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History of the Nike Dunk

History of the Nike Dunk

History of the Nike Dunk

clock-circular-outline Posted December 18, 2023

We look back at one of the most influential silhouettes of our time - the Nike Dunk

History of the Nike Dunk

Courtesy of Piyush Haswani via Unsplash Images

No one would have ever imagined the success of the Nike Dunk when it first hit our shelves in 1985. From its early success on the courts to becoming a grail for skaters across the globe, it would be an understatement to say that the silhouette is nothing but legendary.

Throughout its 38-year tenure, we’ve seen the model come in its own: the success of the ‘Be True to Your School’, the market footfall, the skaters' appeal, and perhaps it’s needless to say, the long-listed span of legendary colourways. The Nike Dunk has been through it all and more, so it’s only right we look back at one of the most renowned silhouettes of our time.

The Makings of an Icon

1985 was a time cemented in sneaker history. Not only did Nike start to dip its toes into the basketball market with the Jordan 1 but wanted to build on its own inventory. Designing a college-inspired basketball sneaker that would prove a must-have staple for aspiring basketball players and avid sports fans alike - behold the Nike Dunk High.

Sketches of '80s basketball sneakers

The Nike Dunk High didn’t particularly scream innovation when it was first released but it had a minimalist appeal and almost possessed a sibling-like feel to its Jordan 1, Air Force 1, Terminator and Legend predecessors. The mastermind behind the design was no other than Nike designer at the time Peter Moore who envisioned an all-new court silhouette that would be exclusively designed for college basketball players.

Design Stage

Nike Dunk

When it came down to the look and feel of the Nike Dunk High, Moore opted for a rather conventional leather tooling which offered a durable base to its overlaid construction - a design choice that mirrored the style of other 1980s basketball shoes at the time.

Its combined colour-blocked hues delivered a fresh and clean feel, as well as the inclusion of a plush foam insole for supreme cushioning support. Performance wasn’t limited to the uppers either as the Nike Dunk’s groundwork comprised of flat soles with a treaded grip, delivering exceptional on-court traction.

With yet another functional design bagged into Nike’s basketball lineage, the brand decided to endorse seven of the most elite teams in the NCCA to the Nike Dunk including the University of Michigan, Kentucky, Iowa, Georgetown, Syracuse, St. Johns, and Villanova.

Nike 'Be True to Your School' Campaign

Marketing this all-new high-rise leather design under the ‘Be True to Your School’ campaign which offered each Division I team their own team colourway as well as encouraging the players to colour coordinate their shoes with their respective college colours. Nike's genius marketing tactic created fanfare around the Nike Dunk. College players loved it; fans wanted to buy it, creating this loyalty scheme that generated hype for each basketball team.

Not so long after its newly found stardom, the Nike Dunk’s athletic appeal started to become overshadowed by the sheer innovation of the Air Jordan 1. This didn’t leave the silhouette out of pocket though, with the Dunk becoming an early lifestyle silhouette of the city streets and most importantly the skateparks.

Skateboarding Appeal

Following the skateboarding boom in the ‘80s, the ‘90s was the crème de la crème for those who performed on the boards and as it started to hit the mainstream this came with new brand endorsements, and of course, Nike wanted in.

Before the Dunk, Nike had proposed many failed attempts to connect with the skateboarding community beyond the surface level. Where the community wanted to build authentic and relatable connections with streetwear brands, Nike saw the skate community as a way to monetise and dominate the skateboarding market.

But this wasn’t going to happen overnight.

Although later mid-life specs of the dunk included an airy nylon tongue, decreased shaft for better mobility, and a thicker Swoosh, it was only when the Nike Dunk's hype on the courts started to wane that it became of appeal for those performing ollies on the concretes.

As the silhouette began to gather dust in bargain stores, the Dunk's affordability, and seamless functionality including its supreme cushioning, traction-induced outsoles, and ankle support became one of the favourites of the skateboarding community. And this was before the unthinkable happened…

The rise of the SB

Nike SB Dunk

The dawn of a new millennium was on the horizon and the Nike Dunk was in need of a resurgence. After a large footfall in the ‘90s, with Moore previously stepping away from the brand to focus on athletic-induced fits with adidas, the 00s was another attempt to reconnect with the skateboarding market and Sandy Bodecker was the right man for the job.

Departing from his role as Footwear Test Co-ordinator at Nike to being enlisted to make the Nike Dunk appeal to the Skateboarding community, the fate of the silhouette was left in Bodecker’s hands and he was certainly a man with a plan.

Before the design stage, Bodecker wanted to emulate the voice of the skate community. After spending a lot of time reading skate magazines and connecting with skaters he was able to understand the wants and needs of a great performing silhouette. One that understood the lifestyle and inner depths of the subculture.

Bodecker started by commissioning artists for an exclusive run of Dunks that would be made exclusively for selected skateboarders, as well as inviting collectors to the stores to create an all-new market that supported independent businesses. He also made sure that Skateboarders were treated as fairly as any high-profile Nike athlete in any sporting division.

Nike SB Dunk Campaign Danny Supa

After many revised attempts and a long period of testing, Sandy Bodecker was selected as the General Manager of the SB Division at Nike and this started to edge in a new collaborative culture within the skateboarding community.

