Converse, which will turn 110 next year, isn’t new to collaborations. Its signature silhouette, the Chuck Taylor All Star, is an ideal canvas for brands like Comme des Garçons or Missoni to recalibrate the shoe and reach a wider audience.
But in 2017 there was a marked shift in the people, places and things that Converse began to align with.
“This year we’ve been working hard to do a lot of great things that connect with our consumer and youth culture,” said Khobi Brooklyn, who was hired in May to lead the brand’s global communications team. “Sneaker culture has hit peak hype this year. There are a lot of collaborations across all kinds of brands and interesting executions and concepts. The skate lifestyle has become a big part of fashion, so it’s an interesting time.”
Nike Inc. purchased Converse in 2003, two years after the Boston-based company filed for bankruptcy, and it has grown from $200 million to $2 billion in sales. During the 2014 fiscal year, revenue increased by 15 percent, and in 2015 it grew by 21 percent. But by 2016, revenue only increased by 2 percent. This can be compared to Vans, another heritage footwear brand that was purchased by VF Corp. Inc. in 2004 and is leading Converse with $2.3 billion in sales. At Vans, revenue increased by 17 percent in 2014, 16 percent in 2015 and 6 percent in 2016.
During the fiscal first quarter of 2017, Converse brand’s sales fell 16 percent year-over-year. Andrew Champion, Nike’s chief financial officer, attributed that decline to tightening the supply in North America to prevent oversaturation.
These numbers are due to a variety of factors, but stiff competition is a primary one. The sneaker market continues to grow and become more crowded, and in turn, brands must release product that cuts through the noise and resonates with consumers.
In 2016, Converse tapped Nike executives for some of its top roles. Davide Grasso succeeded Jim Calhoun as president and chief executive officer — he was previously the chief marketing officer at Nike. Julien Cahn, Nike’s former senior marketing director, was named cmo at Converse and Sean McDowell, who held design positions at Nike, became vice president of design and innovation at Converse. This team focuses on speaking to a younger customer with meaningful collaborations that are coupled with content and experiences.
The year started with the launch of the Chuck Modern, a more comfortable take on the Chuck Taylor. The product launch was tied to a “Forever Chuck” campaign, which included celebrities and influencers such as rapper Vince Staples, model Winnie Harlow and “Stranger Things” actress Millie Bobby Brown.
Then the brand focused on its One Star silhouette with an Undefeated collaboration that dropped in May, and a Tyler the Creator partnership that was unveiled in July. The rapper released pastel colorways of the One Star sneaker under the Golf Le Fleur imprint and went on to release more styles, including apparel, later in the year. Brooklyn said the sneakers sold out within 24 hours and, in October, Tyler opened a permanent Golf store on Fairfax in Los Angeles. Brooklyn declined to answer whether Converse helped fund that store.
“Converse collaborations have sold out in the past, but never have we seen such a big interest in a single line from Converse. And Tyler did that,” said Yu-Ming Wu, the cofounder of SneakerCon.
In the past Converse relied less on celebrities and more on artists such as Futura or Andy Warhol. Now, along with Tyler, the brand is working with A$AP Nast, who released a One Star sneaker in September, and Miley Cyrus, who will be releasing a capsule collection of sneakers with the company.
On the designer side, Converse typically worked with established fashion brands such as Missoni or John Varvatos, but it has begun to tap into newer firms such as J.W. Anderson, who has a seasonal deal with the brand. His Glitter Gutter collection drew lines outside of the Converse store earlier this month. Speculation about a partnership with Know Wave, a streetwear brand, also swirled when prototypes of the sneaker popped up during Miami Art Basel. Brooklyn said she could neither confirm nor deny the news.
These product launches have been coupled with content tie-ins. Earlier this year Converse introduced Public Access, a YouTube series that featured celebrities such as Cyrus and Brown interviewing their cool, famous friends. Tyler documented the design of his first Converse shoe on “Nuts + Bolts,” his Vice series. For the release of the sneaker in August, he held a surprise show in New York that was open to the first 100 people who bought his Converse sneakers at the Foot Locker in Times Square.
“We have different collaborations that have different audiences,” said Brooklyn. “We are finding the balance between our brand and high fashion and trying to get in front of the consumer and deliver them an experience.”
So far, the efforts are working. At the end of the 2017 fiscal year, revenues for Converse were up 6 percent.
“We want to make sure that the product is special and focused and a true reflection of the artist,” said Brooklyn. “We do think of some of these partnerships as more targeted at a narrower audience, but this allows us to do more and present something more creative to the market.”