Converse ‘C4’: Flipping the Status Quo of Sneaker Manufacturing
For several years, the folks at Converse have been experimenting with new ways of manufacturing footwear in a space called the Concept Creation Center in Boston – otherwise known as ‘C4’.
Cranking open the aperture of their source materials, the storied imprint have brought together the brightest minds in technology and innovation to introduce new techniques like ‘Max Grind’, ‘Scrap Punch’, and ‘Upcycled Velvet’ – all processes that have made their way to both new and iconic silhouettes.
Sneaker Freaker were given a tour of the facility and connected with some of Converse’s top innovators at the C4 lab – Director Dan Latham, Vice President of Innovation Brandon Avery, Director of Colour, Materials and Graphic Design Jessica L’Abbe, and Chief Design Officer Phil Russo – to discuss lab itself, the importance of legacy and new product releases!
C4 – Converse’s Concept Creation Center
The experimental journey that takes place at C4 allows designers and innovators to simplify the creative process and look at more effective ways of using fewer materials to produce less waste.
Dan Latham, Director of Converse’s C4 lab, has been in the footwear industry for over 42 years and Converse for 11 of those. To him, C4 ‘Takes the designer’s dreams and helps bring them to life.’ Alongside the Converse innovation and design team, Dan masters the craft of footwear design and passes his knowledge on to current and future generations.
Brandon Avery, Vice President of Innovation, says it’s in C4 where ‘internal employees are empowered to experience their creativity, push the boundaries of their ideas and understand the making process.’ He continues, ‘To quote Jess L’Abbe, “the world’s most loved, iconic and inclusive sneaker is something we can’t take lightly. There’s only one of these.” The signature details of the Chuck patch, the iconic boxing tape, the toe cap – we know this sneaker because it’s stood the test of time. It’s gone on an incredible journey. People use the word “love” when they talk about their Chucks. That’s powerful. I love the sneaker, and I think when they say “love”, they’re not just talking about the sneaker’s canvas and rubber. I think they’re talking about the self-expression they feel when wearing that product – the journey they’ve been on. They’re talking about all the memories they’ve had along the way that they’re reminded of every time they look at that Chuck. These words were written in a catalog as early as 1913/1915: Independent enough not to follow. And that statement continues to hold something for us today.’
Upholding Converse’s legacy is something that the brand has always celebrated alongside artistic expression. It’s also a vital factor in the C4 lab, showcasing how product designed and produced in the 80s and 90s continues to change. Phil Russo credits the brand’s deep legacy as helping the C4 team create distinct and innovative product.
‘It’s that dynamic voice of our contemporary consumer balanced with where we’ve been,’ Russo says, ‘and you kind of orchestrate those to get a modern interpretation of who we are. How do we repurpose [where we’ve been] through a modern lens that would resonate with our young consumer?’
It’s at C4 where Converse tap into these processes to innovate their designs, simultaneously celebrating this legacy and continuing to evolve it.
Converse’s Max Grind project is exactly what it sounds like. Harnessing all the rubber scraps from their manufacturing processes, the Boston imprint implements used materials back into their footwear – all while sacrificing none of the durability or authenticity that’s become synonymous with the label.
In 2019, Converse took their innovative methods to the next level. The question they asked themselves was simple: ‘How much grind can we insert back into the manufacturing process?’
Previously, the label incorporated around 3 to 5 per cent of rubber scraps into its outsoles. In a short period, this spiked to an incredible 22 to 40 per cent – a percentage that varies based on style and colour. The exponential rise was attributed to the innovative engineering of Converse’s C4 team, who ground down the rubber scraps to a powder-like form before mixing it with virgin rubber.
This holiday season, the Max Grind material innovations will extend to new Counter Climate styles like the Chuck 70 AT-CX, CTAS Berkshire Boot and CTAS Lugged Winter 2.0. The Max Grind technique will also expand to classic styles like the legendary Chuck 70, a model that’s become a canvas for Converse’s vast material experimentation.
Of course, starting as a rubber company in 1908, Converse have a century of industry know-how to draw upon, and this knowledge has seen their canvas and rubber footwear assume icon status.
Scrap Punch is the result of a needling technique that Converse applied to textile scraps from the manufacturing process. Notably, the technique has a much lower footprint than traditional textile methods like knit and woven processes (Nike themselves illuminated the potential of needle punching when hacking and applying it to apparel in Nike Forward).
This year, Converse explored the technique further, in the serach for new methods for felting and inherent colour. By partnering with vendors, the team at C4 could take textile scraps from the manufacturing process – including yarn and canvas – direct a colour palette, and then needle punch it into the upper of a classic Chuck.
Converse’s Scrap Punch makes ‘perfectly imperfect felt’, providing individuality and distinction for future models, an exciting, eco-conscious prospect for the footwear industry moving forward.
Jessica L’Abbe has witnessed this evolution first-hand.
‘I’ve been with Converse for 15 years. I grew up in materials for the most part here. I was the first color and materials designer they ever hired. I think the fun part about it is that you can choose to feel restricted by thinking, “Oh, I can’t pick my perfect recipe, and I have to use things that exist.” But we have fun and play around a lot to rethink color and materials in a new way. So there’s an evolution of rethinking what they’re doing, how they approach it and what they can get out of their project. And I think it’s going to bring a whole new skill set!’
The future is being conceived, with textile scraps from the manufacturing process needle-punched into the uppers of limited-edition versions of the Chuck 70 and Run Star Hike.
In a world where recycling has become more important than ever, Converse’s Upcycled Velvet is a way to make better use of the things already around us. A footwear process by which pre-loved clothing is cleaned, cut, and crafted into a new upper for classic sneakers, Upcycled Velvet is an exciting prospect for heritage silhouettes and the sneakerheads who lace them.
Tapping UK-based fashion and vintage retailer Beyond Retro, Converse are ushering in a new era of sustainability by sourcing pre-loved garments and introducing them into the manufacturing process. And this season, they’re launching upcycled crushed velvet via tri-coloured Chuck 70 and Ox models, with the beloved sneakers composed of a mix of black, burgundy and red velvet.
‘This, for me, is definitely the most exciting era of really thinking about how we can make product differently and experiment with what we’re using. I think it’s just a really unique challenge for us to focus on, and then we’ve got that legacy to work with,' said L’Abbe.
Continuing to broaden the aperture of their source material, Converse are finding an infinite number of positive possibilities for the future.