Nike launched their first ever SB range in March 2002, with the likes of Gino Lannucci ( Long Island New York Dunk), Richard Mulder ( Los Angeles Dunk), Danny Supa ( Los Angeles Dunk), and Reese Forbes (Wheat Dunk) becoming the first batch of Pro skateboarders to debut their own signature SB shoe.

Nike SB Dunk OG versions

The 2000s Dunk Craze

With the initial success of the SB range creating a unique synergy between skaters and sneakerheads meant that the shoe offered a creative space for affiliating streetwear designers to jump on the Dunk bandwagon. 2005 saw the inaugural release of the lauded City Pack, which offered city-exclusive renditions of the now-turned-lifestyle silhouette.

Nike SB Dunk Low 'City Pack'

Jeff Staple’s famously rendered Nike SB Dunk ‘Pigeon’ portrayed the city streets of New York, the ‘Paris’ Dunks featured the meticulous artwork of Bernard Buffet and the ‘London’ dunks are most prevalent for representing the city with its dull greyscale palette and blue embroidered skyline across the lower quarters.

The Nike SB Dunk craze was further fuelled by the release of several legendary and highly sought-after editions. The 'Freddy Krueger' Dunk is inspired by the iconic horror character.

Nike SB Dunk Low 'Freddy Kreuger'

Another standout was the 'Tiffany' Dunk, a collaboration with Diamond Supply Co. Known for its luxurious aqua blue and black colourway with diamond-shaped accents, it became an instant classic and marked the beginning of high-end collaborations in sneaker culture.

Nike SB Dunk 'Tiffany'

These Dunks, along with others like the 'Homer', 'Supreme,' and 'Huf' editions, played a pivotal role in shaping the 2000s Dunk craze by bridging the gap between streetwear and skateboarding culture, turning sneakers into coveted collectables, and solidifying the Nike SB Dunk as a cultural icon of that era.

Nike SB Dunk 'White Cement'

2010s

By the early 2010s, the Nike Dunk found itself in a somewhat subdued phase, as it struggled to maintain the same level of popularity it had enjoyed in the previous decade. The sneaker landscape was evolving rapidly, with new models and brands capturing the attention of sneaker enthusiasts. During this time, the Dunk faced stiff competition from other Nike models like the Air Max and Air Jordan lines, which dominated the market.

However, the Dunk experienced a remarkable resurgence in 2015, marking its 30th anniversary, when Nike reintroduced the iconic 'Be True to Your School' pack. This collection paid homage to the Dunk's college basketball roots and featured classic colourways representing various universities. Sneakerheads and collectors alike were drawn to the nostalgic appeal of these releases, as they revived the Dunk's heritage and sparked renewed interest in the silhouette.

As the years rolled on, Nike continued to reinvent and revitalise the Dunk, drawing inspiration from its rich history while adapting to contemporary tastes. In 2020, the Dunk underwent a renaissance of sorts, becoming one of the most coveted sneakers in the market.

Nike SB Dunk 'Chunky Dunky'

Nike released numerous high-profile collaborations and limited-edition releases that fuelled the Dunk's popularity. For example, the 'Travis Scott x Nike SB Dunk,' 'Off-White x Nike Dunk,' and 'Ben & Jerry's x Nike SB Dunk' collaborations generated massive hype and demand, showcasing the Dunk's versatility in adapting to various design aesthetics.


Fashion Influences

Additionally, celebrities and fashion icons, such as Virgil Abloh, Travis Scott and Kanye West, were often spotted wearing Dunks, further elevating their status in the fashion world. The Dunk's regain in popularity extended beyond its classic high-top form, as Nike introduced the Dunk Low silhouette, which also gained a significant following.

Travis Scott wearing Nike Dunks

By 2020 and beyond, the Nike Dunk had firmly re-established itself as a cultural icon and a must-have sneaker. Its enduring appeal can be attributed to its ability to bridge the gap between nostalgia and contemporary fashion, making it a timeless and versatile choice for sneaker enthusiasts and fashion-forward individuals alike.

Final Words

The Nike Dunk isn't just a shoe; it's a legend. From its basketball beginnings to its revival as a global fashion icon, the Dunk's journey is a testament to its enduring appeal. It transcends generations, bridges subcultures, and inspires collaborations that leave an indelible mark on sneaker culture. With timeless design and adaptability, the Dunk symbolises authenticity, blending sport, streetwear, and fashion seamlessly. It's a cultural icon that reminds us that true legends never go out of style.


Sources:

Kim, R. (2019) Nike SB reflects on Sandy Bodecker’s legacy, Hypebeast. Available at: https://hypebeast.com/2019/10/nike-sb-sandy-bodecker-tribute (Accessed: 11 December 2023).

Mukhametzyanova, M. (2021) The history of the Nike Dunk and the nike SB dunk, Hypebeast. Available at: https://hypebeast.com/2021/6/nike-sb-dunk-history-sneakers-skateboarding-basketball (Accessed: 11 December 2023).

Vanderweide, Z. (2023) History of the nike SB dunk, Sothebys.com. Available at: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/history-of-the-nike-sb-dunk (Accessed: 11 December 2023).

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