PF Flyers is one of the most storied names in American sneakers and yet, the company was nearly defunct a decade ago. Back then, its customer base solely consisted of sneaker aficionados and collectors who were paying upwards of $250 for a vintage pair. The story of the company’s rise, fall, and recent resurgence is not a new one, but is telling nonetheless.
Looking to develop new applications of their vulcanized rubber technology, tire company B.F. Goodrich began experimenting with rubber’s pediatric applications in the 1920s. The “P.F.” in PF Flyers stands for “Posture Foundation,” a patented insole technology developed by Goodrich associate, Hyman L. Whitman.
The new insole shifted weight to the outside of the foot, allowing proper of alignment of the foot’s three main supporting bones. Originally applied to oxford shoes, the insoles proved immensely successful and were expanded to include dress-, sport-, and vacation-wear lines. However, it wasn’t until 1944 that the now iconic Center-Hi canvas sneakers known as “PF Flyers” were introduced to the American market.
Advertised using the slogan “Run faster, jump higher,” the release of the sneaker coincided perfectly with the birth of the baby boomer generation, which became the brand’s core market.
As sales continued, the company devised an aggressive marketing strategy. In 1958, PF Flyers became the first brand to enlist an All-star athlete—Boston Celtics’ star Bob Cousy—to market a pair of sneakers. That year, 14 million pairs of PF Flyers were sold. With the influx of demand, marketing expanded to include a comic book series, the “PF Magic Shoe Adventure Book”, and a Saturday morning TV special.
The successive years were the brand’s heyday. The company expanded its market to include women with the Oxford Outfit–matching shoe-and-skirt pairs. And Goodrich Honored the company’s 100th anniversary with the Jack Purcell LTT, a new sport shoe designed by the badminton star. By the 1970s, PF Flyers were so ubiquitous that they had found their way into standard issue infantry uniform in the US army.
But the good times didn’t last. As they steadily lost marketshare, Converse jumped on the opportunity to buy the company after Goodrich retired in 1972. However, federal courts ruled the merger a monopoly and the deal was subsequently broken up through anti-trust litigation. Converse only retained the trademark rights to the Jack Purcell shoe, which they still produce and sell.
In spite of their popularity, in the successive years the brand failed to adapt to the changing marketplace. Due in part to mismanagement and near-constant changes in ownership–Brookfield, Hyde, and LJO Inc. during the so-called “dark years” between 1975 and 2000–the shoes were all but forgotten.
PF Flyers were briefly memorialized in the 1993 film The Sandlot by director David Evans, who grew up in the 60s when the sneakers obtained their iconic status. The film valorizes the shoes for their ability to make the wearer “run faster, jump higher” following the lore in the brand’s advertisements.
Fellow sports shoemaker New Balance bought them in 2001 and has slowly begun to revitalize the PF name. With the recently renewed interest in American heritage brands, PF Flyers have become the preferred high-top within many fashion circles. Capitalizing on the moment, the company has reissued their core-product in an array of canvas, leather, and tweed uppers catering to contemporary tastes.
Recently, fashion designer Todd Snyder collaborated with the brand, producing a runway-worthy interpretation of the classic sneaker. The spike in popularity follows consumer trends, as conscientious buyers become more invested in the history and heritage of the brands they choose to purchase. Tretorn (now owned by Puma), has followed a similar path.
As a side note, New Balance, can be lauded (or faulted, depending on one’s point of view) for maintaining some of their production in the US and the UK. Although most PF Flyers are currently made overseas, they plan to launch a handful of Made in USA models this spring.
If you’re looking to run faster and/or jump higher, check out the full line on PF’s website.