With recent launches of the shoe selling out in seconds, the Nike Dunk is a cultural icon that represents way more than just a fresh pair of sneaks.
From its launch in 1985 to collaborations with Ben & Jerrys, Travis Scott and Supreme in the 21st Century, the Nike Dunk is a silhouette that fuses footwear with culture.
The Launch of an Icon
Designed by former Nike Creative Director, and designer of the Jordan 1, Peter Moore the Nike Dunk was seen as the next step after the Air Force 1 from 1982.
Noticeably influenced by both the Jordan 1 and Nike Terminator the Nike Dunk was originally named the College Colour High however the shoe coincided with the 40th anniversary of the “first” slam dunk, which led to a last-minute name change.
On release, Nike launched the "Be True to Your School" campaign which is one of the most memorable and iconic collections from the Swoosh. The Dunk was designed as a shoe for college basketball teams. Nike wanted to provide Division One college team players with colour-coordinated Dunks which fans could then buy to match.
UNLV, Michigan, St. John’s, Syracuse, Iowa and Kentucky (amongst others) all received their own “Be True” silhouettes. Throughout the late 80s, the Dunk became a favourite among college students and basketball players but as the sport became more popular focus shifted towards sneakers which showed technical innovation meaning the Dunk became outdated.
However, this switch led to the transition from the courts to the skate parks for the Dunk. During the decade the Dunk saw subtle changes like the introduction of a nylon tongue to reduce weight, a shorter shaft and a thicker swoosh. These changes and the hard-wearing, thin sole saw the Dunk appeal to a whole new community.
From the Courts to the Skate Parks
The skate community quickly adopted Dunks as their go-to shoe. Dunks were spotted in skate videos and by the early 90s skating's most iconic figure including the Z-Boys and Mark Gonzales were repping Dunks. However, it took years for Nike to break into the skate scene.
Although Nike Dunks and Jordan 1s had been worn by skaters for years the brand had struggled to break into the division.
In 2001 General Manager of Nike SB Sandy Bodecker was given the task of revamping Nike SB. Bodecker’s solution was to make subtle changes to the silhouette sneakers already wore. He believed the Dunk should be reimagined with a version specifically for skaters.
Skaters Reese Forbes, Gino Ianucci, Richard Mulder and Danny Supa were drafted in as the faces of Nike SB to help create the best silhouette for skateboarding. Padding was added to the insole to reduce impact, and the sole was swapped for a thicker rubber for better traction against grip tape. However, the most obvious change was the replacement of the Nylon tongue for the 'fat tongue'.
When the SB Dunk Low Pro launched in 2002 Reese Forbes, Gino Ianucci, Richard Mulder and Danny Supa were each given an exclusive colourway inspired by the original "Be True" series.
Named the "Colours By" series each colourway was representative of its rider and was entirely intended for skaters.
Nike SB continued to drop collaborative Dunks with both Zoo York and Chocolate and Supreme. The Supreme SB Dunks saw the culmination of Nike Dunk's infiltration into the skating world as the first-ever non-Jordan sneakers to feature elephant print.
Original catalogue pages from Nike Basketball's 1985 footwear collection. (Nike)
The Rise of the Sneakerhead
Fourteen years after the first release, Nike decided to re-release the 'Be True to Your School' pack in 1999. The re-releases saw a couple of new colourways drop, including the legendary 'Wu-Tang' Dunk. Featuring the same colourways as the Iowa Dunk, this silhouette featured an embroidered 'Wu W' on the heel. Just 36 pairs were created these were gifted to Wu-Tang Clan members and associates.
For sneakerheads, their main focus was to collect the 'Be True' pack however thanks to sneaker forums they became aware of regional exclusives like the CO.JP releases that were exclusive to Japan.
The search for regional exclusives led to fans making trips across the globe to find rare and new Dunks.
2001 saw the first brand collaboration Dunk with Stüssy. The design was the product of Gimme Five (the company’s European distributor at the time) founder Michael Kopelman, Simon Porter and Nike creative Fraser Cooke. The collaboration was sold exclusively at Stüssy's chapter stores and was available in three colourways, two highs and one low.
Released over the process of two weeks, each store was instructed to sell 12 pairs per colourway per day which created unprecedented demand.
A trio of Dunk High collaborations with Supreme kept the Dunk at the centre of the sneakerhead universe, however, a surge in interest in Jordan retros in the 00s meant that demand for Dunks fell.
Over the next few years, notable models from the “Brazil” and “Celtic” Dunks to a trio of collaborative Dunk highs with Supreme helped the Dunk stay at the centre of sneakerhead culture. By the mid-2000s, with a renewed interest in Jordan retros, Dunks began to falter; despite “Be True” retros in 2003 and 2012, respectively, for the most part, consumers lost interest in the silhouette.
Despite the fall of mainline Dunks in the 00s, the Nike Dunk SB was causing riots (literally) with collaborations such as Jeff Staple's 'Pigeon' SB Dunk Lows.
From collaborations with Guns 'n Roses to the trio of 'Bear' Dunks inspired by Goldilocks the Nike Dunk SB became gold dust.
However, demand for SBs began to tail off by 2010 but the decline in interest was swiftly followed by a comeback from mainline Dunks.
2015 saw the re-release of the 'Be True to Your School Pack', and put Nike Dunk back on people’s radar.
In 2016 Comme des Garçons Homme Plus put Dunk highs on the catwalk, with a black/teal/white colourway with a transparent PVC upper. Vintage was also making a comeback on the streets with an interest in vintage trainers taking off which led to the likes of Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones searching for the vintage silhouettes.
In 2019 Abloh and Nike released the Off-White Dunk Low inspired by the “Be True” colourways.
If there was one collaboration that has led to the increase in interest in Dunks we've seen over the past year it's the 'Cactus Jack' SB Dunk designed by rapper Travis Scott who has been spotted repping some of the rarest SB Dunks himself.
Want to know when we drop the latest Nike Dunk? Keep it locked into Just Landed and our Instagram.