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Variations on a Sneaker Theme – Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface is a monthly column by Robert Lim that examines the cultural side of heritage fashions.


In fashion apparel and footwear, there are classics and then there are standards. Like the jazz standards that any gigging musician uses for material day in and day out, fashion standards are something that are instantly familiar while providing a blank canvas for a designer to express something personal.

There are probably a couple of sneakers that I’d consider to be standards, but none more than the plimsoll. The word basically describes any shoe with a solid rubber sole and glued-on canvas upper, but so as not to beat around the bush: I’m really talking about Chucks.

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Fig. 1 – The Standard Chuck

The plimsoll has been around since the nineteenth century as a casual sneaker, but Converse popularized a high-top version as a basketball sneaker about a hundred years ago with the help of Chuck Taylor (side note – nowadays, it’s normal for athletic sneakers to be worn casually, but I’m pretty sure this is the only time a casual sneaker has been branded as an athletic shoe). These days, the shoe is synonymous with Converse’s model, but the form is universal (despite Converse’s 2014 lawsuits claiming the contrary).

The variety of Chuck-ish plimsolls out there is truly amazing – from a $20 white on white utilitarian canvas knock-off to the more limited lifestyle versions which mostly introduce different patterns and details (these are a specialty of Converse’ First String line – their answer to the limited quickstrike / NRG network of retailers that their parent company Nike pioneered in the 2000s).

On that subject, two of my favorite recent iterations of this are shown here – a tiger camo edition that Kicks Hawaii designed a few years back and an in-line Fourth of July version built on a recently revived 1970s CT design. The 70s throwback design originated as a very limited First String release in 2013 – its most notable differences are a wider last and more cushioning in the midsole unit (visible by the higher midsole wall seen on the left below).

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Fig. 2 – Conflicting Patterns?

If you want throwback, there’s only one place to look – John Lofgren‘s recent Champion model, released in three colors – navy, ivory or HBT/frogskin camo – all on a completely natural gum rubber outsole.  Like the very best products made in Japan, every detail is completely dialed in – the most subtle: the branding badge on the back heel is raised up a bit, giving us heel striking walkers more wears before facing de-branding.

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Fig. 3 – Heelstrikers of the World, Unite and Take Over

The most obvious: an extra pair of insoles in case the first one wears out (or to double up for extra cushioning, which is my move).  The most crucial, though, is the natural gum rubber sole and toe cap.

If you’ve ever stumbled on a really old rubber band that’s just been sitting around for years, you’ll know how natural gum acquires a distinct, mottled translucency as it ages.  Mine haven’t made that journey yet, but I am completely looking forward to having a pair of sneakers that looks better as it wears.

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Fig. 4 – John Lofgren Champions: Natural rubber starting to wear in nicely (via @tmadd on Instagram)

While we’re talking Japan, I’d be remiss not to mention Hiroki Nakamura’s absolutely bonkers interpretation via his Visvim brand – the model is called the Skagway and this over the top version shows his designers going way lux.

The immediately distinctive parts are the indigo dyed fabric upper with the distinctive Japanese sashiko stitching that gives this its name, along with the crazy hemp laces. On closer inspection, you’ll find an internal lining of glove leather, a leather wrapping to the toe cap and suede trim on the tongue and back heel stripe. If the price tag seems unreasonable, I blame the exchange rate of the Japanese yen in 2012.

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Fig. 5 – Deluxe Lux: The Visvim Sashiko Skagway

The amped up luxury of the Visvim Skagway Sashiko brings to mind a foie gras and black truffle-stuffed sirloin burger, to the Lofgrens’ perfectly blended 70% lean mix of sirloin, chuck and brisket. If that makes Converse First String a better burger offering and the mall Chucks a pre-formed patty your friend serves at his summer barbecue, no worries – they’re all enjoyable in the appropriate context.