How Nike SB Carefully Positioned the Dunk to be the Ultimate Grail
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In today's sneaker culture there’s hardly a day that goes by without a notification of a hype release or a news story on pairs of kicks trading for five and even six-figure sums. But amongst the hysteria it's easy to forget a time before online raffles where taking an “L” wasn’t a regular thing. Sneaker collecting has been going on around the world since the 90s, but it wasn’t until 2002, when the Nike SB Dunk was introduced by Nike's fledgling skateboarding division, and an 80s basketball shoe revolutionized both the world of skateboarding and sneaker culture.
Scroll down below to read our latest editorial in which Samutaro explores how Nike SB aligned itself with the underground and leveraged cultural collaborations to set the blueprint for modern-day sneaker collecting.
Born on the basketball court and shaped in streets by skateboarding and streetwear, the Dunk has become one of the most covetable sneakers on the market today. The staying power of the silhouette lies in its simplistic design and balanced colour blocking that has made it a style that has been revisited and reworked by big names from the worlds of art, fashion, music and popular culture for over 25 years.
The renaissance of the Dunk in 2020 saw one of the strongest runs for the Swoosh in recent memory with countless collaborations, retros and fresh colourways. Old ‘heads got to relive the glory years of 1999–2001 with re-releases of classics like the Ugly Duckling pack and retroed college colourways, while newcomers enjoyed the slew of collaborations from brands like Cactus Plant Flea Market and Travis Scott x Sony PlayStation as well as special editions like the Community Garden and the Pure Platinum.
While Beaverton’s main line dunks were highly sought-after and demanded raffle-only sales, it was Nike SB – the skateboarding subdivision responsible for the silhouette’s early-2000s supremacy – that remained at the forefront of the brand’s most hype releases. SB Dunks counted for some of the most talked about sneaker releases of the year with oddballs like the Ben & Jerry’s x Nike SB Dunk Low ‘Chunky Dunky’, seasonal themed drops like the Nike SB Dunk High 420 ‘Reverse Skunk’ as well as Travis Scott x Nike SB Dunk Low, which was arguably the highest Dunk in the room.
The Houston rapper has been responsible for much of the revitalization and recent surge in interest of the Dunk and its SB counterparts. Whether he’s performing on stage at MSG rocking Futura lows, sitting courtside in the $20k Nike SB Dunk “Paris” ornonchalantly eating McDonald’s burgers in the rare Nike SBs Wu-Tang, there’s rarely been a photograph of him not wearing a pair of collectible Dunks.
Today the SB Dunk is iconic, and while cultural leaders like Scott and Virgil Abloh have certainly helped propel the dunk into the stratosphere of contemporary sneaker culture, it’s important to remember that it's still a skate shoe first and foremost that guys like Theotis Beasely, Sean Malto and Ishod Wair still rock religiously. When Nike first founded the subdivision in March 2002, the brand wanted to ensure it’s attempt to step into skateboarding would be a more successful one than its first in the 1990s. Under Sandy Bodecker's guidance, the imprint officially launched its first and most popular silhouette, the SB Dunk, as a skate-ready take of the Dunk High for basketball.
Skaters had already embraced the Dunk throughout the early 1990s because it was cheap and accessible and its fitted silhouette, cushioning and traction required for the sport. Another big pro for the community was that the silhouette chimed perfectly with the style of the era and it could easily transition between lifestyle and skateboarding fluidly. At the same time, Nike was experimenting with the Dunk Low Pro B and Dunk Low CO.JP (the domain name for Nike Japan) with forward thinking materials, textures, colours and designs. These small releases were quickly being swept up by nascent sneaker collectors on the West Coast and in Japan and proving a pronounced sneakerhead mentality around the style.
With the Dunk emerging as a cultural icon in these sub communities, it was a no-brainer for Sandy Bodecker to position it as the principle style when launching Nike SB. By introducing the creativity and customization of the Pro B and re-engineered silhouette fit for skateboarding, the Dunk was destined for success not just in skateboarding but sneaker culture as a whole.
