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A POP CULTURE STAPLE, A LOOK AT THE DUNK’S PAST FOR ITS STEP INTO THE FUTURE

From its roots as a basketball staple to a crossover into skateboarding, there are few other Nike sneakers so closely tied to pop culture as the Dunk, which can count Pharrell, Jack Nicholson and Mark Gonzales as some of its high profile wearers. A look back into the shoe’s past shows us how it's able to prove itself ever relevant in the present.

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Although now regarded as one of the most iconic styles on Nike’s roster, the Dunk has endured a somewhat fractured history, a rollercoaster of illustrious cultural high points as well as periods away from the mainstream fashion conscience.
1985 saw the release of the two shoes now synonymous with sneaker collecting, the Air Jordan 1 and the Dunk, both thought up by Peter Moore. The shoe’s upper design melded together those of Nike’s previous Air Force 1 and Terminator shapes, with a last reminiscent of the Nike Legend, the brand’s most popular basketball shoe at the time.
As alluded to in its ‘College Color High’ working title, the shoe’s marketing concept was based around the sponsorship of collegiate basketball teams, creating colour ways that matched the team colours and kitting out their players in the respective shoe. Upon the realisation that the shoe’s launch coincided with the 40th anniversary of the first slam dunk, Nike switched the name to the ‘Dunk’ and rolled it out along with its seminal ‘Be True To Your School’ campaign. The Dunk’s simple, one-piece toe box/eyestay design made for a perfect canvas to display the bold colours of teams such as Iowa, Michigan, St. John’s, Syracuse, Kentucky and UNLV. This, coupled with the fact such vivid collegiate color schemes had been seldom available, appealed to the large demographic of young males and ensured a huge hit for Nike.

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By the late 1980s, however, the Dunk’s on-court popularity was on the decline. Technological advancements in basketball footwear had rendered the shoe inferior and outdated in the landscape of the increasingly tech-focused sports sneaker industry. Off the court, it remained ever popular and received some minor tweaks, notably a lighter nylon tongue and a lower, elongated swoosh.
It was around this time that skateboarders began to adopt the shoe, and considering the design, it’s no wonder. A shift toward more ollie-centric tricks created a need for a higher silhouette and reinforced ‘ollie patch’ among many popular skate shoe brands of the time, and the Dunk naturally provided both of those. After all, skaters had been using the similarly-designed Jordan 1s for years by this time for the very same reason. The late Beasley of legendary NYC skate crew SHUT famously wore the yellow/black ‘Iowa’ pair while skating in 1989, adding to their significance culturally within the sport, particularly on the East Coast.
Following a comparably quieter period for the Dunk during the bulk of the 1990s, Nike relaunched the ‘Be True To Your School’ collection in 1999, albeit with at least one noteworthy difference: the ‘Iowa’ pair had been embroidered at the heel with the famous Wu-Tang Clan insignia, and, quite appropriately, only 36 pairs of them produced. Suffice to say, the scarcity of this pair made them extremely covetable, but this wouldn’t be an isolated incident for the Dunk, as the rise of internet sneaker forums around the turn of the millennium would play a huge part in building up hype for subsequent reissues and special releases.
After attempting to break into a burgeoning skateboarding footwear industry in the mid to late nineties, it became apparent that Nike were missing a trick. A sceptical skate industry had effectively rejected them and their clunky, over-designed early skate models in favour of trusted skateboarding brands. By 2001, the brand had tasked Sandy Bodecker with kickstarting their skateboarding line and his first move was to bring the Dunk back into a skateboarding conversation, as it had been in the late eighties, with slightly updated details to match the technology of era: a thick, puffy tongue with elastic stays, a padded collar and a cushioned Air Zoom insole. The outsole was also bolstered with a thicker rubber to help grip the board. 

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By 2001, the brand had tasked Sandy Bodecker with kickstarting their skateboarding line and his first move was to bring the Dunk back into a skateboarding conversation, as it had been in the late eighties, with slightly updated details to match the technology of era: a thick, puffy tongue with elastic stays, a padded collar and a cushioned Air Zoom insole. The outsole was also bolstered with a thicker rubber to help grip the board.

This newly revamped SB line would produce a plethora of collaborations and exclusive color ways. In fact, the first ever link up between Nike and another brand involved a Dunk (albeit non-SB), and in this case it was Stussy’s mocha/khaki toned, ostrich leather swooshed Dunk Hi in 2001. When the SB line officially launched the following year, it was the turn of brands like Zoo York and Supreme to put their own spin on the shoe, with other key partnerships coming from the likes of UNKLE/Futura 2000, De La Soul and Jeff Staple, whose ‘Pigeon’ Dunk sent sneakerheads into riotous hysteria when it dropped in 2005.
A change in tastes and the emergence of new sneaker trends meant a dramatic wane in popularity for the Dunk, pairs that would once fetch four-figure sums on the resell market in the mid 00s dropped in value to less than $100. But it has since bounced back, and in recent years the shape has been tapped by high fashion houses Comme Des Garcons and Off White, paving the way for the current resurgence which has seen Nike once again reintroduce the classic ‘Be True’ color schemes and call upon artists like Travis Scott-whose ‘Cactus Jack’ Dunks have generated levels of hype for the shoe not seen since its ’golden era’ 15 years prior- to collaborate with.
It must be noted that Scott is largely responsible for bringing a new generation’s attention to the Dunk, after being papped wearing some of the most sought-after colorways. In February, LA Lakers' LeBron James hit the NBA tunnel in a pair of Ambush x Nike Dunk High Lethal Pinks, proving that even the alpha male of American sports can flex fuschia.
The current Dunk trend is showing no signs of diminishing, with a slew of new collaborations in the canon and certain color schemes prepared for a more accessible general release. A testament to its design perhaps, although probably more of a combination of that as well as the cyclical nature of the fashion zeitgeist. Nevertheless, its regained status as the number one buzz sneaker is feeling more appropriate than ever.
Text: Samuel Trotman

Design: Ken Balluet