strong roots in basketball, but in recent years that side of the Converse story, as well as performance product, has been deliberately neglected. Why is that?
So we exited basketball a few years back for strategic reasons, one of which is that we say that we were born in basketball but raised in rock ’n’ roll. Converse over the years has been adopted by skateboarders and musicians and sideline arts – you’d be hard pressed to go to a fashion week anymore without seeing not only consumers wearing them, but on the runway also. It wasn’t a strategic decision for us to move out of sport and into fashion, that’s what the consumer did. The consumer told us that’s what they want from us, that’s how they wear our product. That’s not to say that we couldn’t do something in the future, I don’t know, I couldn’t speak that at this point, but the fashion and style aspect of the brand is where we’re focusing our efforts and we’re now starting to project a lot more innovation but we’re still very much focused on style.
Let’s talk HTM… Where did the idea of bringing HTM over to Converse come from? Which side of the partnership opened that discussion?
It was a little bit of a mixture of both. We’d worked with each one of them individually before and there’s always been the idea of HTM, we’d brought it up multiple times and they’d brought it up too, but it was more around strategically what was the best time and the best product to do it, and this being a step in an entirely new direction for us it felt very natural that HTM would be amazing partners to work with on such a new product for us. I think people would have assumed that we’d come straight with a Chuck with HTM for the first time, but we wanted to provide something totally new for the consumer with a partner that we’ve never worked with before.
On what levels have you worked with each of them specifically in the past?
We’ve never worked with HTM as a whole, but individually we’ve worked with Hiroshi on Fragment projects, so back in 2008/2009 we worked with Hiroshi and Fragment on a Chuck and more recently the CTS and then even more recently the One Star 74. Also, a little known fact, Tinker Hatfield actually designed some of our performance basketball shoes back in the early 2000s. And then obviously with Mark Parker being the CEO of Nike Inc. he’s fully engrained in product with us. He loves product and he’s always checking in and seeing what we’re working on.
Was there ever a consideration of building a Converse version of HTM with designers from your team?
Umm yeah I mean it’s been talked about — you’re always consumed by the what-ifs and the opportunities. HTM is such a strong entity and the product is always so phenomenal that it was kinda one of those “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” type of things. We’ll start with HTM and we’ll see what happens from there.
While we’re talking about what-ifs, was there ever a concern that in launching this product alongside the news of HTM working with Converse, that the HTM story would overshadow the product itself?
To be honest with you, I personally had not given that any thought. To me, I looked at it more that HTM would amplify it, the whole project, that it would really get people paying more attention. The product is so good in general, that I think with or without HTM the consumer would be pleasantly surprised with what it is that we’re bringing forth, but obviously the HTM amplifies it and it gets people talking.
I’m presuming that the relationship between Converse and HTM is something you are looking to do longterm rather than as a one off?
Yeah, with everything we do with Nike we look at longterm strategies and when the appropriate time to work on these types of things are. Currently right now I can’t speak to any further HTM opportunities, as we’re not at the point where we can share any of them obviously, but never say never. We’re fully aligned with Nike moving forward and I would personally look forward to future opportunities with HTM.
I think it’s interesting how the Nike Inc. ownership of Converse is becoming more and more public-facing from Converse in regard to adding Nike branded innovations and now starting to see the two brands almost overlapping. How do you see that relationship working in the future and is there ever any concern about how it looks from a consumer perspective?
I don’t think there’s any concern. We are and always will be our own brand and Nike is very open about that, as well as Nike is and always will be their own brand. But between the two of us we have so many years of sports heritage; building performance product, building sportswear product, building lifestyle product; style via performance, via fashion. There’s so many opportunities for us to cross-pollinate going forward, but doing it through the lens of who we are as a brand. The one thing we don’t want people to do is see Converse as just another Nike product — we want them to see it as Converse product utilising the biggest, most innovative footwear brand in the world to amplify our product as well. If you have the opportunity to utilise the technologies that they have, it would be a shame to not do so. But we will always make sure that Converse has its own voice and that it’s coming from a Converse point of view.
Are there any specific innovations or technologies at Nike that you’d like to see Converse playing with in the near future? Maybe the laser siping introduced by the LunarEpic for example.
Yeah, I mean in a dream world I’d love to utilities a lot of the technologies that they have. We do have our own innovation space in Boston where we’re constantly working on innovative platforms that are specific to us, but that’s not to say that we’re not sharing those with them and they’re not sharing their stuff with us. There isn;t one thing in particular that I’d say is the one that I’d like to do, but if you look at the vast story of what Nike does, and in the vast story of things that we are capable of doing, I think that it’s an exciting time for Converse and I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the innovation that we put forward and the innovation that we utilise with Nike as well.
And did the All Star Modern come from the new innovation centre in Boston?
Some of it did, yeah. Some of it did and some of it did not. It was a collaborative project on both parts, amplifying the use of Phylon which Nike uses, as well as the Hyperfuse technology. But looking at the materials, the construction, things of that nature, our design team put their heads together with the innovation we have from Nike and created a beautiful product.
We kind of touched on this earlier when we were speaking off record, but there’s been a lot of mention in the last year or so of innovation from Converse. For a brand that is known and loved for classics and designs from the past, why do you think it’s important to start pushing towards being seen as an innovative brand?
Well, I think it’s two-fold — it’s important to push forward, but it’s also important to not forget the other stuff that we do. We will not walk away from our classic business, nor will we walk away from our Chuck II business. Those are foundational pieces to our business and without them we would be walking away from a very pure part and a very core part of the brand. With that, we want to make sure that we’re providing the consumer with newness — there’s a lot of young consumers now that don’t know Converse’s history, and frankly might not care, who are looking for new product that meets today’s demands and that’s exactly what we’re gonna do with this. So we’re not gonna walk away from the other things, we’re gonna amplify the other things, but we’re gonna do it in conjunction with this new innovative direction that we’re going in.
Thanks to those at Converse for facilitating our time in New York with Ryan. Special thanks to Alex from The Basement for question #2.