With the decade far from over, and many more shoes to tantalise our feet, I know i’m going out on a limb here. Some of you may nod in agreement, others may care to scream bullshit!, but here I go – the most significant shoe of this decade was the Supreme Dunk low. Furthermore, I readily concede that this release was no more than ‘yet another colourway’ of a shoe that’s already more than 20 years old (albeit one that’s been given the nike SB upgrade).
I don’t own a pair, and as much as the truth hurts, I never will. I love sneakers, but I am never going to pay upwards of a grand (us) for a pair. So how can i get excited or passionate about a pair of shoes that I know will never grace my plates of meat? I can’t believe I am able to write this, but this shoe represented a ‘tipping point’ in sneaker culture for several reasons that i will go on to discuss.
Controversy clouded the shoe before it even hit the shelves at the end of October 2002. Mystery still surrounds how a handful hit the market in August ahead of the official release, quickly gaining value on the secondary market (that’s continued to grow steadily ever since). Clever exploitation of Nike’s ordering system to order shoes direct from the warehouse was one explanation doing the rounds at the time. Even before the rise of internet saturation, it was doing what a collaboration should do; it was getting people talking, gossiping, conspiring, and most of all, hyped.
The shoe saw people willing to camp out with an enthusiasm not previously seen in the western sneaker world. Perhaps the only other models to generate such fervour were appropriately Jordans. The overnight queue has now become almost par for the course for many releases; old hands now arrive armed with thermoses, folding chairs and sleeping bags. The Dunk was officially sold at Supreme’s New York and Japanese stores BUT as a handful of Sneaker Freakers know, Nike released a small number in Melbourne and Sydney. This in turn reflected a change in Nike’s releases in Australia; no longer did you have to wait for a friend coming back from the States to get a special pair of shoes, now they were only a tram ride away.
Regrettably, as with any shoe that generates huge demand far exceeding supply, it has been extensively faked, and caveat emptor remains the rule when seeking these out. Incredibly there were already fakes in August of 2002 – remember they weren’t released until October! The shoes have transcended their role as footwear and they’re more like bond or share certificates, continually changing hands via internet auctions. This phenomenon has of course now become commonplace for many rarer shoes.
Nike faced a challenge with their second foray into the SB market. Previous shoes like the cheekily named Air Choad failed to capture the attention of skaters. Whilst the ‘80s might have seen Nikes on the feet of skaters, ‘90s skaters eschewed corporate culture and no one represents that more in the world of sneakers than Nike. Breaking into the lucrative yet cynical subcultures/sport would have to be a battle won by PR and marketing. A point that was not lost on consumer culture activists Adbusters.
With the SB Dunk launched in March, the shoes were quickly snapped up, but whether that was by sneaker heads or skaters, one could only guess. Super-limited Alphanumeric Dunks saw Nike seek collaborators to give their product cachet, followed with more dramatic effect by teaming with skate brands Chocolate and Zoo York. But it was by teaming with Supreme that the SB Dunk hit the jackpot.
Collaborations seek to produce products that combine the strengths of the brands involved to the benefit of both parties. Nike’s power enables Supreme to produce high quality shoes in limited numbers on an economic scale that sees an affordable end product. It also brings with it the heritage of Nike and the Jordan name. Supreme’s then relatively underground / uber cool status gave the project the cultural cachet it needed. In turn, it pushed Supreme towards the over-ground from being “a kind of Gap for Mo’Wax fans”  to becoming an eBay spam alert.
The popularity of the shoe and its huge secondary market value has made it and other SB Dunks, an oxymoron of the sneaker world. Whilst ostensibly shoes for skating in, their scarcity and value means that very few people actually wear them for that purpose. When Nike’s SB team members have been photographed skating in them, members of the online world have expressed awe, disbelief and even become apoplectic at the ‘sacrilege’.
The importance of image, marketing and brand identity combined with the idea of sneakers as objects that are traded and speculated on, are the key factors in making these shoes so significant. They represent facets of sneaker culture that have become characteristic of this ‘world’ over the course of the decade. It’s not about athletes, it’s not about materials or technology. It’s about image and the culture of ‘cool’. No other shoe comes close to being symbolic of this cultural climate.
But what of the actual shoe itself? Bruce Kilgore’s Dunk is an iconic shoe; its simple shape and clean lines make a wonderful canvas. Supreme’s colourway was a simple concept, extremely well executed. Make one shoe look like another. As diehard Supreme fans will be quick to point out, homage and detournment are hallmarks of Supreme’s output, and this may represent the pinnacle of their ‘80s influenced designs.
The shoes of course are in the colourways of the landmark Air Jordan 3, loved for both its design and use of elephant (aka cement aka crackle) pattern. As previously noted, Jordans were favoured by many skaters in the ‘80s via the Bones Brigade back catalogue of videos. So for Supreme to bring some meaning and background to their choice of colourways was inspired.
Whilst not the first, this shoe saw the development of the release of classic colourways/patterns associated with other models placed on different shoes. Different ‘packs’ are now released almost monthly; Mowabb, Escape etc. 2007 even saw a Dunk released inspired by the AJ4. Elephant print has become the pattern of choice lately, with no doubt many more applications to come.
I will say it again; the Supreme Dunk low is the most important shoe this decade. Not because it broke any technical boundaries or delivered previously unrealised performance in athletic footwear. Nor because it presented a new shoe – it was a model almost twenty years old at the time of its release. It was however formative in the popularity of Nike’s SB image; it saw the camping out for shoes become a weekly event, it opened up a wealth of reinterpreting shoes simply through the language of colourways, and most powerfully it demonstrated the value of brand collaboration, marketing and the power of cachet in fashion and sneakers. The Supreme Dunk low embodies the zeitgeist of sneaker culture this decade. I rest my case!
WORDS :: NIKOLAI
 Maria Hampton ‘How Nike conquered skateboard culture’, :: Adbusters, Issue 65
 Nick Compton & Murray Healy ‘I Love Labels’ :: The Face, August 1999
This article appeared in Issue 10 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here