The Versatile Shoe’s Evolution – Footwear News
A streamlined design and symmetrical color blocking has made the Nike Dunk a remarkably versatile sneaker, which has aided in its ability to stand the test of time and find a lane through fashion’s evolutions. With a recent resurrection of prominence in other simply designed retro Nikes, such as the Nike Air Force 1, the shape and style of the Dunk — along with the price point — has made it one of the most collectible silhouettes since it has become available. The Nike Dunk has gone well beyond its original purpose, and the current interest is at an all-time high.
The Nike Dunk’s history is not linear. The beginning fork in the Nike Dunks road to eventual legendary status is the split between the Nike Dunk and its skateboard iterations, known as Nike Dunk SB. The difference in tooling was created to function differently, and though the small shifts in design may not have meant much to the casual wearer, to skateboarders it was substantial. What’s more, collaborations have helped create a long, winding history that has ultimately led to the top of most any sneaker fan’s list and enhanced the depth of its story.
Quickly approaching its 40-year anniversary, the history of the Nike Dunk is unparalleled to most sneakers. A complicated timeline, multiple colorways and insertion of powerhouse collaborators has made its history a difficult one to follow. However, there is no denying the Dunk’s impact on the culture over the years.
The Dunk’s Beginning
As the name may suggest, the Nike Dunk began as an on court basketball shoe. Former Nike creative director Peter Moore, who designed the Air Jordan 1, provided the original sketches for the Nike Dunk. It was created as a progression from the Air Force 1, and featured a combination of the Air Jordan 1, Nike Terminator and Nike Legend, the brand’s most successful sneaker at the time. The Dunk’s outsole, traction and upper resembled that of the Air Jordan 1, with the upper meshing cues from the Terminator as well.
Oddly enough, the Dunk was not the shoe’s original name. Instead, it was supposed to be known as the College Color High. However, the release of the sneaker came in close proximity to the 40th anniversary of the first dunk in a college game, and the name was changed as a subtle commemoration.
The original name was created as a way to call attention to Nike breaking the mold and introducing the idea of color blocking to basketball sneakers, which were notoriously mostly white at the time. The introduction of the idea was activated with the “Be True to Your School” campaign.
The campaign came with a simple premise: to sponsor successful college basketball teams and lace them with Dunks draped in their colors. Phase two would be to market the color-coordinated sneakers to the sponsored school’s respective campuses so fans can wear the kicks as well, also increasing the Dunk’s visibility.
It caused a wave and the popularity of the Dunk spiked. Unfortunately, the sneaker was not able to sustain its momentum and became less popular as basketball’s popularity exploded and technological advances developed at a rapid rate.
With energy around the shoe decreasing, a pivot was necessary to the silhouette’s survival. Dunks remained a viable casual sneaker by implementing small changes, including making the shoe lighter with a nylon tongue and a more pronounced, thicker swoosh.
Over the decade following the 1985 release, the upgrades, coupled with the already firm shoe, traction and ankle support, caused an organic affinity within the skate community. Dunks were popping up randomly in early skate videos and by the early 90s, they had become the preferred skate shoe by notable skate figures, such as Mark Gonzales.
The Dunk’s foray into the skate continued to grow, and Nike executives had to begin looking at how they could strategically tap into that burgeoning market. In August 1996, Nike dropped the Nike Choad as its pre-Dunk attempt into skateboarding. Sporting midnight and black suede, this bulky rendition was in line with skate shoes of the time. Nike spent most of 1996 and some of 1997 trying to get the skate formula correct. The efforts were to no avail. Pre-SB models such as the Snak, Lien Lo, Trog, Schimp and Scream never truly caught on and Nike had to go back to the drawing board.
