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After 98 years, Converse adds comfort to Chuck Taylors

The nearly 100-year-old basketball shoes have thoroughly embedded themselves in American culture, but have remained relatively unchanged since their original incarnation.

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    This photo provided by Converse shows the new Fall 2015 Chuck Taylor All Star II black high-top sneaker.
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Love hurts. 

For 98 years, Americans have chosen style over comfort, suffering to remain loyal to their flat-soled, rubber-toed, high-top Chuck Taylor shoes, which will finally get a foot-friendly upgrade.  

Converse All Star kicks were introduced in 1917 and transcended the world of NBA basketball stars like Wilt Chamberlain to become a fixture in pop culture and fashion. Referred to as “the sole of rock and roll” on the feet of musicians ranging from Kurt Cobain to pop princesses like Katy Perry. Movies stars like Kristen Stewart have worn Chucks on the red carpet.

On Thursday, Converse Inc. unveiled the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star II in its hometown of Boston.

The shoes are named after Charles Taylor, who played the game of basketball just 10 years after its creation. Taylor played for the Firestone Non-Skids in Akron, Ohio, “a semi-pro team owned by the tire manufacturer. But in 1922, he accepted a job as a salesman at Converse, and basketball was a critical part of his position,” according to NPR's “Only a Game.”

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Taylor played on Converse’s team and built the brand through a public relations campaign which included holding basketball clinics. Converse added Taylor’s name to the shoes 15 years later.

Since then, the brand has crossed gender, racial, and cultural lines to become an iconic wardrobe choice.

The Chuck II includes all the modern bells and whistles of comfort with minimal design alteration, and will retail for $20 more than the traditional design, according to the Converse website. Perhaps the most important change for consumers is the addition of arch support.

“This seems like a good move toward customer value. The iconic look is retained while the comfort of wearing is likely to be greatly improved,” writes Dr. Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, in an email. “Considering the many hours that the shoes will be worn, the increased comfort is likely worth more than the additional $20.” 

He adds, “One problem, potentially, is that the greater comfort could potentially make the shoes seem less exclusive.”

So far, fans on Twitter are jubilant over the changes and the fact that the company remained true to the original style as much as possible, while updating the technology of the shoes.

If the shoes were so hard on the feet, why were they such a success with wearers?

Dr. Perner says, “This may have to do with being part of an ‘in’ group who wear these.”

“There's no saying why some fashions take off while others don't,” writes Amna Kirmani, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology and professor of marketing at the University of Maryland, College Park, in response to questions on why Americans chose to stick with the uncomfortable shoes. “The important thing for companies is not to mess with a good thing.”

Fans of the original shoes are so pervasive in American culture that there are websites offering to tell you what your Converse say about you.

Ms. Kirimani adds, “The Chuck Taylor shoe has lasted a remarkably long time. In this improvement, I think Converse is trying to address the biggest problem with the shoe – its lack of comfort – while still retaining the look that is so dear to its customers. I think the changes on the outside are largely cosmetic; it's the inside that's really different.

From a business standpoint, Kirimani says, “A new shoe also allows the company to generate a lot of buzz. No doubt there will be many online discussions of the new vs. old design. That should help the company sell more shoes.”

Converse is also keeping the original design in stores.

“As I said, you don't mess with a good thing ... its core customers would be in an uproar if Converse took away the original shoe. So that's a good idea on the part of the company," says Kiramani. “All in all, I think they're going after a bigger market. There may be new customers who will buy the shoe because it is more comfortable (who wouldn't have bought it before). Core customers are likely to stay with the original.”

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