Nike kickstarted sneaker culture as we know it today when it introduced the SB Dunk in 2002. For years the boxy silhouette drew long lines and commanded exorbitant prices on the resell market before stepping aside to let other silhouettes shine. In the last two years, the Swoosh has revitalized the SB Dunk, bringing it back to the forefront of the conversation while sending resell prices sky high. Here’s how it happened.
When did the Nike SB Dunk first become a Thing? It’s a good question, one with different answers depending on what matters most to you.
For skateboarders, the people for whom the shoe was ostensibly designed, what matters is the Golden Age from the tailend of the 1990s to the late-2000s. If you’re a sneakerhead, the SB Dunk story begins and ends with a selection of limited edition colorways that, along with a handful of other specific silhouettes like Air Jordans and Bapestas, first turned the phenomenon of sneaker collecting from a connoisseurial practice to a force in its own right, one that brands would eventually embrace as a driving force in street culture.
The central paradox of the SB Dunk is the irresolvable contradiction that exists between those for whom it was a skate shoe like any other and those for whom it had transcended to the level of streetwear culture’s very own Fabergé Egg, a finite number of coveted sneakers whose number was perpetually dwindling due to the perishability of the product itself.
There’s a lot to unpack from here, so let’s start at the beginning.
Nike Reinvents the Dunk For Skaters
The SB Dunk bears more than a passing resemblance to the Air Force 1, Air Jordan 1 and the original Dunk. That’s because all three silhouettes started out as basketball sneakers and emerged in the same era.
The AF1 debuted in 1982. The Nike Dunk (not to be confused with the Nike SB Dunk) and the AJ1 released three years later in 1985. In the years that followed, the shoes would all gain popularity with skaters, thanks to the cushioning, support and durability they offered.
On the surface, that was it. The popularity of Dunks, in particular, among skaters pertained to very utilitarian questions around features and components that either improved upon, or detracted from, the shoe’s suitability as a skate shoe.
In 1999, Nike reintroduced the Dunk and embarked on a series of changes that signaled a transition from the court to the curb. The “Pro B” model, for instance, featured a number of technical adjustments and subtle variations, while the “Ross” teased an entirely new era to come with griptape-like paneling across the upper.
Most significant, however, was the introduction of a chunky, padded tongue that greatly improved the shoe’s comfort and fit for skaters. Indeed, the various dis- and reappearances of the trademark chunky, padded tongue caused hot controversies among SB fanatics throughout the 2000s.
Nonetheless, the success of the Dunk as a skate model was by no means a sure thing.
It was the late, legendary general manager Sandy Bodecker who pushed Nike to not just release skate-oriented models, but identify the shoes skaters actually wore, and adjust those models to meet their wearers’ needs.
In 2002, Nike SB, the Swoosh’s skateboarding division, officially introduced the SB Dunk, creating a model that didn’t just satiate skaters, but listened and talked back with unique colorways and collaborations with their favorite brands.
Culture and Cosigns Go Hand in Hand
Culturally, the SB Dunk phenomenon can be traced to 2002, when Nike collaborated with what was then a little-known skate brand out of New York named Supreme. Despite being less than a decade old and scarcely known outside of its hometown and Japan, the brand had enough cultural caché that the collaboration sent shockwaves in all directions.
Fusing a black-and-red color scheme with “Elephant” textured panels from iconic Air Jordan designs, the shoe elevated Supreme to streetwear royalty and established Nike as a major sportswear brand with authentic, credible ties to New York’s influential subcultures of skating, graffiti and hip-hop.
Future collaborations would follow suit, leveraging the sneaker silhouette as a canvas on which any number of cultural signifiers and meta-cultural references could be applied. There’s the unofficial “Heineken” model from 2003, Diamond Supply Co.’s infamous 2005 ”Tiffany Blue” edition and the weed-inspired 2010 SB Dunk High “Skunk.”
Most importantly there’s the original Pigeon Dunk, created in collaboration with streetwear veteran Jeff Staple, which made headlines when sneakerheads, looking to get their hands on a pair, started riots at the Lower East Side’s Reed Space. It’s something Jeff talks about to this day.
The Dunk as Blank Canvas
The underlying appeal of the SB Dunk for collaborative releases is that its timeless design gave creatives carte blanche. The simple paneled construction meant it was easy for any collaborative partner to‘make it their own with a few tasteful color and material choices. And with each new iteration, the story grew, along with the mystique. They were creating their own chapters and weaving them into a much larger cultural narrative.
It’s the confluence of those two aspects—the SB Dunk as a Fabergé Egg for the streetwear set and the SB Dunk as a blank canvas—that has allowed the shoe to endure not just as a historical curio, but as a phenomenon that is now is being revitalized at a time when big, chunky sneakers feel anathema to the prevailing youth trends of skinny pants and boxy jackets.
So why now?
The SB Dunk Returns, More Hyped Than Ever
In just the last year, the SB Dunk has returned with a slew of collaborative models whose thematic consistencies run the gamut. What could Houston rapper Travis Scott, hippie-founded Vermont ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, improv rock icons Grateful Dead and a Sony VX1000 camcorder possibly have in common, least of all localized around a humble skate shoe?
The simple answer is that the SB Dunk is a marker of cultural significance and a product that is culturally significant in itself. It’s a Superbowl ad. A cameo on The Simpsons. A Google Doodle. A gesture that affirms the significance of itself and whomever it has brought along for the ride.
It’s the same force that drives people to Supreme’s accessories page every six months, discovering the weird, wild and wonderful cultural artifacts that have been deemed worthy of adornment with the unmistakable red box logo.
Additionally, the duality of cyclical fashion and nostalgia is a powerful force. Many of today’s biggest sneakerheads were first exposed to the kicks craze in the early 2000s as teenagers. 20 years later, they have the disposable income to reward their younger selves.
For the generation that’s just coming up, today’s most influential cultural leaders are penning a new chapter. See Virgil Abloh’s hiking-inspired take or Travis Scott’s pattern-blocked iteration, both instant sellouts that command thousands on the resell market.
Across the board, selling out isn’t just a possibility for the SB Dunk—it’s the shoe’s raison d’etre. Make no mistake, the Dunk is back. And by the time you’ve read this, the Dunk has sold out. Better luck next time.
Lead image: Off-White x Nike SB Dunk Low “University Red.”
Gregk Foley is a UK-based writer. His works appear in Dazed, Highsnobiety and SHOWstudio. Follow Gregk on Twitter.