There are some sneakers that are cultural touchstones, sneakers that have a relevance and style that defies time and trends. These are shoes that seem like they have always been here, fashion staples on par with denim jeans and the little black dress. You know what they are, sneakers like the Nike Air Force 1, Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, Adidas Shell Toe Superstar, and other kicks that you always see people rocking year after year. For my money though, there is one classic sneak that rises above the rest and transcends mere footwear fashion to become a cultural bellwether of cool: the Puma Suede. This year the Puma Suede celebrates its 45th anniversary, and we at City Blue would like to commemorate this milestone with a little "kickstory" lesson on one of the most indelible pieces of footwear of all time.
To understand where the Puma Suede came from, you first have to understand where the Puma company came from. It's not a story of boardrooms and buyouts, it's a story of brothers in blood feuds. It's a twisty tale of entrepreneurial spirit, Nazi power, and two of the largest sportswear corporations in the world today. In 1924 Rudolph "Rudi" Dassler and Adolph "Adi" Dassler, two brothers from Herzogenaurach, Germany, a small town outside of Nuremburg, started a shoe company called Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory in their mother's laundromat. Their fledgling company got a big boost in 1936 when they traveled to Berlin and convinced American sprinter Jesse Owens to wear their spikes in the Olympics that year. He won four gold medals, and business started booming for the Dasslers. Then things started to fall apart.
As Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany, successful business owners like the Dassler brothers were good fodder for the Nazi propaganda machine, and subsequently forced to join the Nazi party (hey, I accidentally registered Republican once, things happen sometimes), who used their factory for production of military supplies. It was during this time that the brothers' relationship began to deteriorate, allegedly due to their wives dislike of each other. Various instances of misinterpretations, miscommunications, and outright suspicions served to deepen the rift between the Dassler brothers. Things came to a head after the war when Rudolph was arrested by Allied soldiers on charges that he was a Waffen SS officer. Rudolph, who was sent to a POW prison camp for over a year, believed that his brother was the one who turned him into the Allies, a charge that Adolph never really disputed (damn, that's some cold blooded ish to do to your own brother!).
Adolph "Adi" (left) and Rudolph "Rudi"(right) Dassler with unidentified golfing buddy.
Needless to say they could no longer work together anymore, and in 1948 when Rudolph returned from prison they split the company in two. Adolph called his new company Adidas, combining his nickname, Adi, with the first three letters of his last name, Das. Rudolph set up a factory right across the river from his brother and called his new company Ruda, using the same first name/last name combo idea that his brother did with Adidas. The name wasn't really catchy enough, so after a year he changed it to the more athletic sounding Puma.
The town of Herzogenaurach was effectively split in two by the rival companies. There were pubs loyal to one firm refusing to serve employees of the other shoemaker, Adidas and Puma employees not dating or socializing with one another, and even Adidas and Puma gangs in the schools (Herzogenaurach's answer to the Crips and the Bloods I guess). Herzogenaurach was even nicknamed "the town of bent necks" because the locals were constantly looking down to see whose shoes you were wearing before talking to you. The brothers themselves never reconciled (they are buried in the same cemetery, but at complete opposite ends, and presumably still remain bitter enemies in the afterlife), but the two companies finally buried the hatchet in 2009 when the current CEOs shared a ceremonial handshake at a friendly soccer match between the two companies that was set up to finally and officially put an end to the feud.
Pretty crazy origin story, right? That could easily be a decent HBO movie (with Ben and Casey Affleck playing the Dasslers maybe!), or at least a dope History Channel documentary. So, now that we have some historical context, I can tell you the story of the Puma Suede and how it became a symbol of social upheaval and sartorial street savvy. In 1968, at the height of their feud with Adidas, Puma premiered a new athletic shoe with a thick rubber sole and a suede upper designed to be tougher and more resilient than the canvas or leather material with which most other shoes were currently being manufactured. At the Olympics that year in Mexico City, American sprinter Tommie Smith won the gold in the 200 meter dash in Puma spikes, but it was at the medal ceremony where Smith and Puma really made headlines. As Smith and fellow American John Carlos, who won the bronze medal, ascended the podium to receive their medals, they first removed their shoes, black Puma Suedes, and set them down on the medal stand. As the national anthem began to play, the two runners bowed their heads and raised their gloved fists in a silent protest against worldwide human rights abuses and the undesirable conditions they believed African-Americans were subjected to in the U.S.
Americans Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) raise their fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics. Notice the Puma Suedes on the podium.
The black socks represented African-American poverty, the black gloves signified Black strength and unity worldwide. The black Puma Suedes? I don't think it was a coincidence Smith and Carlos chose sneakers from a company whose logo resembled a panther. While the shoes may not have been a conscious part of the protest, they were up on that podium just the same. The Suedes were no longer just a new style of sneaker; they were now a token of radicalism, a totem of a new generation of iconoclasts who would no longer kowtow to the guardians of the status quo.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were the agents of change who made the anger at the marginalization of America's black youth visible to the world at large, and, by extension, represented the dissatisfaction of young people everywhere with their roles in society. By doing this at the Olympics, arguably the highest profile worldwide event, sporting or otherwise, Smith and Carlos ensured that the revolution would, in fact, be televised. The march of change was in full swing, and the foot soldiers were clad not in combat boots, but in Puma Suede sneakers.
In 1973 the street cred of the Suede skyrocketed with the addition of a new athlete to endorse the shoe. Walt "Clyde" Frazier was a point guard for the New York Knicks, an all star on the court and a style icon off of it. Frazier was known for his smooth all around game, and his flashy fashion sense. His penchant for wide brimmed Borsalino style hats and his proficiency in stealing the ball away from his opponents got him the nickname "Clyde", after the famed Depression era bank robber Clyde Barrow, played by Warren Beatty in the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde. But Frazier was no outlaw, he was a star in the media capital of the world who reflected the cultural tenor of his era perfectly. He wore high heel boots, fur coats, and drove a Rolls Royce: this man's been pimpin' since pimpin' been pimpin'!
