The shoe that kick started it all

I want to take you back, take you right back. Before Kanye West and before Virgil Abloh, before Yeezy and before Off-White. Ever wonder what lead to the culture of raffles and resales that dominates the footwear market today? Well I bet you’d be surprised to know its origin is rooted in the most unlikely of places. In all likelihood if you were to take an educated guess you’d expect that the catalyst for the evolution of the secondary trainer market would have been something that still holds high appeal today. You wouldn’t be considered a fool to think the answer comes from a product from the Air Max family, an Adidas product like the Superstar or something of a similar profile. Interestingly, however, the answer is in fact the Nike SB Dunk.

This might come as somewhat of a surprise to you as the Nike SB Dunk in 2019 isn’t much of a needle mover. Readily available, usually seen sitting on shelves; in general you definitely wouldn’t associate the model with being a high profile acquisition. If we rewind to the early 2000s however, the Nike SB Dunk is subject to a tightly controlled distribution and consistent sellout success, of which cemented its iconic status. Defining a new era in trainer culture, one which put the secondary market on pole position.

Nike SB Dunk attempts to crack the skate market

See, when the Nike’s SB division was conceived (SB meaning Skateboarding). It was very much seen as their last hope at cracking the incredibly lucrative skateboarding market. A culture which was very different to the ones Nike had made a name out of outfitting. Since the 80s the only real consistent brands in the market had been Vans and Airwalk, which tailored to the vertical skating scene. With the rise of street skating in the mid 90s however, came an influx of new skater-owned shoe brands. All looking to make their mark in the “small wheels/big pants” era of skateboarding with their chunky skate shoes. So it was evident that Nike had some stiff competition.

Nike’s previous attempts at cracking the market hadn’t even made a dent in the scene. Flops of their own admission, thanks to terrible names like the Air Choad, Air Snak, and the Schimp. As well as a string of cheesy advertising campaigns in the late 90s, fronted by a young Bam Margera. These early attempts where very much considered by the skate community as a poor attempt by a huge, soulless corporation to enter their world. It was clear if Nike were hell bent on cultivating this previously untouched land, they would need to dig a little deeper, and try much much harder.

Nike’s surprising skate heritage

What you might not of known about the culture, and what Nike might not have initially realised is that Nike shoes have actually been around for a lot longer than they’ve been given credit for in the skate world. If you flick through old copies of Thrasher magazine, or watch the film ‘The Search for Animal Chin’ you’d notice that you’ll see Tony Alva skating backyard pools in his Nike Blazers; Mark Gonzales and the Bones Brigade rocking Air Jordan 1s; Jeff Kendall in Nike Terminators and Neil Blender wearing Nike Bruins. Nike’s skateboard heritage comes from the fact that basketball trainers were cheap, comfortable and durable, which became the basis for what Nike wanted to achieve with their new SB division.

Instead of going in all guns blazing as they had tried previously, and only succeeding in alienating the skateboarding community Nike decided to do the opposite; they launched a quiet, respectful launch with a small core skate team. A tight distribution strategy, and a product line based around an 1980s college basketball trainer: the Dunk. Of course not as simple as a release. Nike SB upgraded the Dunk to deal with the abuse it would be subject to while skating. A padded tongue and Zoom Air Unit in the heel were added for cushioning and comfort.

The many designs of the Nike SB Dunk

Not only was the new Nike SB Dunk more wearable and comfortable than anything on the market previously, but the creative teams associated with it went into overdrive with each release. A whole range of materials would see themselves purposed for a whole array of variations on the trainer. As well as an incredible array of interesting stories to accompany every colourway – with names like “Heineken,” “Bison,” “Shark,” “Reverse Shark,” “Hemp,” “Buck,” “Jedi,” and “Hulk”. The Nike SB Dunk quickly became representative of the scene. Something that a decade earlier you might have thought never would of been a possibility.

Nike SB Dunk

Collaboration was a huge part of the Nike SB Dunk’s appeal. With Nike enlisting high profile names and brands with diverse backgrounds. Skateboard hardware brands such as Chocolate and Zoo York. Stores like Slam City Skates and Supreme. Clothing brands including Levi’s and Stüssy, music acts as diverse as Dinosaur Jr. and MF Doom, and artists from Pushead to Futura all put their stamp on the trainer. The Nike SB Dunk was able to take off and become one of the most collectable silhouettes in existence due to a number of factors.

