Q+A: Elliott Curtis

by June 20, 2012

by Yaron Weitzman | @YaronWeitzman

Sneakers are a passion for many people. Few, though, have dedicated as much time to seriously studying and learning about that passion the way Elliott Curtis has. (You may remember him from a couple previous SLAM stories. In SLAM 120, we wrote about the Carnegie Mellon University Sneakerology course that he founded; two years later, we wrote an online story about a trip he took across Europe).

Curtis is now teaching a Sneakerology course via Skillshare that will be open to the public (you can sign up here). SLAMonline spoke to Curtis about the course and the history of sneakers.

SLAM: Tell me about the Sneakerology 101 course that you started at Carnegie Mellon University.

Elliott Curtis: So back in 2008, me and a friend of mine, Jesse Chong, started the first accredited college course that was dedicated to sneaker culture. The course, and sneakerology in general, is dedicated to showing what sneakers say about us, what we can learn from shoes and how they connect to our culture, from both a pop culture and historical standpoint.

SLAM: So give me an example.

EC: An example is Chuck Taylor. Everyone knows his name because of the sneakers, but he wasn’t actually an NBA player; he was more of a basketball ambassador and salesman that would travel around the world teaching basketball and selling shoes. But from him, and the Chuck Taylor sneakers, well that’s one of the first times we see that when someone’s name is attached to a pair of sneakers, they become part of music and fashion and culture. And I also love that Chuck Taylor was a physical fitness instructor for the US Army in World War II.

SLAM: What do you enjoy most about teaching Sneakerology?

EC: I love that the class is not just for sneakerheads, and that people who aren’t sneakerheads come and enjoy it. Sneakerology in general is for anyone who has an interest in pop culture and where and how we connect to history. Obviously, I love the hype related stuff, and the sneaker blogs and discussing where you can find what limited releases, but we’re not teaching people to go wait on line for a specific shoe. Our focus is more about having a discussion into the idea of why people wait on line for a shoe, what it says about those people and our culture and where we are in terms of our history.

SLAM: Tell me about this class you’re going to be teaching in New York on June 27.

EC: It’s through a website called Skillshare, which is a website that allows people to sign up to teach a class that they would be considered an expert it, and then users can sign up to take that class. It’s a good way to bypass some of the walls the university system creates for people who want to learn. They approached me because they’re trying to make a push for more lifestyle and fashion based class. So next Wednesday, June 27, I’m going to be giving a class in New York.

SLAM: What’s the focus of the class?

EC: It’s an hour and a half, and what I’m trying to do is place sneakers in a historical context. I go from 1897 and the JW Foster and Sons relay track shoes and how that became Reebok in the ’50s, all the way up to the Air Jordans, which, obviously, is a very instrumental shoe in sneaker history. Jordan was actually considering leaving Nike before Tinker Hatfield came in and designed the Air Jordan IIIs and added the Jordan insignia. But after that happened, the rest kind of became history. After that, everything changed and players started to become these unbelievable icons.

SLAM: Give me another example of something that you talk about in your courses that most people don’t know.

EC: Well the story of how Jordan ended up at Nike is pretty incredible. Originally, he did not want to sign with Nike. He had worn Converse while at North Carolina, and, at that time, Converse was the No. 1 brand in the game. Jordan, though, was curious what Converse was going to do for him from a brand perspective. But when he asked, Converse said to him, “We have Dr. J, we have Larry [Bird], we have Magic… if you associate with us, don’t worry. You’ll also become the best.” Michael didn’t really like that answer. Well then you had Nike, which was this young, relatively new company, and they made a better pitch and told Michael that they would give him his own line. After they saw how well the Air Jordan Is did on the market, they realized they had something.

I also love the story of adidas and Puma. They were originally the same company, started in 1924, by these two brothers, Rudolf and Adolf Dassler, in a small town in Germany called Herzogenaurach. Eventually, though, they had this crazy family feud that was tied to Nazism and they ended up splitting in 1948. Rudolf created a company called Ruda, which eventually became Puma, and Adolf formed adidas, and this one city in Germany became completely split over the feud. It turned into something out of the Dr. Seuss book, The Butter Battle Book, where one side of the town eats “butter side up” and the other eats “butter side down.”