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Stan Smith on Being an Unsuspecting Sneaker Icon

If you are one of the hundreds of shoe brands having a successful run with all-white leather sneakers, send a thank you note to this man, Stanley Roger “Stan” Smith.

Adidas created a stir out of thin air at the end of 2011 by pulling the Stan Smith sneaker—a simple, all-white leather lace-up with a tennis green tab on the heel and an image of Smith on the tongue—out of stores, only to re-introduce the shoe in 2014 to a consumer base hungry for classic, heritage and authentic footwear.

The Stan Smith returned in sharp-looking green and white packaging and with a note about its namesake’s tennis roots. Meanwhile, a team of social media influencers amplified the sneaker’s place in the market, just as Normcore fashion was trending. The shoe outlasted the fad and has since spurred a mass of copycats at both designer and discount levels.

At times, Smith, a former world No. 1 American tennis player and two-time Grand Slam singles champion, sounds more like a shoe dog than a tennis icon. “Nike is a bad word in my vocabulary, but I was reading [Nike Founder] Phil Knight’s memoir, “Shoe Dog,” and realized what it means to be one. A shoe dog is interested in creating, wearing and manufacturing shoes—I can relate to that,” he said.

Stan Smith—the man, not the shoe—is living a life that only Chuck Taylor, Jack Purcell and Jane Birkin can attest to. “It’s pretty unusual—the majority of people around the world really know my name as a shoe,” he said about the Stan Smith phenomenon.

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Diehard fans know better. During an appearance at Colette in Paris to promote a limited-edition collaboration with the retailer, Smith met a man who was buying a sneaker obviously not his size. “I asked him why he was buying them and he said he’s a collector and had about 5,000 sneakers and 50-60 were mine,” Smith said.

Smith is amused by the attention he’s received from sneakerheads. “I’m meeting some interesting people along the way. I was just speaking with a GQ editor in Tokyo who told me he wore my shoe everyday for 13 years—same pants, shirt, shoes. Very unique people are drawn to the shoe,” Smith said.

“The Wall Street Journal just had an article about how to keep them clean,” he laughed.

Adidas is rolling out new Stan Smith collections and collaborations with high-caliber celebrity tastemakers, including Pharrell Williams and Kanye West faster than Smith can approve them. “I have pretty good trust in what they are doing,” he quipped.

“Simplicity is the key word. It’s a very simple shoe—there’s no bells and whistles,” he said.

Still, Smith believes the shoe sells itself. “It is just a very simple shoe—pure white, very comfortable and you can wear it with anything that you have. And it is a good price point,” he said.

That was the original plan in the 1960s when Adidas first began to consider tennis. Building off its momentum in the soccer and track and field categories, Germany-based Adidas set its eyes on tennis, releasing its first leather tennis shoe in 1965. It was designed in France by Horst Dassler, the son of Adidas Founder Adi Dassler, and French tennis star Robert Haillet.

Haillet, whose name the shoe bore, was the top-ranked tennis player in France at the time. However, in order to grow its tennis footprint in the U.S., Adidas ached for an American player to endorse the shoe. Enter Smith, who was ranked the No. 1 player in the world. In 1971, he began to wear the white leather sneaker with Hailett’s name on the side and his own face on the shoe’s tongue. A year later, Smith’s name was on the shoe.

The original model proved to be spot on. “There was absolutely no changes in the shoes—just a little more support in the heel to support the Achilles tendon and a tab in the middle of the shoe to keep it from moving,” Smith said.

The latest revival has brought with it better materials. “[Adidas] used a better, softer leather than before that has made it more comfortable and therefore something you can wear anytime,” he said. Smith’s personal favorites are a blue suede sneaker with a red tab and a black pair with a maroon tab. “Simplicity is the key word. It’s a very simple shoe—there’s no bells and whistles,” he said.

Smith, speaking like a true shoe dog, says he sees the masses of copycats in the sneaker market.

“[Brands] are getting closer and closer to the look of the original Stan Smith. We’ll have to see if it hurts—it might actually help. I think the main things are that people are wearing the shoe and are enjoying it. It will be interesting to see what kind of effect it will have on the shoe industry.”