Stan Smith: In His Own Words

With over 40 millions pairs sold, some people think Stan Smith is a shoe – here, the tennis player, husband, father and grandfather tells his story

The Stan Smith trainer is as prevalent on the front rows of fashion week as it is amongst high street shoppers. Its collaborators include Raf Simons and Stella McCartney, Jay-Z is one of the 400+ artists who name-check the sneaker in his lyrics, and the Guinness Book of World Records awarded the shoe for selling over 22 million pairs [a figure which currently stands at over 40 million]. To coincide with the release of Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m A Shoe, Smith tells his story, in his own words.

I was born and raised in Pasadena, California, the home of the Rose Bowl and the Rose Parade. My father had a Masters degree in Physical Education and taught, among other sports, tennis.

My first favourite sport was actually basketball. And I also played US football. And baseball. Track and field. Tennis was the one that stuck because a group of parents in the area formed the Pasadena Tennis Patrons, and they hired Pancho Segura. He was, in my opinion, one of the greatest coaches of all time. I mean, he coached Jimmy Connors! I played tennis the first time probably at around 11 or so, but I really got serious about it at 15 because of the Patrons group. Halfway through my senior year in high school I gave up basketball, which was a big decision for me at the time, but I knew I had to dedicate to just one sport.

I grew up just wearing tennis whites, so fashion for me was uniform; white shirt, white shorts, white socks. The tennis shoes were all only canvas at the time, I remember Converse made a shoe with a blue bottom that was quite popular in Southern California. They would probably last about month. You’d need up to 12 pairs a year, but that’s max – you just couldn’t afford to have more pairs than that. Some players dragged their toe on their serve, their foot would kind of lay over on their backhand, and they’d wear the top of the shoe from doing that. For those players, shoes would sometimes only last two weeks because they’d get a hole in the top.

The Stan Smith tennis shoe was originally called the Robert Haillet, after the French tennis player. adidas gave me some pairs to try to see if I liked them, this was before they put my name on them. When they did ask me to use my name on them, it was a big honour because these were the world’s first ever leather tennis shoe. It was 1971, and I was world champion at the time, but it wasn’t a done deal that they were going to ask me.

There was a transition period between being the Haillet shoe and the Stan Smith. At first, the shoe had my image on the tongue and his name on it. Then it was my name on the side and his name on the tongue. It confused some people, sure, but it was always adidas’ intention to have both of us on it at the same time at first, in order to ease me in. You know, some of the retailers didn’t want to lose that Haillet name. It was a very popular shoe already before I came along.

When the shoe broke the Guinness Book of World Records for selling over 22 million pairs, we had an awards-giving ceremony in Paris where they came to hand-present the prize to adidas. I was there. And so was Haillet. But they were Stan Smiths by then!

Fame is a funny thing. I remember my daughter coming home and saying, “Dad you’re famous!” She must have been 13. I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Jay-Z has you in one of his songs!” She was so excited. It was on his Blueprint album – “Lampin’ in the Hamptons, the weekends man / The Stan Smith adidas and the Campus.” The Stan Smith shoe kind of infiltrated all different areas of the culture. All kinds of people from all over the world were wearing the shoes and it no longer had anything to do with tennis.

Phoebe Philo from Céline wore her Stan Smiths on the runway [to take a bow at the end of her A/W10 show] and I wasn’t really aware of who she was at the time. But people soon told me! I thought, well I should investigate into it, and I did, and then I realised what a big deal it was for her to do that. Well, then things just blew up in a different way.

I’ve had many exciting ‘can’t believe it’ moments. Baryshnikov wore, and danced in, Stan Smiths in his movie White Nights – I’m still shocked about that. Last year at Wimbledon, Hugh Grant saw me and said, “When I kissed the first girl I ever kissed, I was wearing your shoes!” And I remember this one reporter telling me, “I met my wife wearing Stan Smiths and it was such an important detail that we both wore the shoes on our wedding day!” I get these stories daily.

This year, Stella McCartney created a vegan version of the shoe. It looks like a regular Stan Smith, but on the right foot is her picture, and on the left is my picture. It’s the first time that’s ever been done. We signed together maybe 70 pairs at the launch in her Bond Street store, and then Madonna turned up, slammed her foot up on the table and said, “Sign this!” At the end of the night when I came up to say goodbye, Madonna said, “Well I want to sign yours!” So she and Stella signed the ones I was wearing right there and then. They’re going in my trophy cabinet when I get back.

I’d been thinking of creating a book for five years. I wanted to include all sorts of people’s experiences and memories of the shoe, because these shoes mean a lot to a lot of people. When it came to naming the book, the creative agency, Rizzoli and adidas all came up with about 20 different titles – The Man and The Shoe, The World’s Shoe – but I had been inspired by something that had happened years before. My son, when he was eight, had said to me, “Dad, is the shoe named after you or are you named after the shoe?” Reflecting on this comment, I thought what could be more perfect than: “Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m a Shoe”!

I’ve been very fortunate to be involved with the Stan Smith shoe. It could have been someone else, easily. I’m aware of that. And it’s fun going to these parties and meeting celebrities. But my proudest achievement, more than the shoe, more than tennis, is that I’ve got a wonderful wife, four unbelievable kids, and 13 grandkids. It’s been fun, but when you die, your lasting memory won’t be how many people knew your name or had it on their foot.

Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m A Shoe, published by Rizzoli is out now