“Excuse me, do you know what’s going on back there?” A woman in a blazer asks us while using her thumb to gesture towards a clusterfuck of kids loitering on the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street. We can understand her curiosity, it’s not the usual corporate crowd you’d find down here.
“Yeah, Nike collaborated with the designer, Virgil Abloh, and it’s an exhibit of their work together.”
“Yeah, it’s cool and open to the public if you want to check it out.”
“Oh, ok thanks.”
She probably didn’t check it out. She probably finished her lunch break and walked straight back to the office. She might have even avoided the corner. If she had gone inside the building at 23 Wall Street, however, she would’ve walked into a scene that can be best described as organized chaos.
At least, that’s how we perceive it when we walk in about two hours earlier. There are people everywhere. It’s dark. But also sporadically bright with spotlights and projectors bouncing off various walls. It’s not quite sensory overload but definitely overwhelming. And in the 0.5 seconds it took to open the door, someone in an all white “uniform” is already asking if we’re “here for the panel, here to check out the exhibit or looking for the store?”
It’s Friday, September 8th, the final day of Nike’s three-day “Off Campus” exhibit with Virgil Abloh of OFF-WHITEÔ. It’s a little past 1:00pm and we’re here for the panel, titled “ORIGINAL” & THE CONVERSE CHUCK TAYLOR.
We’re asked to check in and to fill out a form, on which are listed five types of the ten pairs of sneakers Abloh has co-created as part of his ‘Ten Icons Reconstructed’ collection. We mark each sneaker with numbers 1 – 5 in order of our preference.
4. Airmax 90
We hand the sheets back, get outfitted with wristbands and are shown to a roped-off section in front of a stage. We’re here thanks to Converse, and we’re happy to see a few members of the team we’ve recently met. We say hi and catch-up for a few minutes, make new introductions, and eventually take our seats. There’s a dark stage ahead of us, standing room to the left and right of us, and Jerry Lorenzo a few rows in front of us. The lights dim and Virgil walks out on stage.
He’s joined by Cons skater Sage Elsesser and rapper Vince Staples. The discussion will focus on the Chuck as a symbol in creative communities, their thoughts on what originality means in today’s crowded cultural space, and where they’d like to see more of it. As Abloh explains, the three will do what they do best and, “intellectualize the mundane.”
They start off discussing their earliest memories of the Chuck Taylor. For Sage, it’s fuzzy, “a shoe [he]’d seen among brown people in Los Angeles.” For Vince, it’s a bit more specific, “a swap meet, $30, the black ones for a school uniform.”
To each, however, the Chuck is more than just a shoe. Vince points to it as an emblem of assimilation, something that thrives off of its accessibility. It has a relatively low price point and “it’s something that’s been instilled on every platform because every type of person can have it.” From someone who’s just gotten out of jail, “it’s part of the CPC package from Walkenhorsts,” to someone who’s into high fashion, “you have a Maison Margiela collaboration,” the Chuck is something that’s available and attractive to everyone.
Further proving Vince’s point, Sage jumps in explaining how the skate community made it desirable to him. One of his friends “would wear orange ones, pink ones, checkered ones while skating, and although it’s not the best performance shoe, stylistically, it looks the best.”
It’s funny because in the age of excess, something that is so readily available and something that is so popular shouldn’t maintain such prolonged appeal. Yet it does. As Virgil notes, “the Chuck is not trendy; it’s timeless.” It’s a shoe that’s rooted in authenticity and originality and endures precisely because of that.
In such a crowded cultural space, however, what does originality mean to someone like Virgil, someone like Vince, someone like Sage?
For Vince, it’s about creating for himself, translating his vision with confidence and admitting that “it’s ok for people to not understand and get what you’re trying to do in that current moment” because “resonance can come over time.”
Virgil discusses originality as upholding the truth to oneself. He explains that although The Ten is a sneaker collaboration with Nike, “[he’s] not a sneakerhead.” For him, this project was more of another way to pursue his agenda to change what designers conventionally look like. It was a way to bring diverse people together, exchange ideas and impart intellect to inspire more kids to end up on a stage of some format.
And for Sage, originality comes in the form of honing a talent or a craft and continually expressing himself thoroughly. According to Vince, “Sage has been doing the same ten tricks his entire career.” When other people might have lost themselves, “Sage has always been Sage.”
This type of authenticity, and loyalty to oneself is what makes these three men inspiring and their creativity legitimate. As artists, designers, athletes, themselves, their originality seems to be their means and longevity their end. It suddenly clicks that this panel isn’t about a sneaker and the speakers’ relations to it, but rather understanding their drive towards what the Chuck represents: timelessness, iconification. If all that’s left of us after we leave this Earth is what we’ve created, the opportunity to be eternal exists in the endurance and resonance of our creations.
As the panel wraps up, Virgil asks if Vince and Sage if they have any parting words. They all three decide on and encourage the audience to “stay true,” which is all too appropriately one of the longtime slogans of the Chuck Taylor.
An hour has passed and Ashley and I will wait a half hour to luck the fuck out and pick up a pair of Presto’s and a pair of Vapormaxes. We’ll spend another hour walking through the exhibit. We’ll leave through the front and annoy someone to take our picture on the stairs of the entryway. We’ll head down the block and be interrupted by a woman in a blazer. I can’t help but think now of how different our ideas of a Wall Street Exchange were that day.
To watch the full conversation, check out the video above.