A brief history of the Nike Dunk

As designer Virgil Abloh honours Nike’s hoops and skateboarding legacies via a new OFF-WHITE™ x Nike Dunk Low, we chart the cultural significance of the shoe from 1985 to the present.

In the words of Virgil Abloh: The Dunk is a shoe that’s not just your average inanimate object.” 

From the shoe’s humble beginnings as a college basketball trainer to its current status as an icon within the worlds of sport, fashion and skateboarding, the Dunk has a heritage that’s rivalled by few.

There are so many potent stories all related to this one style of shoe,” Virgil continues. Many of which pre-dates the exploding street culture scene of now.”

As the designer gets ready to release a new OFF-WHITE™ x Nike Dunk collaboration that honours the shoe’s hoops and skateboarding legacies, we chart the cultural significance of the Dunk from 1985 to the present.

1985

ICONIC DESIGN

Designed by Peter Moore – the man responsible for a little known trainer called the Air Jordan I – the Dunk’s working title was College Color High”. The Dunk brings together some of Nike Basketball’s best hits – namely the Terminator and the Air Jordan I.

COLLEGE YEARS

In its initial incarnation the Dunk is exactly what its working title leads you to believe – a college basketball trainer. The original 12 colourways are those of America’s top basketball schools. This all leads to the now iconic Be True To Your School” ad campaign.

1987 – 88

FIRST STEPS INTO POPULAR CULTURE

The Mix Crew release their Black Leather EP (1987) and wear Dunks on the cover. The following year, the shoe features in Spike Lee’s School Daze (centre stage in the pyjama party scene).

SKATERS GET ON BOARD

The Dunk doesn’t yet have the impact on popular culture that shoes like the Air Jordan I do, but the seeds for future success are being sewn. Skaters are starting to favour the silhouette for its hard wearing, thin sole. In the footage below Beasley from Shut Skates wears the Dunk in the University of Iowa colourway.

1998

A NEW LEASE OF LIFE

Over 10 years on and going strong – there’s still something striking about the Dunk. Nike retro the original colour ways – back by popular demand.

Cool the Sneakers magazine, Issue 58

1999

THE POWER OF WU-TANG

Nike are worried that the University of Iowa’s Goldenrod” colourway might be hard to shift. Nike employee Drew Greer has a bright idea – playing on Wu-Tang’s association with black and yellow to create some energy around the shoe. The Wu-Tang iteration – 36 pairs each embroidered with a Wu W” on the heel – becomes part of Dunk folklore and is now extremely difficult to track down. 

Polaroid ofShawn Stussy & Hiroshi Fujiwara

BIG IN JAPAN

Japanese sneakerheads are always ahead of the curve – something Nike tap into with the Co​.jp initiative, a series of Japan-only Dunk releases. Hiroshi Fujiwara had a hand in the release – as he did in all things Japanese streetwear at the time. This was the start of something bigger – in 2002 Fujiwara joins forces with Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker to form HTM, an innovation team that still operates today.

2001

A NEW STANDARD FOR COLLABORATION

Nike collaborate with a clothing company for the first time. The Nike X Stüssy dunk has a strong London and Gimme 5 (Stüssy’s UK distributor) influence – the shoe is the combined work of Michael Kopelman, Simon Porter and Fraser Cooke. This is one of Nike’s first forays into limited retail distribution, only available at Stüssy Chapter Stores in New York, London, Tokyo and LA. Each store sells 12 pairs of each colour per day and the frenzy lasts for over two weeks until stocks run out. Stüssy go on to revisit the Dunk in 2006.

Spread from Sneaker Jack Best Super Goods, Series Vol.41

2002

THE BIRTH OF SB

Nike Skateboarding is born marking a pivotal event in the history of the Dunk. The Dunk SB Low is the sole model in its debut offering, available in four colours one for each individual team rider: Richard Mulder, Reese Forbes, Gino Iannucci – who skated to the sound of Wu-Tang in 101’s Snuff video years earlier – and Danny Supa. Prior to this release Sandy Bodecker (responsible for heading up the skate program within Nike) and Reese Forbes toured America’s skateshops to convince shop owners that Nike is taking skateboarding seriously. 

DUNK REIGNS SUPREME

September 2002 sees the release of the Supreme Dunk SB. Nike takes its limited distribution up a notch – Supreme Dunks are only available at… Supreme. They are premium level too – $168 compared to the usual price point of $60 – 65. People are willing to queue around the block with an enthusiasm only previously seen for Jordan releases. Funnily enough, the shoe’s design takes inspiration from the cement texture of the Air Jordan III.