Walt "Clyde" Frazier in all his 1970s glory.
Frazier's hip, stylish, yet rebellious image was a perfect fit for the Puma Suede. In 1973 Puma signed Frazier to an endorsement deal and designed a wider fitting version of the Suede specifically for Frazier, stamping "Clyde" in gold foil script on the side of the shoe. He became the first professional basketball player to have a shoe named after him. Puma had planted a signpost for the future of athletic marketing: the promotion of the individual over the sport itself. While this is standard practice now, it was a revolutionary concept at the time. Think about that, now it seems like everybody in the league has their own shoe! The Puma Clyde was basically the Air Jordan of its time (can you even imagine someone playing in the NBA in a pair of Clydes today?), but instead of trying to "Be Like Mike", you wanted to "Ride With Clyde". Where Michael Jordan was an Adonis with Icarus wings, a silhouette whose skyward trajectory was calculated perfectly to soar ever closer to, but never be melted by the hot glare of the sun, Clyde was a supercharged Superfly rolling down Broadway on gangster whitewalls and a tank full of swagger.
The Puma Suede had continued to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the African-American community, going from a fortuitous association with Smith and Carlos in the revolutionary '60s, to an official relationship with Frazier in the "Blaxploitation" era '70s. As the 1980s dawned, this trend would only continue. While Magic and Michael were taking b-ball style from the corner to the cul-de-sac for their respective companies, the Clyde/Suede would keep Puma in the streets, and shift their style from b-ball to B-Boy.
The legendary NYC Breakers: the original B-Boy crew sporting the original B-Boy shoe.
Around the same time Clyde Frazier and his custom model Puma Suedes were taking over New York City, something started bubbling in the borough of the Bronx. At his sister's birthday party, DJ Kool Herc started playing only the break, or instrumental section, of the record because that was the part people wanted to dance to the most. By using two turntables and a mixer to loop this part, Herc gave the dancers more time to bust their moves to their favorite part of the song. Calling these dancers "B-Boys", short for break boys or beat boys, Herc dubbed their style of dancing "breakdancing". This was the birth of hip hop.
Parties started popping up all over the Five Boroughs with other DJ's playing this hip hop style, and breakdancing began to blow up in popularity across the city. Since this was the heyday of Clyde Frazier in New York, many of these city kids were wearing Puma Clydes and Puma Suedes. They brought this style from the playground to the party, and realized that the grip the rubber sole provided was perfect for breakdancing. Additionally, the wide array of colors that the Suede featured, paired with fat, colorful laces created a fresh look that would come to signify their association with this new art form and become the signature style of the early days of hip hop. B-Boy crews like the NYC Breakers, and the Rock Steady Crew, would outfit themselves in head to toe Puma gear. As breakdancing began to explode in popularity throughout the U.S. and the world in the early '80s, and these crews received mainstream exposure, the connection between the Puma Suede and B-Boy culture was fixed in the mind of millions of burgeoning breakers across the globe. The Suede's reputation as THE preferred sneaker of cutting edge cultural phenomena was being cemented, and a whole new generation of athletes and artists would push its popularity even higher throughout the '90s and into the 21st century.
Kicking flips in Puma kicks.
Emanating from southern California surf culture as a diversion when the waves weren't breaking, skateboarding broke out in a big way around the world in the '80s and '90s. From the vert ramps to the streets, a whole new art form arose as adventurous kids sought to test the limits of physics on four wheels and a piece of wood. What they found was that Puma Suedes were an ideal footwear choice for manipulating their boards, with the rubber sole maintaining excellent grip and the suede upper proving to be tough enough to handle the wear and tear that they would put on their sneaks. In fact, the thick rubber sole/sturdy suede upper design that Puma pioneered has become a foundational template that many other companies would follow when producing their own skate-specific shoes. The Suede also gained popularity in other action sports like freestyle BMX riding and parkour.
Since its inception, the Puma Suede has gone from being a style choice by athletes who challenged the social hierarchy and cultural mores of their times, to DJs and dancers who invented a completely new form of art, to outsiders who changed the definition of what constitutes a sport. The fact that one sneaker is so many different things to so many different people is not surprising, considering the adaptability and versatility of a creature like the human being. What is surprising, though, is how that one sneaker has been able to be as adaptable and versatile as its human counterpart. And that is the legacy of the Puma Suede, an inanimate object that can animate the creativity inherent in the human soul.
Puma brand ambassador, Meek Mill, repping Philly and the Suedes.
From changing athletics to changing minds, for the last 45 years the Puma Suede has been a part of it all. What's to come in the next 45 years for the Suede? Anything is possible. Do you think Tommie Smith, standing atop the Olympic podium all those years ago with his fist in the air, could envision a young man like Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, the new face of Puma Suede, being celebrated for rhyming about the same things he was ostracized for protesting against? Anything is possible. Do you think Clyde Frazier thought people would be spinning around 720 degrees on a wooden plank flying out of a ramp, wearing the same shoes in which he played basketball at the highest level? Anything is possible. Do you think DJ Kool Herc ever imagined that the style of music and culture created by him and people like the NYC Breakers, would be played and performed in the White House? For the President? Anything is possible. That is the moral of this "kickstory" lesson: do what you do, be who you are, and anything is possible. Oh, and don't forget to wear Puma Suedes... available in a wide variety of colors at all City Blue locations.