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You know what men with big feet have?
I think of that joke whenever I think of the collapse of Converse, as I did when I read about newfangled All Stars making a splash during the most recent fashion week in New York. Seems a designer named John Varvatos has thrown Chuck Taylors into his fall offerings. Varvatos’ special Chucks, which will be part of a collection dubbed “Rebel Prep,” come in tweed, flannel, or leather—but not canvas, the only fabric real Chuck Taylors were made of. The hoity-toity skips go for $125 a pair, which exceeds the Chucks-only sneaker budget of my entire adolescence.
Also, posters for an athletic-shoe company going by the name of Converse have recently popped up around town at subway stops. But this isn’t your father’s Converse.
That company went away for good in January 2001, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closing all of its North American manufacturing plants. A few months later, a federal court approved the sale of Converse’s assets to a high-finance outfit called Footwear Acquisition for $117.5 million in cash.
Company officials and shoe-industry analysts came up with a bunch of excuses for Converse’s demise. Some said Converse, which was the last major shoemaker to manufacture in the United States, was sent to the canvas by Asian counterfeiters. Others blamed bad marketing decisions, such as signing all the wrong spokesmodels after the retirements of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the top pitchmen for the company’s basketball shoes. Trouble magnets Dennis Rodman, J.R. Rider, and Latrell Sprewell were in the Converse stable at one time, and in the end the star endorsers included anonymities Brevin Knight and Ron Artest. The collapse was also attributed to Converse’s failure to close its U.S. plants and ship its operations offshore like all its competitors in the sports-apparel biz. Footwear Acquisition made that move soon after it took over the Converse name, exporting about 1,200 jobs to Asia. (Along with the boutique Chuck Taylors that appear on fashion runways, foreign-made Chucks are now available via the Internet.)
Probably all those excuses are accurate, because a lot of bungling and bad breaks were surely needed to kill off a company that had in its corner the most beloved sneaker in the history of sneakers. Chucks, like no American products save Harley-Davidson bikes and the Fender Stratocaster, retained their cool from generation to generation. Pop-culture icons as diverse as Bird and Joey Ramone were wearing the budget-priced canvas tennies when they first tasted fame. According to Footwear Acquisition officials at the time of the Converse takeover, more than a billion rubber soles were shipped since the introduction of Chuck Taylors in 1921. (Yes, a Converse employee named Chuck Taylor really was behind the shoes’ introduction.) Though they lacked a swoosh or three stripes, Chucks were as easy as Nikes or Adidas to ID from across the court or the stage.
But I also have my own, admittedly wacky, theory about what contributed to the fall of Converse. And it brings me back to the big-feet joke: Converse officials never realized how good that joke really is. Plainly, guys care about the size of their body parts. There’s no hard evidence to support such thoughts: On Sept. 30, researchers in London, after what they described as the most extensive study of the foot-to-crotch ratio ever undertaken, concluded that “[t]he supposed association of penile length and shoe size has no scientific basis.” But the notion is there nonetheless. Unlike women, a lot of men, probably most, want their feet to be big—Bob Lanier-big—because of what we think that says about the size of other body parts. And Converse’s competitors were much better at letting male customers feel like Bigfoot.
I began surmising this shortcoming in Converse’s sizing scheme long ago, when I was given my first pair of Nikes. They’d been purchased by another family member as a gift for my brother, who like me had also been long loyal to Converse. Size 11 in Chucks had always been a fine fit for him, but these size 11 Nike cross-trainers were far too small. So they were passed off on me, a career 9 1/2 guy with Converse. I’d spent enough time in the YMCA showers to know where my feet stood. So I figured my dogs would be swimming in anything size 11.
But the “big” Nikes fit like a glove. (Speaking of gloves: Men are, of course, similarly conscious of the size of their hands—yet another reason why Marcia Clark should never have tried to get O.J. to put on that bloody glove in an open court. The prosecution wasn’t only challenging his innocence but also publicly sizing up his manhood. Under those circumstances, Simpson would have also gone through the same contortions had the state asked him to slide his digits into one of those oversized “We’re No. 1!” foam hands.)
I smelled intuitive marketing, and not a sizing defect, before I’d even finished lacing up the Nike cross-trainers. And over the years, I’ve road-tested my theory during other trips to shoe stores and found that Converse was the only major brand of shoes in which I fit into a 9 1/2. Stinginess and brand loyalty always kept me buying Converse, but the pull of a double-digit shoe size was palpable.
I occasionally asked salesmen about the discrepancies but never got an answer deeper than “Different shoes size out differently,” whatever that means. But I found validation for my shoe size theories through other men’s apparel. I have a few pairs of vintage Levi’s with a 36-inch waist left over from my teenage days, but getting into them would require more athletic effort than I’ve expended since high school. But I’ve got a pair of Abercrombie and Fitch 36s that I know will still be loose even after a visit to the breakfast buffet at Bob’s Big Boy. Levi Strauss finally wised up to male vanities with the introduction of such products as Relaxed Fit jeans, in which 36 inches isn’t really 36 inches.
Converse never did screw with the size of Chucks, however. Last week, I went on my first sneaker-buying excursion since the Converse bankruptcy. I headed over to the stack of discontinued shoes and found a pair of 10 1/2 Reeboks that fit fine. There was also one pair of Nikes in the budget bin, also sized 10 1/2. I could no more fit into those shoes than I could my old Levi’s.
What do men with little feet have? I joked to myself as I threw the cross-trainers back. Nikes. —Dave McKenna