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Politics, Power, Rihanna: A Colourful History of the PUMA Suede

Here's how Tommie Smith, Clyde Frazier, and RiRi had a hand in steering the Suede's legacy

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Sneaker releases are a bigger deal than ever before: billions are fed into the hype machine to give every new release a shot at becoming a cult classic. But PUMA’s legacy sneaker, the PUMA Suede, came well before the the focus groups and A/B testing. The 50-year-old sneaker has found itself at the centre of seismic cultural shifts for the last half-century — often, by coincidence. To truly trace the lineage of the Suede, we have to first understand the tense circumstance it was created in.

The brand we now know as PUMA was founded in 1924 by brothers Rudolf and Adolf Dassler at the helm — but after almost two decades working collaboratively, the brothers’ relationship began to sour. They divided employees and assets equally, with Adolf creating adidas, and Rudolf continuing on with PUMA. By ‘68, the rivalry between adidas and PUMA (which, by then, had been boiling for 20-odd years) was reaching a fever pitch. Adidas had crept ahead in sport shoe market, but PUMA were on the precipice of a breakthrough.

01. 1960s

Tommie Smith with the PUMA Suede, 2018 | courtesy of PUMA

In the 1960s there were just two choices for athletic shoe uppers: canvas or leather. Enter: the PUMA Suede. At the time, suede was considered a luxury fabric, usually reserved for evening wear and purses. Because it was harder to clean than leather, it seemed counter-intuitive to use on a shoe. Rudi Dassler thought otherwise. (In fact, it was the delicate nature suede that would later help bolster the shoe’s cult status — ultra-clean Suedes became a point of pride for wearers).

That same year, at the Summer Olympics, Tommie Smith became the first person to run the 200 metre sprint in under 20 seconds — and he did it wearing PUMA Suedes. At the medal ceremony, Tommie approached the podium with bronze-medalist John Carlos. Both raised their right hands, in a what the athlete later described as “a human rights salute.”

02. 1970s

Walter ‘Clyde’ Frazier | courtesy of PUMA

Walter ‘Clyde’ Frazier was more than the man of the hour, he was the don of a decade. Star Knicks player and two-time NBA champion, Frazier was a sort of proto-street style icon. His nickname, Clyde, came from the the wide-brim hats he’d often pair with turtlenecks and gold chains. Knicks teammates thought they made him look like bank robber Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde infamy. PUMA picked up on his panache for dressing, and made a first of its kind offer: Clyde wouldn’t just wear their sneaker on the court, he’d design his own. The basketballer liked the Suede silhouette, so he asked PUMA to make a version that was lighter and more flexible.

They delivered the PUMA Clyde, which the athlete made a point to wear off the court as often as he could, in an effort to establish his eponymous design as a style sneaker. By the end of the decade the Suede was a street staple — thanks, in large part, to Clyde.

03. 1980s

NYC B-Boys | courtesy of PUMA

By the 1980s, Clyde has retired, but the Suede had already found a new audience: breakdancers. B-Boys and B-Girls were drawn to the Suede’s gum sole and roomy toe-box, which allowed them to dance on cardboard and concrete without slipping. Two of New York’s most prolific crews — The NYC Breakers and Rock Steady Crew — were particularly fond of PUMA, wearing the panther logo from tip to toe.

04. 1990s

courtesy of PUMA

Nineties brought the explosion of skateboarding. Guys like Tony Hawk and Jason Dill were the kings; skate videos and magazines were blowing up. Skateboard established itself as more than a sport: it became an industry. Because The Clyde was built for the basketball court, where slam dunks and sudden stops ran ragged on player’s feet, it could take a thrashing — which is exactly what skaters did.

05. 2000s

Alexander McQueen x PUMA Suede logo | via Alexander McQueen

By the turn of the millenium, the Suede was almost 40 years old: a proven classic, in sneaker years. To celebrate, PUMA commissioned over ten re-interpretations of the Suede, many by designers who were almost 20 years younger than the shoe itself. Alexander McQueen reinstated leather and added side laces into the design, while Frank Kozik swapped the classic suede upper for faded denim. The slew of collaborations through the decade saw the shoe accumulate one of the largest colourway libraries in footwear history.

06. 2010s

Fenty x PUMA Suede first collection | via @badgalriri / Instagram

In 2014 Adam Petrick, PUMA’s global brand and marketing director, tapped Bad Gal RiRi to work on a new women’s Suede. The Fenty Suede was initially released in three colourways: a triple white, triple black, and burgundy-green. The traditional gum sole was replaced by a creeper-style midsole with thick, ribbed laces on the upper. In September 2015, the first-ever Fenty x PUMA drop sold out in three hours. Later that year, the design was honoured with Footwear News’ ‘Shoe Of The Year’. 

This year the Suede has rolled over the half century mark; a milestone celebrated with collections from Santa Cruz, XLarge, and Weekend XO. Later this year, Karl Lagerfeld will offer his take on the panther logo through a capsule collection.