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Why Converse Decided To Mess With Success

The company just released a major redesign of its iconic Chuck Taylor sneaker. Can it succeed without alienating fans of the original?

With his slicked-back silver hair, ear stud, and ace of spades wrist tattoo, Richard Copcutt would fit in just as well backstage at the old CBGB as he does here in Converse’s new Boston headquarters. After all, a brand with as much counterculture cred as the Converse All Star needs a real live rebel at the helm—now more than ever.

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In late July, Converse released the first major redesign of its classic Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker in nearly 100 years. The company has experimented periodically with new colors (“citrus,” “beach glass”) and materials (denim, leather), but this is more than a style revamp. It’s a complete sole-up rethink, an honest-to-god Chuck Taylor sequel: the Chuck II.

Crowd-pleaser: Copcutt, VP/GM of Chuck Taylor All Stars, is in charge of keeping Converse’s fans happy.

An iconoclast like Copcutt, the 49-year-old VP/GM of Converse’s All Star division, is just about the only guy who could credibly screw around with a product formula that is to footwear what Coca-Cola is to soft drinks, let alone slap a Coke II–style roman numeral at the end. “I’m kind of an aging punk rocker, I guess,” Copcutt says, which is rather appropriate. The 98-year-old sneaker, originally designed for basketball, was co-opted in the ’70s and ’80s by bands such as Blondie, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash, and has been the de facto sneaker of the counterculture ever since. Copcutt knows what this demographic might say about a redesign: “Don’t f*** with my Chucks.”

The Chuck II definitely still looks like a Chuck, with a few luxe touches. A lining made from a foamlike material called Lunarlon, developed by Nike—which acquired Converse in 2003—heightens the cushion. The All Star patch is stitched on, not ironed. Padding in the tongue and outer canvas helps the shoe hold its shape a little better than the Chuck I. Put them on, though, and the feel is like a whole new shoe.

So why take the risk? Converse CEO Jim Calhoun says it’s because the brand is bigger than ever. Converse reported $1.7 billion in revenue in 2014, with Chuck Taylor All Stars “by far” the biggest part of that business, Calhoun says. Converse sold more than 70 million pairs of Chucks last year, 35 times its yearly sales of a decade ago.

All of this good news makes Calhoun nervous. “Business is full of stories of companies that threw that last party just when their world was about to burn,” he says. Now was the right time for Converse to disrupt the Chuck, Calhoun says, because it couldn’t afford for someone else to come along and do it.

Sometime in the summer of 2013, Calhoun got together with Geoff Cottrill, the global strategic director for Converse’s three main product lines—Chuck Taylor, Jack Purcell, and Cons—and posed a question: What if we don’t know our customer as well as we think we do? It was an issue that had bedeviled the company before. “We are what we are today because consumers in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s decided we were going to be what they wanted us to be—almost against our will,” Cottrill says. “We were saying, ‘No, this is the brand that we are. We’re a sports brand.’ When in fact, the consumers said, ‘Actually, no, you’re not. You’re this, and you’re so much more.'”

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Cottrill took up Calhoun’s question as a rallying cry. The mandate for the All Star team was clear: Get to know our customers better.

Copcutt set out to find them where they live: in the world of rock and roll, playing roadie to his son’s London-based band, Zoax. He spent weeks at a time tagging along as they played beside acts with names like the Howling, AxeWound, and the Cancer Bats, asking everyone who’d talk to him what they wanted from a pair of Chucks. A lot of them wanted the same performance-based improvements from their All Stars that athletes want from their Air Jordans: more cushioning, more comfort, more support, and more traction. But if it didn’t still look like a Chuck, they wouldn’t wear it. Both Copcutt and Cottrill quizzed indie bands at Rubber Tracks, the Converse-sponsored recording studio with locations in Boston and Brooklyn that offers free time to local musicians, and got the same answers.

Back at Converse headquarters, the two execs were faced with a challenge: deliver the performance improvements Chuck fans were asking for without sacrificing the look that they loved. The All Star’s design team, led by ex-skater and metal sculptor Damion Silver, took up the delicate task. With a price tag of $70—versus $50 for the original—the product they came up with is an upgrade, but still accessible for Converse’s core customers.

Converse’s all stars, from left: VP/GM of Chuck Taylor All Stars Richard Copcutt, VP/GM of brands and segments Geoff Cottrill, Converse CEO Jim Calhoun, global design director for men’s All Star Damion Silver.

Still, one question remains. “Now that there’s a Chuck II, is there going to be a Chuck III, a Chuck IV, a Chuck V, and so on?” Cottrill asks. “We’ll see.” There are always needs that can be met. For instance, “People keep telling us they don’t wear their Chucks when it rains.” Sounds like the answer is “yes.”

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Editor’s note: This story initially mischaracterized the origins of the Chuck II redesign process, as well as the organizational hierarchy of the All Star team. Geoff Cottrill’s name was also misspelled. We regret the errors.

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