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From Ballers to B-boys: The Rich History of PRO-Keds
The brand pays homage to its roots in sport and culture as it enters a new era as a lifestyle staple.

Nowadays, seeing a sneaker go from the feet of a pro athlete to the streets where youth culture bustles happens almost instantaneously. But the blue print for this trend goes back many decades. One of the pioneers of this influence on the style set was PRO-Keds. Founded in 1949, the Royal silhouette made its triumphant debut on the basketball court, providing a technically-minded shoe for ballers. In the decades that followed, it would remain a fixture of the hardwood while infiltrating into various subcultures that dictated trends, including dance, hip-hop and skate. In fact, the silhouette became so ubiquitous that it was considered an “it” sneaker before the concept of an “it” sneaker existed. Equipped with decades of cultural cache, PRO-Keds is heading into a new era with its latest versions of the Royal, informed by its rich history.

The Origin Story

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Long before the athlete signature sneaker came to be — and even before athletes became cultural influencers — PRO-Keds recognized the impact of these talents beyond the game. Though Keds was founded in 1916 and was known for its practical canvas upper and utilitarian rubber sole, it wasn’t until 1949 that PRO-Keds came to be in response to a new generation of power athletes looking for footwear that matched their high level of performance. Among them was George Mikan, whose towering 6’10” stature defied the look and play style of the time. Not only did he lay the groundwork for the power center position as we know it today, he also set the stage for athlete endorsements, sporting the Royal on the court (and in five NBA championships with the Minneapolis Lakers) as well as in advertisements. From there, the PRO-Keds brand took off.

On The Court

From the 1950s through the 80s, PRO-Keds remained a popular choice for basketball’s best, with silhouettes like the Skyhawk standing out amongst competitors for its attention to athletes’ needs as well as its tag lines, like “PRO-Keds. We come to play” and “All Pros, No Cons.” It became the preferred shoe of iconic names in the sport. The list of basketball players who wore PRO-Keds reads like a Hall of Fame roster. George Lehmann, Pete Maravich, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Tiny Archibald and Magic Johnson have all worn the brand’s shoes, which by the 70s and 80s had become instantly recognizable to fans for their twin stripe design on the upper.

Not Just for Basketball

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With a rubber sole and simple, yet impactful, high top design, the PRO-Keds’ dedication to creating the best for its athletes expanded into other sporting arenas. The brand made appearances in the Super Bowl on quarterback Joe Theisman and in the World Series on Johnny Bench. The tennis court was also a popular place for the label, offering a preppy slant on the sports-derived silhouettes.

In The Streets

While the PRO-Keds Royal made an impact in the sports world, the 1969 release of the Super is what solidified it as a staple in the streets. With the style’s popularity sky rocketing in the Bronx and Harlem, the shoe received the nickname, “The Uptowner.” There, the low top canvas kicks could be seen on tastemakers, like DJ Kool Herc, Frosty Freeze and Afrika Bambaattaa, in the neighborhoods’ vibrant music and dance scenes, trickling into culture for the next two decades to become one of the most recognizable style staples of the time.

For the Style Set

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Another indication of PRO-Keds infiltration into the fashion, music and art space is its long list of collaborators, which range from iconic musicians to influential brands and boutiques. By nature, PRO-Keds shoes serve as a blank canvas, providing the ideal slate for each entity to apply its distinct aesthetic. For example, Stüssy worked with the artist Haze for its partnership with the brand, while Wacko Maria completely reimagined the footwear styles in pink and black suede with its signature record logo. Union utilized a series of painterly fabrics on its iteration of PRO-Keds. Similarly, Solebox, Patta, HUF and NEIGHBORHOOD each provided varying perspectives via the shoes. Holistically, the partnership archives serve as a showcase of the different corners of culture that the brand has touched.

A New Generation of PRO-Keds

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With more than seven decades of a heritage that runs deep, PRO-Keds is ushering in a new era of style — one that pays tribute to its past while remaining firmly planted within today’s scene. One thing about the history of the brand is that it has remained true to its ethos of making a statement by being understated. This rings true in its latest offering of the Royal Plus, which draws on the design and details that made the brand a household name. Coming through in high and low top options in a range of colors from neutrals to seasonal prints, each sports the iconic double stripe on the sole to offer a subtle symbol of style.

The latest assortment of core styles from PRO-Keds includes a wide selection of colorways, prints and materials, including canvas, leather, suede and perforated mesh for both men and women. To shop the PRO-Keds Royal, head to the brand’s website where the shoe is available for men and women with prices beginning at $60 USD. PRO-Keds will also be launching a line for kids later this month.

Jamel Shabazz
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