Meet Stan Smith: The tennis ace who inspired the world's most famous shoe
If you need further proof that Stan Smiths are officially the world’s most ubiquitous fashion trainer, then speak to the tennis ace’s niece.
“I wore Stan Smiths to my gym class and my teacher said I couldn’t wear them because they were ‘fashion trainers’. I said, ‘Well my uncle won Wimbledon wearing them,” Louisa Gengler-Saint told us. “My teacher didn’t care, I had to wear sneakers from lost property instead.”
“That happened right here in England… We should get that teacher fired,” says Smith wryly.
While Stan Smiths might not have the fashion heat they had back in 2015 when Celine’s Phoebe Philo took her post-show bow wearing a pair (although that could change with the launch of Stella McCartney’s new vegan style), they are without doubt one of the most popular sneakers in the world, and certainly among the most recognisable.
"Hugh Grant told me that the first girl he kissed was wearing my shoe"
And yet, some people have no idea about the man they were named after – a fact that doesn’t seem to worry for the former Wimbledon champion.
“Some of my friends think I’m cool now. My kids think I’m cool too, and that’s a big deal,” the 71-year-old laughs. “My daughter came up to me when she was 13, and said, ‘Dad, you’re famous.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and she told me that Jay-Z had featured me in one of his songs. It seems to have a look and feel that people like.”
Smith is a humble, unassuming fashion muse. Born in Pasadena, California, he started playing tennis when he was 16. He went on to win the US Open in 1971 and then Wimbledon the following year. It was at this point that Adidas approached him to be an ambassador for its relatively new all-leather tennis shoe, and his agent made sure that his face appeared on the tongue of the shoe - making his affiliation with the trainer clear from the outset. That was 47 years ago. Smith married a fellow tennis player, Marjory Gengler; they had four children together, and now have 13 grandchildren.
“I happened to be in the right place at the right timem with the right product, with the right company,” he says of his fashion muse status. “But, trainers aren’t my first thing. My first thing is being a pretty good tennis player.”
Over its 55-year-long history, Stan Smiths have been worn by everyone from Kanye West to Sienna Miller to Kristen Stewart. Even Prince George and Princess Charlotte own a pair, after Smith gave their royal parents some children's pairs as gifts at last year’s Wimbledon.
“They’re pretty simple. You can wear them with anything, they’re comfortable,” says Smith. "There’s no bells and whistles to them. Some people like to have them really souped-up, but you don’t have to.”
Smith accredits part of the trainer’s success to its numerous collaborations, including Raf Simons, Pharrell Williams and now Stella McCartney, who has worked with Adidas for 14 years. The new vegan-friendly style features Smith’s face on the tongue of one shoe, and McCartney’s on the other.
“She wants to have all my shoes vegan – I’m not sure if that’s going to happen or not,” he says with bemusement. “But you never know, she has a big influence on fashion and has been working with Adidas for a really long time. This is the first time I’ve shared my face with someone else’s. With her, it’s great. Somebody else might not have been so good.”
McCartney says it took a while to persuade Adidas that it would be worthwhile recreating one if its leather best-sellers, made with traditional animal glues, in a different way.
“I had to prime them into realising that this was doable, that they’ll last the same amount of time, if not longer,” she told us. “Stan Smiths are iconic, they’re rooted in performance and a great iconic tennis player, so they have meaning. They’re timeless, and now that they’re vegan and have my ugly mug on them it brings them into the 21st century.”
Although Smith is based in sleepy Hilton Head island in South Carolina (which, incidentally, is shaped like a trainer), he’s currently on an international tour promoting his new Rizzoli coffee table book, wittily titled Some People Think I Am A Shoe. The tome documents his career and tells the stories of those, famous or otherwise, who have worn his trainer.
“Hugh Grant told me that the first girl he kissed was wearing my shoe,” he says. “One guy I met in Tokyo told me that he’d worn a particular shirt with a certain style of pants with my shoes every day for the past 13 years. There’s this guy from Atlantic Records who saw the shoes were being taken off the market and he panicked, so he asked everyone in his company to order them for him and now he has between 600 and 700 pairs in his warehouse. Now, his friends think he’s cool because the shoes are cool again.”
For the record, Smith owns between 60 and 70 variations of his famed trainer, and says he "truthfully" wouldn’t dream of wearing another sneaker brand. Why on earth would he?