Has Stan Smith Been Eclipsed by Those Iconic Shoes?
Oh, the perils of eponymity: How many people walking around in Stan Smith Adidas have no clue about the tennis ace who is every bit as iconic as the shoes named for him?
The roof was open at New York’s Arthur Ashe stadium one recent scorching Saturday, and the women’s final was being played through a thick humid heat. The second-seeded steely German, Angelique Kerber, was midway on her way to winning her first Grand Slam against a rangy Czech challenger, Karolina Pliskova. Before the games, Novak Djokovic casually hit balls as spectators filed in. He would go on to lose in the men’s final the next day. But until then, he still seemed invincible.
The concrete of the stadium itself was ringed with names: American Express, Emirates, Citizen, Chase, Tiffany & Co, IBM. Tennis, like most sports, is heavily and almost obscenely sponsored. But there was one name that resonated through the hallways and surfaces of the stadium, quite literally with nearly every footfall of every tennis fan in the building: Stan Smith. The pleasing iamb: Stan Smith. The living legend: Stan Smith.
There was no Stan Smith signage nor fancy Stan Smith suite. But the classic white leather adidas shoes that bear the man’s name were to be found on a preponderance of tennisphiles’ feet, at least the fashionable ones. Since they were introduced in 1971, Stan Smiths, like the Jack Purcells and the Chuck Taylors, have become so iconic that it’s hard to remember there is a man, a man named Stan, after whom the shoes were named.
On this Saturday, Stan, the man, was in the stands. These days, Stan Smith lives in South Carolina, where he runs Stan Smith Events, an event company, and Smith Stearns Tennis Academy. He was in town for the U.S. Open for six days, splitting his time working with clients—his own, mostly corporate—and on behalf of adidas, who reissued the sneaker in 2014.
Smith, whose face adorned the tongues of early Stan Smiths, is tall and handsome. He both looks and talks like Kiefer Sutherland. His mustache is well-groomed and to be dreamed of. Smith is a tan man, with a sure handshake and a well-polished glint in his eye. Though he retired from professional tennis in 1986, his figure is trim. If he were a tree, he’d be a poplar. As it is, he’s simply popular. Stan’s in demand. There’s Jim Courier, another former number one player. “Hey, Stan!” he says. Then it’s Rod Laver, one of the greatest players of the game. “Hello, Stan!” says Laver, a hint of his antipodean accent still present. Next it’s Mark Tatum, the assistant commissioner of the NBA. “Stan, how are you, buddy? Nice to see you. Nice to see you.” Stan knows everyone and everyone knows Stan. Well, kinda except not at all.
Ken Solomon, the chairman of the Tennis Channel, is wearing a seersucker suit and a pair of spotless Stan Smiths. He warmly greets Stan Smith, also wearing Stan Smiths, of which he has 50 pairs. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he says. “Thank you,” says Smith. Solomon, like everyone, seems to gravitate toward Smith. “I was actually his ball boy back at Indian Wells years ago,” Solomon tells me.
Today the Stan Smith adidas are one of the company’s best-selling shoes. Like any near universal icon—a cross, a hexagon, a nod—it contains many meanings at once. Here in the United States, it shall evermore be associated with street style. Stan Smiths are the archetypal crispy shoe. But in Athens, Smith tells me, his shoes are an integral part in life’s greatest moments. “Fifty years back, when someone was christened they would give them a white shoe,” he says, “My shoe was the shoe that a lot of times they gave them. So in Greece my name is even more well known.”
In New York, Smith had had an eventful week. “The other night I was here with Pharrell WIliams,” he said in his imperturbable way, “He didn’t know too much about tennis, so I gave him a little bit of a tutorial about tennis.” Smith had also played a Pro-Am doubles game alongside a flushed office worker at Brookfield Place, an office development downtown. He also had some dealings with Kanye West. “I didn’t meet him,” said Smith, “But we went to a fashion show with him. You might have heard it was a bust.”
Men like Smith inhabit a strange world. Their names are well-known but somehow disembodied. “Ninety-five percent of the people who know my name who wear my shoe have any idea that I’m alive,” he said with a slight smile. “It’s just one of those things that happened. I was in the right place at the right time with the right product. Adidas wanted to get into the U.S. market a little stronger. I was the No. 1 player in the world and an American.”
The shoe that today we think of as synonymous with Smith was originally called the Robert Haillet, after French tennis player Robert Haillet, whose signature adorned the side. For the first few models, the shoe boasted Haillet’s name on the side and Smith’s face on the tongue. Eventually, Smith claimed sole custody. Haillet died in 2011 but Smith met him at a party in 1986 in Paris. “I am sure he felt bad not having his name on it,” he said.
As for his own legacy, Smith seems at peace with the fact that it’ll mostly be a shoe. To the extent he takes pride in the pantheon of menswear staples, it’s as a genius does a divinely endowed predilection. “It’s a simple name. It’s a simple shoe. It’s a clean look. It goes with everything you wear,” he says. “It’s classy and simple.” And with that, Stan Smith offers a firm handshake, a warm smile. He turns and walks away, an elegant gait with long strides with a pair of spotless Stan Smiths on Stan Smith’s feet.