Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 'Clyde' Frazier and the B-Boys. From 1968 to the present, history of a cult sneaker

Some objects lose their original meaning, becoming unintentional manifestos of historical periods, social movements, and sporting moments. Like the Puma Suede: cult sneakers that, in more than 50 years, managed to taste Olympic podiums, NBA hardwoods, and B-Boys’ creativity.

“Things are not important for what they are,” Indro Montanelli emphasized, “But for what each person puts into them.” In the Puma Suede people and history have more or less consciously put a lot, starting back in 1968.

SMITH AND CARLOS, THE BLACK SCREAM OF MEXICO CITY

Back in time, the Suede was not a ordinary sneaker and its genesis matched with the Mexican Olympics, the sporting event that most of all managed to intertwine with the flow of the outside world.

The Mexican Games were the edition of great socio-political movements, Dick Fosbury’s backflip and, above all, the black fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Here the Suede started its journey as a warm-up sneaker. 

“I wore the black glove on my right hand and Carlos used the left one. My fist meant the power of Black America. Carlos’s the unity of Black America. Together we shaped an arc of power and unity,” said Tommie Smith, portraying the silent protest that shocked the American and international establishment.

It all happened in a few intense moments. The gold and bronze medalists in the 200 meters created the iconic gesture in the heart of an unsuspecting University Olympic Stadium.

The ‘Texasn Jet’ Smith, a new world record holder, led the trio (Australian Peter Norman joined the American duo too), taking the Puma Suede’s in his hands. Carlos did the same, walking over tartan and grass with only his black socks: a symbol of African American poverty.

The two U.S. sprinters stepped onto the podium, first raised their shoes to the sky, then placed them on their sides, showing the Olympic Project for Human pin on their chests (also Norman wore the pin). During the U.S. anthem, they both bowed their heads and, simultaneously, raised their fists and their black gloves.

Smith and Carlos created an iconic moment and a powerful social protest in front of the global audience. They showed that so-called racial progress represented, in reality, only a feeble utopia: a fatuous fire, smothered by persistent institutionalized racism and the tragic conditions that gripped the U.S. black minority.

Smith and Carlos encapsulated all the Black Power ideals in a plastic pose, with the help of some symbolic objects. The Puma Suede was part of them, and it instantly became part of an eternal image.

‘CLYDE’ FRAZIER AND THE SNEAKERS RISE

Before modern works of art on the feet, and pharaonic sponsorships. Walt Frazier with the Puma Suede was one of the first to break the wall of the sneakers.

“It was a great journey inside my ego. I was the only player in any professional sport to have a shoe named after himself. At first I told Puma that I would never wear the shoes he was proposing, not even if they paid me,” the legendary point guard who was the NBA champion in 1970 and 1973 with the New York Knicks still remembers.

The Hall of Famer was the first to directly work on a shoe with a brand. Frazier’s sneaker was more flexible, lighter than the classic Suede. And he began wearing the Suede branded ‘Clyde’ shoes.

The combination of the black feline brand and Frazier immediately dazzled the general American public. The appeal of the Knicks’ number 10, called ‘Clyde’ for his unusual Fedora hats – the same kind of hat worn by the notorious criminal Clyde Barrow (played on the big screen by Warren Beatty), – exponentially increased the status of the Suede.

“We sold so many shoes between New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that we didn’t need to sell them in the rest of the United States….” The ‘Clyde’ became the forbidden dream of millions of U.S. kids, a kind of magic product.

Teenagers in those early 1970s needed only $25 to feel like Walt Frazier, the most stylish metronome in the League of Dreams: the man who on top of the hardwood floor wore Pumas and outside bundled up in luxurious furs, driving Rolls-Royces. The Suede spread to American streets, schools, playgrounds and sidewalks.

B-BOYS AND B-GIRLS, THE RHYTHMIC ASPHALT

It was in 1973 and Kool Herc kicked off the underground New York B-Boys movement with his musical inventions. The culture quickly grew in the Black streets of the Big Apple, and found in the Puma Suede the perfect partner.

From Madison Square Garden to the Bronx. This new style influenced by gymnastics, James Brown, and kung-fu movies flooded the corners of the Avenues, serving as peaceful counterbalances to violent gang feuds.

Breaking became a daily liturgical ritual, influencing hip hop, Block parties, and parallel social phenomena, such as writing, that soon reached international appeal.

In these generational innovations, the Puma Suede, that was already wear by many kids in New York’s working-class hoods, found its paradise.

The Suede became a trademark for the B-Boys and their crews, such as the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew, that dramatically increased the breaking popularity.

The Suede had a double meaning: on the one hand, it confirmed the status quo of every B-Boy, on the other, it gave to everyone the chance of showing a highly athletic, spectacular, and physical dance, using performance shoes that would also enter the skating world a few years later.

FOREVER SUEDE, FOREVER AUTHENTIC

If the timeless form and iconic Formstrip of the Suede managed to live and evolve for half a century, the same cannot be said of the meaning of this cult sneaker, which has been reinvented countless times through the lens of different styles, cultures, and communities. And this process is still ongoing.

From 1968 to 2024. It is no coincidence that the aura and appeal of this object continues to inspire the sensibilities of every sneakerhead and beauty lover. And it is no coincidence that Puma continues to trust one of its greatest insights, as evidenced by the reintroduction of the Suede this 2024.

A Puma Icon. This is the Suede’s status, according to the German brand. And there could be no better definition.  And who knows how many new meanings this sneaker will manage to convey in the future.

Credits:

IMAGO / Pond5 Images

PUMA