The History and Evolution of the Nike Dunk

nike dunk

Since the late 1980s, urban culture has changed dramatically. Skating is very popular in contemporary times, but it wasn’t so back then. The young and hype generation may think that Nike sneakers were designed, from the get-go, solely for skating. However, the brand was initially geared for the college basketball community. It was around that time when skating was gaining some traction, and Nike was keen to edge in on the prospectively new market.

Dunks were initially conceptualized in 1985, but Nike unveiled them for public consumption in 1986. They were initially meant to capture the college market. The marketing strategy was to design them in University and college colors. The catchphrase behind them was ‘Be True to Your School.’ It was meant to ignite campus basketball competitiveness and harness school loyalty into sales. It worked phenomenally well. However, the majority of American youth back then, just like today, did not make it to campus. Still, Nike yearned to dominate the youth sneaker market.

The original Dunk High was Nike’s first-ever team shoe. Its colorways didn’t inspire the entirety of the youth niche back then, but it sure did lay a foundation for cultic loyalty. However, Nike desired to extend from basketball only to lifestyle footwear. The way into that niche seemed through an entirely different caliber of sports: skateboarding.

After 1986, the Nike Dunk did not see much changes or fuss. The duration, however, matured the loyalty in colleges to hook even the students who didn’t play basketball. The snicker was comfortable and had a sleek design. Resultantly, as skateboarding became more popular with time, Nike realized that its Dunk clientele had grown. Skateboarders were apparently attracted to the sneaker because of its features that catalyzed basketball blocking and pivoting. The Funk was lightweight and low profile. In fact, the 1999 issue of the retro Swoosh Dunk was popular globally for its high-quality material construction and stylish design. The designer behind it was the iconic Moore.

At the hegemonic accent of the Wu-Tang Clan, Nike partnered with the hip hop movement and cemented massive following for the sneaker series. The Air Jordan I, which was a clone of the initial Nike High Dunk, was also massively popular. It only helped to boost Nike’s popularity into greater heights. However, the real reason behind the giant’s awakening after ten years, 1986-1996, was the diversification of its colorways. The 1998 renaissance of the Dunk was, majorly, because Nike opened itself to the larger youth populace as opposed to the campus market only. However, the campus colorways still are some of the most sought after Nike classics of all times.

Nike Dunk SB

Between 1998 and 2000, the popularity of the Dunk soared even higher. The Swoosh was really interested in the skateboarders popularizing its brand. They branded it as a lifestyle sneaker line. The brand had also changed tactic and stopped selling its products exclusively on general sports stores. It was the brilliant idea of newly installed general manager Sandy Bodecker, who also halted mass production and generic releases. He also argued that it didn’t make sense to re-engineer skating sneakers from scratch because skateboarders already liked the existing ones. Nike, therefore, introduced mild structural changes to some of the lines for the extra comfort and safety of skateboarders. The insole was reinforced with some extra padding, while the flat tongue was introduced. The Dunk’s sole was also modified for increased braking traction and resistance to wear and tear. Most important of all, it retained its aesthetic appeal of a regular lifestyle sneaker. Therefore, skateboarders could still rock the SB Dunk after rigorous practice and competition.

The limited editions policy was a winning strategy. Soon after halting the mass production strategy, the Nike SB Dunk series became any collector’s prize. The move also helped to retain the high-end nature of the Swoosh. The demand for the line of sneakers soared as Bodecker went from city to city, identifying the suitable retailers to distribute the product. He took Reese Forbes with him to represent the commitment that Nike had towards the skating community. Forbes was a rising star in the skating realms, and he turned out to be the most reliable ambassador that the SB series ever engaged. The SB Dunk series retailed at $1800 a pair, and customers queued for days for the opportunity to buy.

Iconic Models that Followed

  • SB Dunk Low Pro – Only four pairs were made each for Ianucci, Forbes, Mulder, and Supa. They were all custom-made to fit their skating styles.
  • Reese Forbes Denim – It offered a rare touch of denim material on a high-end skating sneaker.
  • SB Dunk Cities Series

This was a 2005 marketing strategy that saw SB sneakers hitting an all-time high in popularity. All the youth, skaters, basketballers, collectors, and fashion enthusiasts all wanted a pair or two. The Paris Dunk was a success, and French painter Bernard Buffet delivered a perfect design for it. Jeff Staple was responsible for designing the aesthetics of the New York City Dunk. He delivered the ‘Pigeon’ SB design, and it featured an embroidered pigeon on the sneaker’s heel. Never has any sneaker release ever caused such havoc in the history of footwear. Buyers camped for over four days in the dreadful cold just to buy the sneakers. The NYPD tried breaking up the line out of concern, but the police were met with an uncompromising riot. The standoff between SB Dunk enthusiasts and the NYPD caught national news attention.

  • ‘Team Manager’ Series
  • MF Doom SB Dunk High (2008)
  • Red Lobster’ SB Dunk Low
  • Blue Lobster’ SB Dunk Low
  • Yellow Lobsters’ SB Dunk Low
  • Black Pigeons 2017


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