In order to establish itself in the skate community in a credible manner, Nike hired pro skater Reese Forbes to draft up a roster of pro skaters who would partner as ambassadors of the brand. Danny Supa, Gino Ianucci, Richard Mulder and Forbes himself debuted as the faces of the SB. “I think the early days of Nike SB were pretty awesome,” said Richard Mulder in Vice’sFIFTEEN YEARS OF SB DUNK - Stories from the Inside Out. “Nike were like hey we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna this long term. They had a technical initiative, they were very receptive, almost spongey in the information that the skateboarders were giving.”
Unlike Nike’s original ‘90s skate styles which were criticised for being too bulky and wide footed (Bam Margera notoriously skated in non-Nike shoes and taped swooshes on them) the Dunks were redesigned with a fat, padded tongue, Air Zoom insole, raised, exaggerated profile logo on ollie areas, and modified rubber sole for traction. While appreciated by skaters, these details arguably came second to Nike SB's revisited marketing strategy. Unlike the brand's previous corporate-style strategy (which directly opposed common anti-establishment sentiments among skaters), Bodecker's approach was grass-roots-oriented: releases would not be mass-produced and distributed through big-box sportswear retailers. Instead, pairs would be available directly through select, independent skate shops.
Beyond the technical prowess, Bodecker looked to generate more hype around the sneakers by leaning into the custom colours of Pro B. Working in partnership with the Nike SB design team, each of the pro riders helped determine the look, feel, approach and tone of the SB Dunk. Dubbed the “Colors By” series, the pack of four signature Dunk Low Pro SB included the Gino Lanucci Long Island New York Dunk, the Richard Mulder Los Angeles Dunk, the Reese Forbes Wheat Dunk and the Danny Supa Los Angeles Dunk.
News of the special edition colours and limited release soon spread through the sneaker and skate communities. By the time the release rolled round, both groups were preparing to camp out to get their hands on a pair. “I opened HUF in 2002. We opened the store with some of the original SB ones. Kids found out we had them and we would just get calls and have kids knocking on the door asking for them, recalls the late Keith Hufnagel. “We didn’t know what to expect, we were brand new at retail and you could tell there was this demand. The skaters were buying them and the sneakerheads were buying them so it was this double whammy.”
It was at this point that Nike acknowledged that not only had they legitimised themselves within skate culture but they would also ignite a whole new era for modern-day sneaker collecting. Realising the success behind these subcultural alignments, the Nike SB team soon began exploring collaborations as a way to drum up more interest around the Dunk and further position it into the zeitgeist.
With the core of the SB Team established and amplified by their signature colorways, Nike SB used the Dunk to tell a larger story by leveraging pioneering East Coast brand, Zoo York. More than their connection to then team rider Danny Supa, Zoo’s rise was emblematic of a shift in skateboarding itself. Designed by co-founder and art director, Eli Morgan Gesner, the stenciled treatment mirrored Zoo’s aesthetic and sharp metropolitan take on type. The aesthetic paid tribute to Zoo York’s graffiti roots, in particular the original Soul Artists of Zoo York graffiti crew from the 70s that the skate company took its name from.
That same year, Supreme did the unthinkable by borrowing the “elephant” detailing of the AJ3 for their collaboration with Nike SB. The result was 500 pairs of an instant grail in two distinct colorways that expertly mashed up brand heritage with pure New York City influence and edge. Their later collaboration in 2004 would be iconolised by P-Rod in his first ad shot by Atiba Jefferson in the Supreme Dunk "Gold Star" Highs. In the Vice documentary P-Rod confessed he didn't know they were Supreme Dunks when he put them on for the ad, and that he just picked them out of a package Nike sent him because he thought they looked dope.
One aspect of the early Nike SB collaborations that is often overlooked is its partnerships in graffiti and art. Perhaps the most notable is Leonard Hilton McGurr a.k.a Futura, who in 2003 created the first art-fused Dunk. While his distinct hand and character work was best exemplified in the 2004 Dunk High Pro D.U.N.K.L.E. created in collaboration with frequent co -conspirator U.N.K.L.E., it was Futura’s eye for color and design that defined his debut Dunk two years prior. Using suede, leather and mesh, his tonal approach to the Dunk Low Pro SB calls back to the subway steel canvas where he found fame.
