how the stan smith became fashion's favourite trainer

Everyone from Phoebe Philo to Pharrell has worn this timely sneaker. We trace its evolution from tennis standby to cultural touchstone.

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May 27 2015, 8:50am

Real scenario: a young woman wearing classic white and green adidas Stan Smith trainers ($75) picks up a pair of pale blue limited edition Stan Smiths designed by Raf Simons ($455) in a New York store, debates buying them, looks cool. It's official: the unassuming leather tennis shoe first issued in 1971 has achieved the height of fashion influence. Since the shoe's reissue in 2014, after two years off the shelves, its popularity and fashion significance have reached icon status. Stan Smith is to trainers as Levi's are to jeans and Kim Kardashian's Instagram is to selfies: the ultimate expression of the form.

But when - and how - did this humble sneaker become the ultimate fashion footwear, beloved by fashion designers, artists, stylists, and designers?

The shoe's history in a nutshell: adidas issued its first tennis shoe in 1963, which was branded as the "Robert Haillet" after the French tennis player two years later. When Haillet retired, the company replaced him with Stan Smith, then the #1 player in the world (still alive and living in South Carolina, Smith was recently profiled by The New York Times). In 1971, the shoe became known as the "adidas Stan Smith," yet for much of the 70s the shoe showed Smith's face with "Haillet" written above it - identity crisis. It really hit its stride in the 80s, but only became a fashion phenomenon recently. One of the top tennis shoes of all time - both in sales and influence - Complex named it 14th on the list of most influential sneakers ever.

Stan Smith with his namesake shoe, photography Getty Images by adidas via Flickr

Yohji Yamamoto and Jeremy Scott have designed versions, Raf's come in pink, blue, and red and are fire. Its distinctive white-and-green design codes were reworked by Alexander Wang as dresses for spring/summer 15. There have been over a hundred limited editions, from the kitsch (Star Wars), to the adorable (Kermit the Frog), to the flatout amazing (Method Man). Last year, Pharrell dropped ten hand-painted Stan Smiths at colette in Paris, which sold out immediately.

Speaking of which. The shoe has a pretty deep history in street culture, and rap music. There are 578 results for Stan Smiths on Genius. You've heard Jarren Benton's My Adidas - "I'm a sneaker addict and I need a fix, Polo with these Stan Smiths." But have you caught the frequent references to the shoe in Lil Wayne's oeuvre? And have you heard French rapper La Fouine's track Stan Smith, which pivots around the lyric: 'I'm preparing a classic like Stan Smith!'?

Like many trends (military jackets, mary janes, fancy flannels), the co-opting of the Stan Smith as a fashion shoe may have originated with Marc Jacobs. The classic white and green ones were his shoe of choice throughout his unassuming pre-makeover period. Along with a navy sweater, baggy pants, and clear spectacles, they comprised a look that was very "designer off duty" - the uniform of someone who is too busy to think about clothing. He wore the outfit on the runway in 2004 and on Oprah in 2006.

Photography Francois Guillot for Getty Images

Phoebe Philo has also been credited with making the Stan Smith an emblem of chic minimalism. Philo's bow outfits after her collections are the stuff of fashion legend, and she's worn the sneakers several times on the runway. For Phoebe, the shoe is the perfect foil for a style that relies heavily on neutral sweaters and menswear-tailored pants. Her dedication to the Stan Smith speaks to a larger move in fashion toward unassuming glamour. Stan Smiths make you look like you don't care, a hallmark of fashion since Coco Chanel started making daywear out of jersey in the 20s.

In 2013 Gisele appeared nude save for a pair of white socks and Stan Smiths in in an Inez & Vinoodh shoot styled by Emmanuelle Alt for French Vogue. When Stan Smith himself sent the picture around to his friends, the guys responded, "What shoe?" Mr. Smith's homies may not have noticed the shoes, but everyone else did. Emmanuelle has spoken: the Stan Smith is worth wearing even if you're Gisele and otherwise completely nude.

Once the seeds of trendiness had been firmly planted, the shoe exploded onto the scene with its January 2014 reissue. The company began gifting shoes personalised with fashion insider's faces rather than Stan Smith's. Sneaker fans like Sarah Andelman and Humberto Leon flooded our Instagram feeds with their customised shoes, inducing some serious #sneakerenvy. Trade stalwart Footwear News named the Stan Smith shoe of the year for 2014.

As befits its icon status, fakes are popping up. Earlier this year, there was buzz that Isabel Marant's white and red leather sneakers were a bit too close to the Stan Smith for comfort. In a story on The Fashion Law that now seems to have been erased, the similarly distinctive heel tabs were called out, possible grounds for copyright infringement.

The ripple effect of celebrities, fashion people, buzzy collaborations, and cultural street cred has made the shoe iconic. But the Stan Smith would not be as successful as it's been if it weren't such an enduringly appealing object. That smooth white toe, the preppiness of the pop of green. There is a pureness to its form, as with other design classics like an Eames chair or a Valentine typewriter.

It looks inevitable. Kind of like a tennis ball.