Why was the Nike SB Dunk so coveted?

Primarily due to the timing of its launch, although coming into prominence in 2002 before social media, the Nike SB Dunk dropped when skateboarding was more popular than ever. The streetwear scene was beginning to grow, and trainer culture was booming. This perfect storm took the revamped Dunk into a space where it was the most coveted on the market. Its appeal only being elevated by Nike maintaining a commitment to keeping each release limited and very much rare.

Nike SB took the most sought-after cult shoe of the moment, updated it, and mixed it with the hottest collaborators. Dipping it in interesting hues and keeping availability limited. It struck an instant cord with sneakerheads, collectors, and resellers alike. With the SB Dunks initially selling exclusively in independent skate stores. A huge new demographic descended on these small shops desperate for the latest hot release. It felt like a triple win: credibility for Nike, profits for the skate shops, and the feeling of exclusivity for the customer.

Demand over supply

Naturally, as we now know, as it is a common trend in today’s market, whenever demand outweighs supply, the hype surrounding a product goes through the roof. That is exactly what was happening with the Nike SB Dunk. The list of limited variants of this shoe are to this day astounding. Getting hold of a pair in 2002 was difficult to say the least, with the pairs popping up in the most unconventional of places compared with what was considered the norm. Not just seen in sports retailers, or Nike stores, instead found primarily in basement skate stores and independents. Meaning getting your hands on some of these Nike SB Dunk models was really like finding a diamond in the rough.

These pairs were so rare in some cases that to this day they are regarded as some of the most expensive and collectable on the market. Like the Jeff Staple x Dunk Low Pro SB ‘Pigeon’ from 2005 and the Diamond Supply Co. x Dunk Low Pro SB ‘Tiffany’ from 2005, to name just two notable examples. The anticipation and sheer draw power of these high profile models single-handedly ignited camp out culture – endless lines, mass hysteria, and in some cases riots. All of which we cluster today under the umbrella of “hype culture”.

Nike SB DUNk floods market

Eventually though, like with most things that gain success, the danger of over saturation was always looming. Before long Nike SB had willingly or unwillingly flooded the market with product. Something which naturally happens as a by-product of success. When something sells you produce more which unfortunately has lead to the catch-22 in the trainer world. Things are successful because they are limited, because they are sought after, but by making more to capitalise on their success, you are damaging your model of exclusivity. An unfortunate truth which has began to become apparent in 2019 with the Yeezy brand.

At what stage do you discontinue a successful product line? I struggle to think of any who got out when they were on top. Perhaps you could argue Virgil Abloh’s Off-White ‘The 10’ Collection left fans wanting more, but in general the reality of the situation is brands will keep making shoes that people buy until their appeal has been drained entirely. The Nike SB Dunk is the first ever collectable trainer, it grew a culture that is rampant today, but unfortunately with its demise came a premonition for all products that were to follow. Each product has an opportunity to capitalise on the sweet spot, their moment in the sun. Where people queue outside stores, and pay double, triple, quadruple the price just to have something no one else can get hold of. Until willingly or unwillingly brands destroy their limited model to try and harvest the demand.

Potential revival of the Nike SB DUNK?

Fashion we all know to be circular, things that fall out of fashion very rarely don’t come again. This is something you can definitely say about trainer culture as well. While shoes might drop out of favour for one reason or another, they can often be revived. It looks like the Nike SB Dunk could potentially be a future candidate for this. Recently the three way collaborative effort: the Eric Koston x Nike SB x Air Jordan 1 Low UNC which has just released appears to be channelling an almost identical style to that of the Nike SB Dunk from the earlier 2000s. While it appears Virgil Abloh will be also giving the now nostalgic silhouette the Off-White treatment with a reported four colourways for the model being teased. Including a University Red and White, a classic UNC, a Pine Green and White, and a Syracuse colourway.

So it really does go to show, the Nike SB Dunk has been there done it all; forgotten and risen again in the space of 20 years. Which in my opinion, really does represent a microcosm of the scene as a whole. This should exist as comfort for the models that are currently in the online trainers shade, and a warning to those in the sun.