Putting Your Face on a Classic: Stan Smith Q&A

If you don’t respect the adidas Stan Smith, then we don’t respect you — it’s that simple. We throw classic and icon around a little too loosely, but the 1964 Robert Haillet that bore Stan’s face from 1971 is perfect and if you can’t pull them off, then it might be your problem and not Mr. Smith’s. Since this shoe’s debut its been through a few changes —even near the start there was some intrusive gold lettering on the side, but by the end of the 1970s, we had the Stan Smith as we know it. The made in France versions were perfect.

Then there were the colourful US-made versions in red, green, navy and black than became big in Japan. Different heel colours were introduced, there were bizarre variants like made in Spain editions with vast trefoils on the side and it got a sequel — the Stan Smith II that churlishly ditched Stan’s mugshot in favour of a lettered label became a pub shoe bestseller and Guinness world record holder for units shifted.

There were strange late 1980s performance variants with a Workout style sole and technology in the heel and the barely-seen Stan Smith Millennium from the late 1990s was a full rehaul with modern technology. Even laces were jettisoned at one point for the much loved, Velcro-fastening Stan Smith Comfort. By the end of the 2000s, we got a little jaded by the sheer volume of colours and patterns the Stan Smith had dropped in, so we’re glad that it took a little time out.

The latest iteration (which will be in the Crooked Tongues store on Wednesday in three heel colours) has a superior leather to any Stan Smith we’ve handled in the last decade and a slightly retooled fit that makes them more comfortable than ever before.

Culturally, this shoe is unbeatable too — David Bowie and John Lennon (in white post-Beatles breakup and black just before his death) wore them, as have Naomi Campbell and Shaun Ryder. Jay-Z, Raekwon and MF Doom have rapped about a pair. Rick Howard skated in his. That’s just the tip of the iceberg here — the shoe that united the high-end and the high street’s influence is colossal.

Nike’s Forest Hill shoe from 1973 was an imitation and the Le Coq Sportif Arthur Ashe (a former adidas athlete whose shoe looked similar) is a remake too. The DVS Revival is a Stan homage in skate shoe form (adidas would make an official skate shoe version endorsed by Gonz) and the Common Projects Achilles and a recent Saint Laurent effort are costlier tributes. Then there’s the ton of bargain basement imitations from the likes of Lonsdale and Umbro we’ve seen throughout the years.

To celebrate the shoe’s return we caught up with Stan Smith himself last week for a brief conversation on the history and legacy of the shoe he put his name (and face) to.

CT: Stan, how did you become affiliated with adidas and end up on the Haillet silhouette? I know a little about him as a player, but I assumed that he was employed by adidas quite late into his career and in a consultancy role…

SS: I think you’re right — he was the number one French player in his day and Horst Dassler really operated out of France at that time, even though his father was working from Germany. Horst was sort of independent in a way and he and Robert Haillet — I think at the very end of his career — designed the shoe. So they got together and designed the first leather tennis shoe. And then adidas wanted to get into the US tennis market and so in the early 1970s they thought that it would be a nice affiliation. They came to me and I said, “Gee, I’d like to do that but I’d like to get my name on the shoe.” They told me that within three years we’ll take Robert of the shoe and for a while I was on the tongue and he was on the side — that was on the original shoe.

It’s odd to imagine that now — you wouldn’t get Federer on a McEnroe shoe.

I hadn’t thought about it that way! It wasn’t at the time because of the arrangement and the deal that was struck. It wasn’t like I was thinking that he shouldn’t have his name on the shoe at all. It was because I was a big fan of the face that he helped design the shoe and the US didn’t know who Robert Haillet was. The French and tennis advocates all know who he is, but I didn’t know the shoe was going to be around for 40 years either!

The request to put your name on it paid off in the long run.

Yeah, it’s an amazing run. No one would have guessed that it would happen. I mean, Fred Perry, Lacoste did it as clothing brands. There’s the Chuck Taylor.

But the Chuck Taylor seemed more like a consultancy deal and he wasn’t a pro athlete — more a salesman. Tennis was such a different game back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Were endorsement deals frowned upon?

No. I think there might have actually been more at the time than there are now — when you think of rackets for instance, high end rackets now don’t seem to have so many names on them but in my day a lot of players put their name to rackets — Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe…Jack Kramer was the racket I used. I never had my name on a racket, but it was fairly common to have your name on something. A couple of years after I did, Nastase got his name on a shoe and Laver got one too — so did Arthur Ashe. A lot of deals never lasted very long though.

The Arthur Ashe adidas shoe looked a lot like a Stan Smith with a different sole. How long did it take for the adidas shoe to become a full-fledged Stan Smith?

Well, the distributors in the United States — there were four there and they did that for 20 years or so — in four different areas of the country, referred to my shoe as the Robert Haillet shoes for at least ten years and the old guys were still calling it that afterwards, but the younger guys started calling it the Stan Smith. It actually happened to me in London — I was from Pasadena and one of the journalists called me “The Leaning Tower of Pasadena” because I was tall and even in the last few years, reporters still refer to me with that name! I’m sure that if they put somebody else’s name on this shoe, it’ll always be called the Stan Smith.