2003

FUTURA THINKING

The first artist collaboration of the SB era is with legendary graffiti writer and artist Futura, seen below wearing the Dunk’s cousin, the Air Jordan 1, in the May 1997 issue of The Face . He is also the man behind the hyper rare For Love or Money Dunk, as seen on Travis Scott below.

SUPREME GETS HIGH

Nike team up with Supreme for round two – this time releasing a Dunk High as shown below in the November 2003 issue of The Face magazine.

Spread from The Face, November 2003

2004

EVOLUTION OF AN ICON

The White Dunk exhibition lands in Tokyo, featuring the work of 25 Japanese artists. Each used the white Dunk as a canvas resulting in a diverse set of artworks. Some crafted Gundam-esque figures with the fabric, others chose simply to draw on top of the Dunks. The exhibition starts in Tokyo then travels to London, Paris and New York.

Left: White Dunk "Shoebox" exhibition, Tokyo, courtesy of Nike. Right: scan of poster and card holder from White Dunk "Shoebox"

2005

AN INFAMOUS MOMENT IN SNEAKER CULTURE

The exhibition arrives in New York on 22nd February – the day that Jeff Staple’s Pigeon Dunk launches and starts a riot” on the Lower East Side. Sneakerheads loose their shit while the police escort kids out of the back entrance of Reed Space to safety with their trainers in tow.

KICKFLIPPING IN LONDON 

Nike join forces with London institution Slam City Skates to launch the Slam City Dunk. This shoe feels like an antidote to the queues and hype thanks to Slam City’s kickflip challenge that sees buyers save a fiver if they land the trick.

ONE FOR THE UNSUNG HEROES

For those unfamiliar with the structure of skate companies the team manager is basically known as Dad”. Responsible for: haranguing the team into producing footage, making sure the riders eat breakfast on tour, ensuring demos run smooth, checking everyone wears the right logo (swoosh).

Enter the team manager series – a celebration of these grafters that culminates as two silhouettes the Stüssy Neapolitan Dunk (so named for its resemblance to your favourite scoop) and the now highly sought after Diamond Tiffany Dunk designed by Nick Tershay.

2006

ALL HAIL LORD QUAS

A shoe celebrating the 10th anniversary of LA based label Stones Throw, through Madlib’s alter ego: Quasimoto. The shoe is created for friends and family of the label and never makes it to release.

2007

SKATING ONTO SCREEN

Nothing But The Truth is Nike’s first full length skate video, filmed by Dan Wolfe, and featuring an all star cast. It clocks in at a mammoth 80 minutes. 

Cover of Nike's Nothing But The Truth, 2007

2009

MEANWHILE IN EAST LONDON

No brand captures the essence of east London in the 2000s better than Carri Munden’s Cassette Playa. In October 2009, Cassette Playa teams up with Nike to create a Dunk featuring their signature bleeding eye motif, positioned behind the swoosh. 

2010

THE POWER OF KOSTON

Eric Koston is often regarded as skateboarding’s answer to Michael Jordan. His staying power is rivalled by few. To mark his initiation into the SB team in 2010, Nike put out two Dunks in Thai colourways reflective of Koston’s heritage.

2012

REIGN ON

Supreme have revisited the Dunk on several occasions, but 2012 is different – marking the 10th anniversary of the collaboration.

Supreme nike dunk low pro SB, Supreme

2015

DUNK GOES LUX

Having first collaborated on an Air Force One in 2012, Nike and Dover Street Market join forces once again to release the DSM Dunk Lux High made from premium materials.

2016

DUNKS ON THE RUNWAY

In December 2016, Comme des Garçons Homme sends Dunks down the runway complete with clear vamp panels. Recognisably Dunk, with a Comme touch, it was a real fashion moment for the shoe.

A NEW DIRECTION

In February 2016, one of the world’s most popular skaters Ishod Wair is given his own iteration of the Dunk that takes the shoe design in a new and pared back direction we’ve not yet seen before. The Ishod Dunk reflects its namesake’s languid style and ability to stack clips like nobody’s business. 

2019

INTRODUCING THE NIKEOFF-WHITEDUNK LOW

Today, in December 2019, designer Virgil Abloh honours Nike’s hoops and skateboarding legacies in their latest collaboration – the Nike X OFF-WHITE™ Dunk Low. The shoe features over lacing from Nike’s Waffle Racer, while the exposed foam tongue is a nod to the exposed-prototype language Abloh has developed in collaboration with the brand. Inspired by the colourways of the original Dunk releases and revamped via Abloh’s eye for the iconic, the shoe is sure to be a collectors item for generations to come.

With thanks to Brad Farrant of Make Room.


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