50 years after Stan Smith’s Wimbledon title, his signature shoes remain a major feat

Not that he’s judging, but Stan Smith is checking out your shoes.

Force of habit.

“When I’m walking, I generally look at people’s feet more than I look at their faces just to see what they’re wearing,” said Smith, 75, sitting under a canopy in the back yard of the stately three-story house he rents every Wimbledon fortnight, one of the houses closest to the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.

Hard to blame him for his foot fixation. Over the last 50 years, Adidas has sold more than 100 million Stan Smith tennis shoes, now a fashion statement and not something competitive players would wear on the court.

Smith, the onetime standout at Pasadena High and USC, made the Guinness Book of World Records in 1988 for the most pairs sold — approximately 22 million — and that number climbed in the 1990s when Adidas released the Stan Smith II and retro Stan Smith 80s.

The most common ones are uncomplicated, with clean white leather and a touch of green on the back.

Smith, who figures he owns about 150 pairs, wears his everywhere — except in the Royal Box at Centre Court, where they’re still considered a little too casual.

“I’ve lobbied for quite a while, but they won’t let me do it,” he said. “I’ve got some black ones. They have some with a pointed toe, which is a patent leather, but I haven’t tried that.”

This year in particular, Smith has received a number of upscale invitations. It’s the 50th anniversary of his Wimbledon men’s singles title, and he and his wife, Marjory, will be sitting with the royals Sunday for the men’s singles final.

In fact, there will be more Smiths in Centre Court on Sunday than in an old London phone book. That includes the four children and their spouses, and 10 of the 16 grandchildren. They will be there to celebrate Stan’s anniversary and then visit Adidas headquarters in Germany, the company that gave him a lifetime contract.

Stan Smith of the United States returns the ball to Ilie Nastase of Romania during a Wimbledon match in 1972. Smith won that men’s singles title 50 years ago.

(Associated Press)

The first generations of the shoe that became the Stan Smith brand actually were named for French player Robert Haillet. That was in the early 1960s, and those Adidas had the same look — leather uppers with three dotted lines of perforations and a flexible rubber sole. At the time, most athletic shoes were canvas. The Haillets also had the reinforced back to help protect the Achilles tendon.

In 1971, with Haillet nearing retirement, Adidas wanted a stronger presence in the United States and to build a shoe campaign around an American player. They targeted Smith, who was atop the rankings at the time.

What followed were several iterations of the shoe, including Haillet’s name on the side and Smith’s face on the tongue, and Smith’s name on the side and Haillet’s on the back.

“Gradually, it became more well known for my name,” Smith said. “About four or five years later, they took his name off the shoe entirely.”

It wasn’t unheard of to create shoes around sports stars. Converse named canvas high tops after Chuck Taylor, and badminton shoes after Jack Purcell. Adidas would go on to name tennis shoes after Rod Laver, Ilie Nastase and Boris Becker.

But the Stan Smiths really stuck. For decades, they were the staple, until sales started to tail off in the early 2000s, prompting Adidas to take them off the market in 2011. The company bought back all the inventory it could so that people couldn’t find the shoe. Adidas told Smith the plan was to bring the shoe back after two years, but he didn’t have a lot of faith in that ploy.

“They didn’t have a real concrete plan from our point of view,” he said. “We walked out of that meeting thinking, ‘Well, it’s been 40 years. It’s been a good run.’ ”

Sure enough, the company was true to its word and relaunched the shoe on Jan. 15, 2014. As part of the marketing strategy, it gave a pair of shoes to each of 100 influencers, with a twist — their picture on the tongue in place of Smith’s. That helped spread the word.

Stan Smith's shoes in 2022.

Stan Smith’s shoes in 2022 in the classic style.

(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

The company had fashion designer Stella McCartney and singer Pharrell Williams come up with designs for the shoe. There were all sorts of Stan Smiths — graffiti-covered, leopard-spotted, Kermit the Frog shoes, and ones with shiny silver tongues and gold-lame toe caps.

“The most unusual one I’ve seen look like high tops with a zipper around the bottom,” Smith said. “You can zip off the high top part and it’s a regular low-top shoe.”

Among his favorites in his collection, a cardinal-and-gold version — he has the USC fight song as his ring tone — and ones in cracked black leather with tennis-ball material on the back.

In 2019, while sitting in the royal box, Smith handed a tiny pair of his shoes to Kate Middleton for Prince Louis, who was a year old at the time. The tabloids got a photo of that and the image went viral.

Since 1965, Smith has been to every Wimbledon but one, either as a player or an honored guest. For the last 25 years, he and business partner Gary Niebur have entertained clients at the house, which is right next to the practice courts.

“I talk about the tournament, the matches they’re going to see, we take some pictures,” Smith said. “We go watch tennis and then come back for tea. It’s a nice English garden atmosphere, and we get a few balls come over the fence occasionally from the courts.”

One recent visitor, a chief executive, told Smith he has 400 pairs of his shoes at home.

You’d think a guy would get a bloated ego about that.

Smith’s wife keeps him in check.

“I did an interview one time, and I said, ‘Probably 95% of the people in the world have no idea who I am,’ ” he said. “And my wife popped in and said, ‘Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world have no idea who you are.’

“Thanks, honey.”

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