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Be True To Your School: The Complete History Of The Nike Dunk

Joey Birch
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We explore the history of the Nike Dunk trainer, its University origins & its more recent resurgence into the global sneaker scene.

When you think of the sneaker industry, your mind is immediately cast to Jordan, Yeezy, Converse etc. But there’s a cult favourite silhouette making a resurgence within the mainstream finding its way into more and more sneakerheads collections. The history of the Nike Dunk goes back to the key decade for a lot of classic Nike trainers…the 1980s.

The Nike Dunk was first released in 1985 in-state college colourways. These included the University of Michigan, Kentucky, Iowa, Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John’s and more. At the time of the release, Nike had a deal with the Universities which meant that the hightop version of the sneaker became the official basketball shoe worn by the various teams. These original Dunk colourways are some of the most coveted in the number of releases. When looking at the original silhouette of the sneaker, you may be seeing some resemblance to other Nike sneakers. This is intentional.

Nike Dunk History 1985

Above: The history of the Nike Dunk & the OG Nike Dunk Low trainer from 1985.

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The designer of the original Nike Dunk, Peter Moore, found inspiration in the construction of three of the biggest sneakers Nike has ever released. These are the Air Force One, initially released in 1982, the Air Jordan 1 which was first released in 1984 and the Nike Terminator which released in 1985. The chunky rubber midsole, along with the supple leather upper to support the ankle, were key features from the shoes’ inspiration that allowed for the silhouette to transcend basketball and tap into skateboarding.

14 years later, Nike released the first retro collection of the Dunks. The year was 1999; by this point, the sneaker was a massive hit. Re-releasing the original colourways using premium materials in both the original high and new low version, the sneaker had already become a classic. Within the same time frame, one of the most sought after collaborations in Nike’s history was born. The Nike Dunk x Wu-Tang friends and family sneaker. Using the Iowa University ‘Goldenrod’ colourway, the shoe was made with a striking black and yellow upper complete with a subtle white midsole and the famous Wu-Tang logo on the heel.

Nike Dunk Wu Tang

Above: The history of the Nike Dunk with the Nike Dunk High x Wu Tang Clan trainer from 1999.

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Originally, the Nike Dunk was designed with basketball in mind both in the way that the sneaker looked and felt. However, with a lot of popular sneakers, the shoe was being worn by skaters, basketball players and regular sneaker enthusiasts alike. With the introduction into skating, the Nike Dunk eventually extended the brand into a new phase – the Nike SB Dunk. Quick question: what does the SB in Nike SB stand for? If you said skateboarding, unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The answer is, in fact, Sandy Bodecker, the late Nike Designer who started his 36-year long career with the brand as a footwear tester.

Bodecker was the mastermind behind the Nike SB line, with the first Nike SB sneaker releasing in March 2002 aiming to supply skaters who were already shredding the Nike Dunks, a newer, lighter design that was tailored for skateboarding. While a lot of the design of the shoe still looked the same, the Nike SB Dunk came with a few new additions to craft it towards skating performance. This included a Zoom Air Pod in the insole to add comfort and to reduce impact, a towelling material in the lining of the shoe to further add comfort and support as well as the introduction of the padded tongue to help with ankle support. Pro skaters including Danny Supa, Reese Forbes and Gino Lanucci were given their own Dunks, bringing it further into the limelight.

Nike SB Dunks x Supreme Black Cement

Above: The history of the Nike Dunk with the Nike SB Dunk Low x Supreme Black Cement trainer from 2002.

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With the growing popularity, Nike had its first collaboration with Supreme on the SB Dunk Low. This was the collaboration that set the SB Dunk series on a trajectory that still lasts to this day. The shoe design was heavily inspired by the Air Jordan 3. Coming in 2 different colourways, the sneaker had the usual SB Dunk look to them with the addition of the classic elephant print leather around the upper as seen on the AJ3s. While at this point you’d be looking at dropping around £4,000 for a pair of these, at the time the retail price was only at $65. The collaboration wasn’t anywhere near as big as it would be today. The release was only stocked in the New York and Japan locations with 500 pairs ever to be made.

Following this collaboration, Nike SB created some of the biggest grails in its lineage. This included a vast variety of collaborations with different skate brands as well as pro skaters. This included companies such as Diamond Supply (with the first Tiffany Dunk), Stüssy, and a second collab with Supreme. 2003/04 also saw the release of the City Series Dunks. These were 4 different designs inspired by London, Paris, Japan and New York. The City Series was a huge phenomenon within the sneaker industry and is often looked at as a catalyst for sneaker reselling with the prices inflating by around 12,000% from $150 retail to $18,000 resell, which has since gone up even more.

Nike Dunk City Pack NYC Pigeon

Above: The history of the Nike Dunk with the Nike SB Dunk NYC ‘Pigeon’ trainer from the City Series Pack from 2003.

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Following this big boom, Nike SB Dunks, as well as Nike Dunks, seemed to fall off the map for a while. With new designs still being released, it seemed as if the traction Nike had with the Dunks was beginning to wain slightly. Of course, there were a few notable drops that still got people talking with the infamous Freddy Kruegers in 2007, the 3 Bears pack in 2008 and the Skunk 420 Highs in 2010 amongst others. Unless you were a Dunk collector, it seemed as if the silhouette was becoming an old classic. That is, until 2018. At Complexcon, an announcement was made that there was going to be a brand new Diamond Supply ‘Tiffany Dunk’ releasing. A limited number of 250 ‘Canary’ colourway Tiffany Dunks were to be released as an event exclusive. However, the release didn’t end up going ahead following 2 days of riots by people trying to cop the rare sneakers.

Much like everything in fashion and footwear, trends have come back around and the Nike Dunk and the SB Dunk has made a resurgence. Hot off the heels of Virgil Abloh’s ‘The Ten’, which saw the founder of Off-White put his spin on ten classic Nike silhouettes, December 20th 2019 saw the release of the Off-White Nike Dunk Lows in 3 of the classic colourways: the ‘Red Grey’ also known as ‘University Red’, ‘University Gold’ and ‘Pine Green’.

Nike Dunk x OFF-WHITE 2019

Above: The history of the Nike Dunk with the Nike SB Dunk x OFF-WHITE trainer from 2019.

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Following the release, the Nike Dunk has been pushed back into the mainstream with dedicated collectors and hypebeasts alike trying to grab a pair for the rotation. This was only further fuelled by the release of a Travis Scott Nike SB Dunk collaboration in late February 2020. The rapper and now serial Nike collaborator mixed the design up by including a bandanna material upper, rope style laces, varying colour swooshes finished off with tonal detailing and sole.

The latest, and possibly one of the most left-field, collaborations in sneaker history arrived on the 23rd May 2020. The Ben and Jerrys ‘Chunky Dunky’. This Nike SB Dunk is inspired by the famous ice cream producers. Taking inspiration from the ‘Chunky Monkey’ flavour, the pair created a completely original design for the shoe. A rolling hills sketch was added to the leather upper in conjunction with cow print and fo-hair. The rubber yellow swoosh has been made to look as if it’s dripping ice cream. With a select number of pairs coming in oversized Ben and Jerry’s ice cream tubs, the sneaker has become a collector’s item.

Nike Dunk Ben & Jerries

Above: The history of the Nike Dunk with the Ben & Jerry’s x Nike SB Dunk Low ‘Chunky Dunky’ trainer from 2020.

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With the Nike Dunk making a return, it will be interesting to see how the newer, younger, hypedriven sneaker audience takes to them. It will always have its place in the hall of fame within the sneaker industry, but time will tell how the silhouette will evolve and continue to mould skate & sneaker culture.

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