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Dropping Knowledge: Jack Purcells

By the editors of MSN Living Jul 19, 2012 6:58PM

Jake Gallagher, GQ Magazine

Jack Purcell was the sort of man that your old high school English teacher would've loved. Because while it took a guy like MJ dozens of flashy shoes to really solidify his sneakerhead legacy, Purcell etched himself in the book with one simple sneaker. A+, Jack.

Purcell's story begins in the late twenties as he was working his way through the ranks of the Canadian Amateur Badminton world (yes such a thing does exist.) This was the no-frills era of sports: there were no televisions, sponsors, or million dollar contracts. It was a time when competition reigned, and Purcell was one helluva competitor, winning five straight back-to-back National Amateur Championships. But the league found fault with a repeat champion like Purcell; he was too good, and it was taking the fun out of things. So, in 1931 they practically forced him to go pro, and just two years after moving up to the majors he was declared World Champion of the sport. Purcell dominated the game, facing every top player from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and while there were some formidable foes, Purcell beat them all, ensuring that between 1932 and 1945 he had an unbroken reign as world champ.

While all that is undeniably impressive, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who hears the name Purcell and thinks 'badminton player.' (Yes, we're aware of badminton's rather boring connotations.) Purcell's own off the court invention has long overshadowed his prowess on the court. In 1935. companies had begun to develop new technologies, but had little player feedback. Purcell had the sway, so B.F. Goodrich called him in to design a new court-ready sneaker, and Purcell went the way of the times... conservative, understated. His sneaker placed performance first, utilizing Goodrich's advanced rubber to create a sole that could hug the surface of the court, finished off with a light canvas body that allowed the shoe to breathe. Purcell wasn't all about minimalism though, he did throw in the shoe's trademark "smile" on the toe cap for good measure.

For the players the sneaker was a smash, but it was off the court that Jack Purcells really hit their stride. Back when men still wore suits with matching dress shoes every weekday, the solid sneaker was what they need to keep them covered during their downtime. The subtle sneak became a weekend staple infiltrating backyards and country clubs nationwide. 

There was something about the simplicity that made Purcells so desirable. Converse bought the rights to the shoe in the '70s, and wisely never toyed with the design. And they were given a huge boost in popularity riding the wave of Americana, and championed by J.Crew, and John Varvatos (both collaborators). Just as Purcell dominated his field for decades, his namesake shoe still reigns today as one of the most versatile sneakers out there. Toss a pair on with your jeans, or rock some with that full suit. You'll be walking in the footsteps of a champion. Now just learn how to say shuttlecock without giggling.

Jake Gallagher writes the blog Wax-Wane. He lives in Manhattan.

Photo: Illustration by Brittany Fields

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