In 1973, while your ‘rents were busy looking after pet rocks and staring deep into their lava lamps, Stan Smith was number one in the world tennis rankings. It’s no wonder then that putting his face on an adidas shoe brought about one of the most successful sneaker collaborations of our time – one lauded by the likes of Jay Z, Marc Jacobs and John Lennon. Although his tennis career is long over, Stan and his shoe remain key icons of sport and sneaker culture. And with adidas relaunching the shoe, they’ve come back to the forefront in a big way.
Honouring the occasion, Melbourne gallery Fortyfivedownstairs hosted an exhibition celebrating the Stan Smith, both man and shoe, showcasing the artwork of ten varied artists. And we were lucky enough to catch some time with him.
How does it feel to once again be launching your iconic adidas shoe?
It’s nice to see it coming back in a big way. We’re seeing stuff now from London, Paris, Berlin, the US, and Australia, but it’s amazing what’s going on as far as this relaunch of the shoe. It’s gone through all sorts of evolution in the last 40 years but we’re back to really the original shoe.
That’s exciting! When you see people on the street rocking a pair of Stan Smiths how do you feel? Is it still exciting or are you too used to it now?
Well it’s funny. I see somebody and I can see that they’re wearing the shoe and I’m tempted to ask them where they got the shoe and how long they’ve been wearing it. But there’s been hundreds of stories where people have come up to me and said “I’ve been wearing the shoe for my whole life. I’ve never worn another shoe,” and this guy here [Will Arnett] said he kissed a girl in the shoes, so that was a cute line. But you know, there’s people that have worn the shoe their whole lives. This one guy in London met this girl while wearing the shoes and 20 years later he got married and he actually wore the shoes at the ceremony, which is kind of weird.
I think that’s sweet. You have your own story with the shoes and everyone else has theirs.
Yeah, well that’s the thing! All these people here [in the exhibition] actually told their stories in the video. You know, it’s international, it really is. It was originally a French shoe before I started getting involved. The guy that designed it was Robert Haillet, the number one French player. Then Horst Dassler, who was Adi Dassler’s son, they got together and designed the shoe and then I got involved with it. It’s been an international shoe ever since. You see it in Japan, China, all over Europe, in Australia, and in the US of course.
That’s true. It’s informed the styles of so many different subcultures and it’s amazing that it’s managed to transcend the barriers that normally exist between their fashions. Why do you think the shoe is able to do that?
I think it’s because it’s just so simple. You know you see these photographs here of people wearing all sorts of different things with it. It’s simple, it’s clean, it’s white, it’s something you can wear with anything. Practically you can wear it with anything in your wardrobe, being white. And it’s a clean look, although some people don’t like it when it’s clean and some people don’t like to wear it when it’s not clean. So you get all sorts of interesting styles.
You’ve become the face of this thing that’s so huge. Do you see yourself as a style icon?
Yeah, I really don’t see myself as a style icon. The subcultures that started it though are amazing actually. The first stories I heard were with different organisations like a fraternity or a sorority, a tennis team or a group of kids – people where you’ve got almost like gang situations. I’ve heard of those things over the years and it’s strange to see what’s happened. But it’s been fun to see.
In every photo I’ve ever seen of you, you have this fabulous moustache going on. Why is it missing from the iconic graphic of your face found on the tongue of the Stan Smiths?
[Laughs.] Well, I’ve had a moustache from probably age 22 or 23 onward and when I made the arrangement with adidas I was probably 25 or something, so for a period of time I shaved it off – for the only six-month period of time in the last 40 years – and it just happened to be during that time.
Awesome! So you were number one in the world rankings when adidas came forward with their proposition. Surely others had the same idea – had you turned down anyone else down before signing with adidas?
I was wearing another shoe at the time, a canvas shoe like everybody wore, and so I really had a relationship going there. There was a group of us actually who were wearing the shoe, but then this opportunity came up so I kind of dropped that. Since then, I have never really looked at other companies for shoes. I’ve worn other clothing. I had a clothing line with my own name on it for about five years and then I was very serious about Lacoste and was considering that because it was such high quality. But the reason I gravitated towards adidas for the shoe was because of the high quality, but also with the clothing as well. It was the best brand at the time. It’s evolved and had different ups and downs but it’s still a great brand.
You obviously have a very good relationship with adidas.
Oh yeah, it’s part of my family. I was thinking – I’ve probably been with the company longer than anybody else. That may not be true, but over 40 years, if I’m not the one that’s been there the longest, then I’m one of the ones. Probably some people in Herzogenaurach, which is where the headquarters are, have been there longer.
When you think about those early days with adidas, what memories and feelings does it conjure up?
The main thing that I think about is that I had no idea that I’d be standing here today with the shoe being as popular as it is, and, in fact, I didn’t have a lot to do with it. A lot of people think I’m a shoe, and in reality, it doesn’t bother me too much. I gave a [tennis] clinic one time and [Björn] Borg had just retired and there were these 12-year-old kids and I didn’t want to use myself as what they might want to be so I said to them “Who wants to be like Björn Borg?” and they didn’t know who he was. It’s a natural thing for people not to know so a lot of young people here have worn the shoe or they’ve known about the shoe but they don’t know the history of the shoe.
It must be the same with Chuck Taylors or Jack Purcells.
Exactly! Those guys, I wore those shoes – the Jack Purcells and the Chuck Taylors. But I didn’t know – I think Chuck Taylor was a basketball player; I’m not sure about Jack Purcell. But I’m sure a lot of people are saying the same thing about me: “I didn’t know that Stan Smith played tennis or that he was a good player.” But that doesn’t really bother me because it’s pretty normal, pretty natural.
It’s interesting though, because you’ll live on forever through the shoe.
Well, it’ll be interesting to see how this all evolves. I mean I didn’t think it was here to stay in the beginning but now I’m thinking maybe. But who knows?
So when did you realise that it was really becoming a huge success?
When I saw it as I travelled around the world – in Japan, in China, in Europe, in Spain and Italy – in all these different places where I didn’t play that much. And then they made it in different colours and different looks and I realised that this is more than just a shoe – it’s got some other things going on. But it got heavily discounted and that’s how they took it off the market. But they want to try to keep that niche there, keep the image of the shoe at a certain level. It’s not an expensive shoe, so that’s another reason I think that it’s been accessible to most people. It’s not like it’s a Michael Jordan $250 shoe.
What do you think about the poor Australian Open contenders having to go out in this epic heatwave this week?
Well you know one of the first times I played here, the final was against Ken Rosewall, and it started out to be really hot in the beginning of the match and then within an hour or so it started to get colder and colder and then it actually hailed and the tents blew down and then they started again after they cleaned everything up and it was about 20 degrees cooler. So the heat is an issue, but players are expecting it to be hot down here. Normally it’s not excessively hot. Today is a little cooler than normal but yesterday was a little hotter than normal so it’s always somewhere and you’ve got to be ready to play in heat and that’s why players have to come down early. The reason I didn’t play this tournament too many times when I was playing was that it started the day after Christmas, on Boxing Day. So people didn’t want to come two weeks beforehand and miss Christmas at home especially after they’ve just been playing the whole year. So you’ve got to be committed – you’ve got to be here at least two weeks ahead of time to get used to it. But it’s a good opportunity for the lesser players to have some upsets.
Thanks for giving us your time Stan. Last words?
[Pointing to the fish tank.] Want to get a drink of water?
The Stan Smith shoe will be available online and at adidas Originals stores and selected retailers from January 15.