Why Converse Turned Patti Smith’s Chuck Taylors Into A Piece Of Art

The brand’s new “Made by you” campaign uses portraits of famous and everyday Chucks to celebrate creative expression.

Sneakers and artistic expression have long been linked but few are the kicks that can cross genre, culture, and style boundaries. Even rarer are those that can do so while remaining relatively unchanged for decades on end. The Converse Chuck Taylor sits atop that exceedingly short list. 100 years after their debut, Chucks are still as cool on Lil Wayne as Wilt Chamberlain.


Unlike many sneakers, whose brand image may depend on new features and technology, the cachet of Converse is heavily tied to the style of those who wear them. So, for its newest campaign “Made by you,” the brand has curated a collection of portraits, showcasing the diversity and self-expression of individuals past and present who have chosen to wear Chuck Taylor All Stars–from musicians to artists, skaters to fashionistas, the known and the unknown. But these aren’t portraits of the people, just the Chucks.

Converse collected over 200 unique Chucks from around the world and will kick off the campaign with street exhibitions of the portraits in New York, London, Beijing, displayed outdoors on the streets in huge light boxes. Patti Smith, the Andy Warhol Foundation, artists Futura and Jeff Soto, model Sayo Yoshida, media folk like Jefferson Hack of Dazed magazine and Maxim editor-in-chief Kate Lanphear, as well as “Style Guy” Glenn O’Brien will be featured alongside portraits from everyday Chuck fans.

Geoff Cottrill, Converse’s vice president/general manager of brand and segments says the brand team did a lot of work thinking about what the simple truth is that connects people and connects this brand to people, and arrived at the Chuck being a badge of self-expression. That is, Converse makes the shoe, but the people have made the brand.

Patti Smith isn’t exactly known for her commercial endorsements, but Cottrill says the legendary artist was all in for her Chucks. “I was with Patti Smith recently and she said, ‘I don’t really do these kinds of things but when you guys called I was immediately in. Converse is my sneaker, worn it my whole life, I love it.’ And she really wanted to tell the story of her sneakers.”

Cottrill says the brand gets about 13,000 social media tags every day in which people are talking about their Chucks, whether it was a trip to a gallery, a concert, painting, traveling, they’re telling a story through the lens of their sneaker. “We thought this is something we need to tap into and celebrate,” he says. “This is happening without us already. People are celebrating their Chucks without us, so we’re just trying to support and shine a spotlight on it.”

The campaign also includes a Google Cardboard experience in New York City, where people will be able to stand next to 15 nine-foot portraits of sneakers, slip their phone in the Cardboard and enjoy a 3-D experience with stories on artists Ron English and King Tuff. Those not in New York will still be able to check it out on their smartphone or desktop. Converse is also launching a new Chuck Taylor tumblr to celebrate fans’ creativity and self-expression with the shoe, and fans will also have the chance to get their own kicks photographed and made into portraits at local Converse stores.


Cottrill says “Made by you” fits into the brand’s overall marketing strategy of not only celebrating self-expression and the individual around the world, but also contributing to culture. He likens using the sneaker as a way for creative people like Ron English or Patti Smith to tell a story, to the brand’s Rubber Tracks studio in New York, which provides free recording studio time for bands and artists. “It’s our small way of contributing to culture,” he says. “I’d much rather contribute to youth culture than sponsor it. So it’s a matter of us doing things, rather than co-opting or extracting cool from our consumers.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.