There were so many copies of the Stan Smith with the horizontal perforations and other similar changes. So the shoe was originally designed by Horst and Robert — did you meet Horst?

Yes. I didn’t get to meet Adi. Actually, I might have met him, but I don’t remember it. I didn’t meet with Horst a whole lot, but I met him in Landscheid where the shoes were made originally and he had a great wine collection and they had a fabulous restaurant there. Horst was, as you probably know, was the most powerful man in sport for a ten-year period. He didn’t just do deals with athletes — he did deals with countries.

I’ve read about the face to face deals in hotel lobbies!

A couple of hundred dollars to wear shoes in a race and he’d hand an athlete the shoe. He didn’t sleep — he would meet with people at 3am. That might be the tenth meeting of that day.

Where did that energy come from?

Well, I don’t know if that was the cause of him dying at 55.

What changes to the shoe did you specify?

I actually suggested adding some more support at the heel. And I also mentioned that the tongue would move around so they developed the idea of the shoelace going through the tongue to keep it centric. But it’s pretty much the same shoe that it was in 1965.

I’m sure I saw a Stan Smith in the late 1980s with a Softcell cushioning unit in the heel.

You’re right — I wore that shoe. I did mention back then that I’d like to see more support. The shoe I wear now is the Stan Smith Millennium. That has a thicker sole for more cushioning, but prior to that it was that shoe you mentioned with the extra cushioning on the heel. But now we’re going back to the original.

I like the tooling on this new edition — I’ve worn Stan Smiths for a long time but these feel a lot more comfortable. I’ve suffered in pairs because of the narrow last.

Are your feet a little wider? The leather seems a little softer this time as well. You’re right — there seems to be changes.

When did you realise that the Stan Smith was being worn for lifestyle use? Tennis shoes for trend is a relatively new phenomenon and seeing Bowie and John Lennon in the white and black shoes was a pretty amazing celebrity co-sign.

Well, I saw Barishnikov wearing them in the film White Knights. And in the last five years Usher came out and said that he had them in every colour and Jay-Z mentioned them in some of his songs about 15 years ago, talking about chilling out in white Stan Smith adidas. In the last 20 years it seems to have become a cult shoe. Apparently Marc Jacobs loves the shoe .

It seems to create disciples.

Yeah! It creates fanatics.

I’m sure they’re in Blade Runner in black Official form on Harrison Ford’s feet — Ridley Scott thought they’d still be worn in 2017 and he wasn’t wrong. Did you have a say in colour changes on the shoe?

No. The only thing I ever mentioned was introducing blue and white rather than green, because blue is a more popular colour than green. That’s one thing I thought about. It’s funny that when they make blue ones people might say, “The shoe isn’t as good as it used to be in green!” It has nothing to do with the product — it’s the colour.

Back in the beginning of your career, what were court regulations like in governing what was on your feet? Were they stricter?

Yes, Particularly on grass — adidas had a contract with the ATP and all the ATP players could wear adidas clothing and footwear. But for Wimbledon, what they did was make my shoe with three green stripes and a herringbone sole because that was supposedly the better sole. In fact that was the sole that was on the Dunlop Green Flash shoe — Australians would wear that shoe on grass. Borg won Wimbledon twice wearing these Diadora shoes with these little nubs at the bottom that stick out which happened to be what players want now. They all have the same sole — it’s proven. These (pointing at the Stan Smith outsole) are similar, but they point out more now. A lot of shoes out in the 1960s had the herringbone bottom.

If you’d turned pro in the 1980s do you think the shoe would look like Stan Smith does now?

When it comes to performance, I’m not interested in looks. This was the hottest performance shoe when I started using them. Now the Barricade is the most popular performance shoe — that would be the kind of shoe I’d probably be wearing. Djokovic wears them and I’m not sure that he wears adidas apparel.

The game’s changed in terms of aggression and speed — how much of that has been down to shoes?

That’s a little more subtle. The real change is down to the rackets. Shoes haven’t changed the game but they’re more supportive and rigid, with cushioning and arch protection. The game is harder on the body — there was a rally between Nadal and Djokovic that went on for 59 shots. They were running from corner to corner and it’s touch on the feet and the knees — shoes are really, really important. That’s why there’s been a lot of versions of the Barricade shoe. (pointing at the Stan Smith) You wouldn’t see this kind of shoe on the court now!

Has your face ever changed on the tongue?

No. The only one that’s different is the one I was given a couple of months ago and adidas put celebrities on them — my picture was today’s picture.

Is it unusual that multiple generations associate your name more with a shoe than the man and his playing career? The shoe is part of you.

I’ve said it a lot of times, but a lot of people think I am a shoe! I relate that to Jack Kramer in my day — about five or six of the top players in my era played with a Jack Kramer racket. He had the bestselling racket and he could be considered one of the best players of all time, but he turned professional and signed a lot of great players then he was executive director of the ATP and did commentary around the world. But a lot of people don’t know who he is — they know him as a racket.

Posted by, Gary Warnett on 13 January 2014