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How the Nike Dunk Offered Something to All Types of Sneaker Fans 35 Years After Its Debut

On Dec. 8, the Nike Dunk will be honored as Shoe of the Year at the first virtual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 7 print issue about the iconic sneaker, which dominated headlines throughout 2020 with atypical collaborations, celebrity fandom and heritage-inspired colorways. 

The Peter Moore-designed Nike Dunk was an on-court staple in the 1980s, laced up by prominent college basketball teams across the country.

However, like other classics from the Swoosh, the beloved silhouette has found new life in the decades that followed — and this year was one for the record books.

“It’s been an exciting year for our team as we worked to reimagine the iconic Nike Dunk through new dimensions, colorways, materials and authentic collaborations,” Phil McCartney, Nike VP of global footwear product merchandising, told FN. “Together, we embraced newness but also sought to honor our heritage, champion the shoe’s cultural legacy and celebrate the defining spirit of creativity inherent in the Nike Dunk’s DNA.”

Throughout the year, hit collabs largely fueled the shoe’s fandom, including statement Dunks by rap star Travis Scott, as well as looks inspired by legendary rock band the Grateful Dead and beloved ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s.

The love for the Nike Dunk collaborations was so great that several looks sold for thousands of dollars on the resale market not long after flying off shelves. For instance, the Ben & Jerry’s “Chunky Dunky” was priced at almost $10,000 on StockX within days of its retail release.

Nike SB Dunk Low Ben Jerry's Chunky Dunky
Nike SB Dunk Low x Ben & Jerry’s “Chunky Dunky.”
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

Nike also moved the needle in 2020 by nodding to the Dunk’s college hoops roots: Among the many versions to hit retail were styles inspired by universities with historic basketball programs, most notably Kentucky and Syracuse.

Off-White founder Virgil Abloh, who delivered several colorways this year of the Rubber Dunk, explained that the sneaker has deep significance. “There are multiple cultural underpinnings that make this shoe special. Obviously, its relation to the heritage of the Air Jordan 1 is important, [and] it’s on-the-court styling and shape and performance of the shoe during the college basketball era,” he told FN. “You could get the aesthetic of the iconic Jordan 1, but in the colorways of many top basketball schools.”

Although the Dunk got its start in basketball, the skate community gave the sneaker new life in 2002, with the creation of the Nike SB line. And fans of the Dunk SB had plenty to cheer about this year.

“The Nike Dunk shows the world how much skateboarding has transcended and steered the look of streetwear culture,” skate icon Eric Koston told FN. “I believe that skateboarding has had a heavy influence on fashion and culture for a long time, and with the year that the Dunk has had, it has helped solidify that.

Legendary skater Paul Rodriguez — who collaborated on a Mexican boxing-inspired Dunk High this year — said Nike’s design efforts offer something to both newcomers, as well as longtime sneaker fans.

“The new generation of kids coming up are discovering the Nike Dunk just like my generation was doing 15, 20 years ago,” Rodriguez told FN. “This year’s Dunk releases make the style feel brand new, and for us that our older, it brings back nostalgia.”

Ambush x Nike Dunk High
Ambush x Nike Dunk High.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

Although 2020 has already been chock-full of hits, Nike is keeping its foot on the gas and will deliver one of the year’s best Dunk collabs this month: a high-top silhouette given a new look by Yoon Ahn of Ambush.

Speaking with FN, the Ambush co-founder said her interpretation of the Dunk High was a “love call” to Japan and was greatly inspired by her Japanese culture.

“[The Dunk is] something that lasted this long and it has become a part of a new scene,” Ahn said. “It tells that it’s transcended its time, it’s here to stay, and I think it definitely deserved Shoe of the Year for that reason.”

Despite having their own Dunks to choose from, Ahn and Abloh (who will present Nike with its award) both picked one particular version as the year’s best: the Swarovski crystal-adorned Dunk Low by Cactus Plant Flea Market. They explained that the CFPM release proved that the classic Nike style could be reimagined with elements never used on the silhouette before — without losing its DNA.

“The Nike Dunk is deserving of Shoe of the Year because it truly is a canvas. It exists in a space where it can take on multiple identities, but still remain a Dunk at its core,” Abloh explained. “Whether it’s the colorways or the material choices, they all have a factor in the sustainability of that.”

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For 34 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards ­— often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The first virtual FNAAs will air online Dec. 8 and are presented in partnership with The Style Room Powered by Zappos, and sponsors FDRA, Deckers Brands, Soles4Souls and Foot Locker. 

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