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Converse Peels Back the Construction of a Denim Sneaker

Denim footwear is proving to be as enduring as a pair of classic blue jeans. Brands from all ends of the fashion spectrum—luxury, streetwear, heritage—have put their own spin on the shoe, merging sleek designs with customizable features that spark seemingly endless collaborations.

In summer 2019, Kith, Coca-Cola and Converse Chuck Taylor dropped a capsule collection of a denim shoe that was once exclusive to friends and family years prior. Also last year, luxury and streetwear continued its iconic merge with a Louis Vuitton denim sneaker designed by the brand’s men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh.

In March, Levi’s and New Balance created a limited-edition sneaker made with deadstock denim from the now-shuttered White Oak Mills in Greensboro, N.C.

Converse even launched its very own Renew collection, featuring sneakers crafted from upcycled denim.

According to trend consultant Marie-Michele Larivee, it’s denim’s blank “canvas” that gives it such an allure.

“Denim has a high level of customization, and since sneakers are becoming a true piece of art, DIY and customized pieces are definitely something that consumers are turning towards,” she said, adding that the denim sneaker echoes forecasters’ 2020 trend predictions. “The same themes—color, up cycling, nostalgia, transparency—are present in the culture of sneakers.”

Rivet caught up with Jessica L’Abbe, Converse’s senior design director of color, materials and graphics, to discover some of the challenges and opportunities that arise when constructing a denim shoe.

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Rivet: How do you source and use materials for your Renew denim sneaker collection?

Jessica L’Abbe: Working with our manufacturing partners, we pioneered a way to upcycle any consumer textile into our classic footwear. Our process allows nearly any single source of upcycled textile to be cut and crafted into the upper of Chuck 70 shoes.

U.K.-based sustainable fashion brand and vintage retailer Beyond Retro sources and selects tens of thousands of pairs of denim jeans per season to our create footwear. Because this is already a process they had in place as a result of their business model, we were able to leverage their expertise and provide the standards—both from a color and material standpoint—to guide the selection process. These jeans are sorted into three color bands: light, medium, and dark. The jeans are then cleaned and ‘butterfly cut’ with steel rule dies and a hydraulic clicker press to create the shoe panels. Because every pair of jeans is unique, so is every pair of Renew Denim Chuck 70 shoes.

Rivet: What are some challenges you’ve come across in working with recycled denim?

JL: Canvas is wide and uniform—most fabric for the creation of our footwear comes in on rolls. With pre-worn denim, there’s natural patina, certain areas get worn in (such as the knees), and they need to be treated individually. As we were working with the team to determine the footwear manufacturing process and how to scale, we realized we had to teach a new approach.

The unlock here was turning at least a single pair of denim jeans into a single pair of Chucks.

Another challenge was ensuring consistency in color, look and feel. While each pair is unique—and there is a large supply of the fabric—we need to ensure we are delivering on our consumers’ expectation of the product. We developed a unique standardization system with Beyond Retro to enable effective and efficient sourcing and selection.

Every step along the way created new problems to solve, but also new opportunities, and we’re proud that we’ve been able to adjust our process along the way. The jeans and denim—which were originally headed to landfill—are sourced by Beyond Retro in North America and sorted in their facility in India, before being made into Converse footwear.

Rivet: To date, how much recycled denim have you used for this collection?

JL: Our first Renew collection featuring upcycled denim launched to consumers in 2019. Since then, we have sourced and upcycled more than 107,696 pairs of denim into our footwear, which is the equivalent of 142,457.42 pounds or approximately 71.21 tons.

Rivet: Why are denim sneakers so popular?

JL: Converse Renew Denim has performed well for the brand, and we’re excited by the consumer reaction to the collection and our sustainability efforts overall. We are definitely experiencing a pull from the consumer.

We started with denim, because much like the Chuck Taylor All Star, each pair of jeans is timeless, classic and personal to the wearer. The journey to upcycling denim started more than four years ago as a passion project by Converse employees who were exploring making our canvas uppers out of reclaimed materials, using deeply personal items from their own closets as a means for enabling self-expression. Through the project, they wanted to test the limitations of making a Converse sneaker.

Renew began as a way to answer the question: what can’t you make Converse out of? Our team found that the only limit is imagination. We can make our footwear out of just about anything: automobile seats, coats, or even waterproof envelopes. Denim was undoubtedly the material we wanted to launch with.

Rivet: What do you think is the future of denim sneaker collaboration? Anything new in the works?

JL: [In May] we announced our Converse x Carhartt WIP Renew collection, which is a limited-edition collection made from 1,000 pre-loved canvas Carhartt jackets, trousers and overalls, sourced from Beyond Retro. Items were sorted into three color ranges—navy, black and brown—then butterfly cut to create individual Chuck 70 shoe panels.

In future seasons, you can expect upcycled fleece and combinations such as denim and jersey. We’re looking forward to continuing to enable our consumers’ personal expression while considering our impact along the way.