The Wu-Tang Dunk
In 1999, Nike retooled the Dunk High and re-released the “Be True to Your School” Pack for the first time in 14 years with a few additional colorways, including the most noteworthy of the pack, the alleged “Wu-Tang” Dunk. The infamous dunk was essentially for the Iowa Hawkeyes, but the undeniable Wu-Tang “W” emblazoned on the heel set it apart. As a nod to Wu-Tang’s indispensable “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” album, Nike created 36 pairs to distribute to Wu members and associates. Once word was leaked that these shoes existed, a legend was born, and the hunt to get a pair of the rare kicks was on. The “Wu Tang” Dunks were an unofficial peek into what the Dunk frenzy would even turn into.
The Pivotal Years
Prior to the creation of the SB Dunk, there was the Pro B, or jp.co (Concept Japan), to name some. These brightly-colored kicks were exclusive to Japan and adorned suede material and fat laces, and were aptly named the “Ugly Duckling Pack” due their unconventional color scheme. Nineteen years after its original release, the “Plum” colorway was retro’d in February 2020 and the other two followed shortly after. The pack can still be found at resellers, including Flight Club.
Another Pro B favorite to drop in 2001 is the “Viotech” colorway which we have seen return to shelves with a slight moderation in 2013, then back to its original form in 2019. The “Viotech” Dunk hangs close to the top of the list among sneaker fans.
Also in 2001, Nike took a chance that would change Dunks forever. The Swoosh teamed up with Stussy, the most renowned streetwear brand at the time, for their first Dunk collab. The pack included two Dunk Highs and one Low that were released exclusively at Stussy chapter stores. With stores in New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo and London, storeowners were instructed to release only 12 pairs per day over the course of two weeks. This limited supply strategy served its purpose and breathed life back into the classic model, setting the tone for collabs to come.
Simultaneously, skate culture was growing at a fever pitch. Nike hired the late Sandy Bodecker to head up the Nike SB division as its GM. Bodecker was charged with breathing life into Nike’s struggling skate business. Since skaters already had a history of skating in Dunks by this point, Bodecker went against reinventing the wheel and instead opted to tweak the model to fit the needs of the skateboard community. Immediate skate-specific upgrades included additional insole padding, added thickness to the rubber sole and replacing the nylon tongue with a fat tongue.
Bodecker traveled up and down the coast visiting skate shops with a gray and navy “I-95” Dunk DB Low, named after the highway he drove to visit the shops. The Dunk model was a break away from the clunky, wide leviathan skate shoes had become. The shoe was well received and released in March 2002 with Reese Forbes as the Nike SB initial team rider.
From there, Nike was set to launch Nike Dunk SB and did so by enlisting three more notable skaters — Gino Ianucci, Richard Mulder and Danny Supa — to bring authenticity to the sneaker. Each skater would receive their own colorway. Though indeed for skaters, the original four Dunk SB lows hit sneaker forums and sneaker fans everywhere began flooding local skate shops to get their hands on a pair.
Collaboration Pushes the Culture
Three months later, Nike SB dropped collaboration pairs with then-prominent skate brands, Chocolate and Zoo York. But the grail of this time period was the partnership between Supreme and Nike SB. The two teamed up to create a white and black pair of Nike SB that featured the beloved elephant, previously reserved for Jordans, in September 2002.
Nike SB has never looked back. The craze reached a fever pitch in 2005 when the release of the Staple x Nike Dunk SB “Pigeon” hit shelves. The desire for these kicks had thousands of fans swarming the NYC streets, resulting in a riot that reached national news broadcasts. It might have been a bad look overall, but it catapulted the sneaker collector subculture into the mainstream and placed the Nike Dunk SB squarely in the center of it. Seventeen years later, “Pigeon” Dunks are going for astronomical prices on the resale market.
Since then, Nike has collaborated with numerous creatives on the dunk, such as Comme des Garçons and Travis Scott. The SB momentum has slowed considerably over the years, but the resurgence in popularity of vintage sneakers has catapulted the mainline Nike Dunk back to the forefront. Every colorway sells out almost immediately and it doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon. It appears that it is only a matter of time before the SB finds its way back to our sneaker loving hearts as well.