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Converse Lures ‘Rebel Consumer’ with Musicians

Converse(NEW YORK) -- Converse sneakers are the shoes that have set the beat for several generations over. Rock stars from Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones to Nirvana and Justin Bieber have all rocked out in Chuck Taylors.

Made of canvas and rubber, the century-old American brand's shoes have epitomized countercultural cool for decades.

"They really haven't changed in 103 years. They're basically the same exact shoe," said Converse archivist Sam Smallidge.

Watch the full story on ABC's Nightline Wednesday at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT

First stitched outside of Boston in 1908, Converse was born as a basketball shoe, though it quickly outgrew its place in the sportswear market and the Chuck Taylor emerged as a piece of American pop culture.

Even in these tough economic times, sales have been on the rise.

"I think everybody on the earth, it seems like, has had a pair of these at one point in time," said Converse CEO and President Jim Calhoun.

However, in the last decade, Converse found itself struggling, filing for bankruptcy and failing to compete in a saturated sports market.

"I think we tried to go down a sports performance path when there were other brands, frankly, that were spending more money and were better at it than us," Calhoun said.

Ironically, it was Nike, one of the biggest sports performance companies in the world, that bought up and bailed out Converse. Calhoun said the company now sells about 200,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors each day around the world.

"That's the best-selling shoe of all time and continues to really be our iconic product," he said.

But the shoe that once boasted a "Made in the USA" stamp isn't made in America anymore. To cut costs, the company moved its U.S.-based plant overseas to countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, where reports of worker abuse surfaced last summer. Factory employees claimed their bosses slapped, kicked and verbally abused them. When asked about the reports, Calhoun called the incidents "unfortunate" and "unacceptable."

While Calhoun said the company has made progress on fixing the problem, Converse's critics say the company is still falling short in rectifying factory workers' complaints.

"We don't take a passive approach. We don't wait for the problems. We proactively monitor our factories," Calhoun said. "But I'd be less than sincere if I said no problem will ever happen again."

Despite the controversies and financial problems, the company is now betting its future on a return to its musical roots. Converse began inviting musicians, including Pharrell and most recently the Gorillaz, to cut original tracks to build social buzz around the brand. They've also built an empire on special shoe collaborations with U2's The Edge, Metallica and Lupe Fiasco. The goal is to win back that "rebel consumer" of hard-to-woo hipsters.

Converse also recently built a 5,200-square-foot state-of-the-art recording studio in Brooklyn called Rubber Tracks.

"The idea around the studio was to build a place to say thank you, thank you to all the artists who have done all this great work in our shoes over the years, and a way for us to give back to the community," said Converse Chief Marketing Officer Geoff Cottrill.

So far, 150 up-start acts, short on cash with big dreams, have been invited to record on Converse's dime.  The recording sessions are free for these garage bands and bedroom musicians, but the artists are invited to post their music on the Converse Facebook pages, which boast 47 million fans, making Converse one of the most significant apparel in social media.

"We're not measuring every single band that comes in here and how many shoes they're going to sell," Cottrill said. "We truly believe in the idea of doing good things for our consumers. Good things will happen to us in return."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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