Going beyond just street art, Nike SB also looked to the upper echelons of the art world with a collaboration with French Painter Bernard Buffet in 2003. The style which featured the expressionist artists iconic clown and ballerina paintings was met with fervorous demand and has since become one of the most covetable styles in Nike SB history with some fetching up to $50K. There were evenreports of some turning up at factory outlets a few years later.
Later in 2005, Septic Death frontman turned artist Pushead applied his intricate inkwork and macabre modality to a Dunk Low Pro SB. Based on an original artwork created on a 35mm film slide, the Pushead Dunk was stained, burnished, and emblazoned by the hand that shaped generations of defiant independence. Renowned graffiti artist Josh Franklin, aka Stash, would also add to the Dunk line-up that year with a special release of just 50 pairs of Dunks decorated with paint drip on the lateral panels and his signature tag on the heel.
Further inroads to culture were perpetrated through music collaborations with the likes of hip-hop acts like De la Soul (2002), MF DOOM (2007) and the Stones Throw Quasimoto (2007) which honoured one of its artists alter ego. Elsewhere releases with bands like The Melvins (2005) and the indie rock trio Dinosaur Jr (2007) proved the Dunk’s reach beyond typical streetwear sneakerheads.
These collaborations combined with dozens of other special releases arguably ignited the sneaker resale market and camp-out culture, as well as boosting international sales on consumer websites such as eBay. Informed by the "gotta have them all" mentality of OG Japanese collector/retailers like Hidefumi Hommyo (of Chapter and Atmos), sneaker-specific boutiques like Undefeated popped up, region-specific releases were developed, and the sneaker culture we witness today was fully established.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this Dunk hysteria was when the Jeff Staple x Dunk Low Pro SB ‘Pigeon’ dropped 2005, inciting riots and police intervention. The chaos surrounding the drop made headlines and famously featured on CBS Evening News.
Even in the middle of the chaos of the Dunk phenomenon, skate shops stocking the shoes remained loyal to the skate community. Owners would hold pairs for the people who would actually use them for what they were made for: to skate in. “I remember that period, people were just going crazy for dunks.” recalls Brain Anderson, who joined the Nike SB team in 2004. “I would just skate in all the weird colours I got and I remember walking on Haight Street and sneaker junkies just tripping like “Damn fool, you skating in that?” I'm like yeah, man life’s too short to have all these crazy shoes collecting cobwebs in my closet, so yes.” Wieger van Wagninen shares the same sentiment of not being too precious about the shoes he was sent. “We would just get boxes sent to our house, but I was never a sneaker freak, '' he said to Vice. “For me they were just skate shoes so I just skated all of those shoes.”
Today, the Nike Dunk, transcends decades, crosses over sports and fashion and is now firmly recognized for its performance and street style. It's a style that is converted by sneaker collectors, casual fans and the fashion crowd, placing it as one of the most sought after styles of the moment. But after two years back in the limelight, it appears that the second wave of the Dunk seems to be hitting its crescendo.
As Highsnobiety’s year-end sneaker report showed (using StockX data), resell prices for newly-released Nike Dunks have fallen somewhat, illustrating that the peak of the hype is behind us. Despite this, Nike hasn’t stopped cashing in on the style. In 2021 they continued to flood the market with an overwhelming amount of releases, collaborations (Virgil Abloh’s Off-White arrived to the tune of 50 different styles alone), and the silhouette also launched on NikeiD. These are all purposeful moves to democratize the Dunk and bring it to the masses in a way the collaborations and limited runs from 2019 and 2020 didn’t.
As the style becomes more accessible to the masses it will undoubtedly lose its appeal until it eventually fades back into obscurity. This is the life cycle we’ve all seen play out many times for Nike and any other brand. It’s just what happens. But one thing that is guaranteed, is that the Dunk will forever persevere. The silhouette has gone from fresh to stale to vintage and back again before and this won’t be the last. The 2000s were recognised as the golden era of the Dunks, but its recent renaissance has been just as impactful if not bigger for a new generation - so why can’t we expect the same in another 20 years?
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