The Nike design philosophy has always been to build a better shoe for sports, and to let style follow function. Twenty-three years ago, a basketball hi-top emerged from this ethos that became an icon of boldness, both on the court and off—the Nike Dunk. True to the colors of the college teams it was built for, Dunk’s simple, high-contrast colorways evolved into a statement of true rebellion when skaters made them their own.
Fundamentally, being true is being authentic. And the building blocks of authenticity are discovered through witnessable action. In the fall of 1985, that witnessable action came in the form of eight college basketball teams that laced up footwear created not only to help them dunk on opponents, but also to flash authentic, audacious pride for their schools.
With a newfound understanding—among the coaches of St. John’s, NC State, Michigan, Kentucky, UNLV, Syracuse, Arizona and Iowa—that the shoe could and would become a part of the uniform, the Dunk introduced the concepts of contrast and color application to a shoe like never before. What started as an “every color, every school” agenda was soon after remixed to “anybody, everybody” as skateboarding adopted the Dunk for its flat soles, expressional colors, ankle-protecting qualities, and ability to take a beating and hold true to its form.
From the team sports to the anti-establishment of fringe cultures, the dunk not only spoke to everyone, but also connected all walks of life.
It was offense, it was defense.
It was his, it was hers.
It was hi-top, it was lo-top.
It was the college court, it was backyard mini-ramp.
It was as beautiful fresh from the box as it was beaten to a pulp.
It demanded our attention, yet took its time to come out from behind the curtain.
Hide as it tried throughout the early ‘90s, the dunk began its resurgence in 1998 thanks to the critical eye and cultural appreciation of Japan. Two years later, the Dunk blew up in a flurry of wild color combos, then broke the very rules it established by going completely tonal as a collaboration with Stussy brought the first double-label Dunk. What started as a way to fly our team colors has resulted in a way to show our individuality. Like a go-to t-shirt or a weathered pair of jeans, we all have our favorite pair of Dunks, and we more than likely have a nickname for them. They speak to us and they speak volumes about us.
In the case of those original eight college teams, the Dunk was the final piece of the puzzle, but it can just as easily be that piece that just won’t fit. And that’s why we embrace it—we make the Dunk what we want it to be. If there ever was a democracy in the form of a shoe, this is it. And it’s the end result of what happens when we be true.
More than anything, people now relate to the Dunk’s myriad colors. Over the course of the last 23 years, the sneaker has been reborn in every colorway and blocking imaginable, giving Dunk wearers endless opportunities to be true to their individual styles. What better time, then, to get back to the basics—to the first “true” colors of the original eight schools they were conceived for. Groundbreaking in 1985, the red, blue, white, yellow, orange, grey and black are radical today because of their bold simplicity. “For the Spring 2008 Dunks, we were inspired by the original ‘Be True to Your School’ Dunk poster,” says Levya. “It’s about bringing those pure colors back to a shoe that has gone everywhere stylistically, and evoking the same strong emotional reactions that the first two-tone Dunks did in ’85.”
Nike’s January 2008 re-mastering of the Dunk starts from those electric ‘80s roots—a time capsule reminding what they were first made for: college hoops. Available in the original eight colorways, these Vintage Dunk His look like they came straight from 1985, thanks to an aging process Nike initiated last season with the popular Vintage Running series.
Broken-in leather, ollie scars, weathered foam, stained laces, Nike did all the heavy lifting so you won’t have to, giving them that 23-year-old look, fresh out of the box.
Staying true to the collegiate theme, Nike builds on the soul of the iconic b-ball shoe by releasing a set of Dunk collections based on three NCAA conferences, from east to west. From the colors of the prestigious Big East, to the team uniforms of the ACC, followed by classic Pac 10 style, Leyva’s team conceived unique blocking for each division, applying them to Dunkestos, Premiums, His and Los.
This return to the simplicity of true colors represents the origins of the iconic sneaker, which, in turn, are all about representing: representing your school, representing your city, and most importantly, representing yourself.
As part of this project, I spoke with Jesse Levya and Michael Leon about the dunk, its history and its future, check out the interviews.