23 May 2023

Examining the cultural history of the Puma Clyde, guest editor Samutaro tracks the sneaker's influence from the Big Apple to the Big Smoke.

It's hard to name a sneaker that has infiltrated as many corners of culture as the PUMA Clyde. For the past 50 years, the cool classic court shoe has edged itself into the worlds of basketball, hip-hop, breakdancing, skateboarding, hardcore music and countless other pockets of culture. It’s the versatility of the simple sneaker that has enabled it to mean so much to so many different people. Each era represents a different legendary stage of the sneakers story, a heritage that has cemented it as one of the all-time OG classics.

The story of the Clyde starts in 1973, when PUMA took on adidas and Converse in a battle of basketball court supremacy in the NBA. To make their big break into the league, PUMA scouted New York Knicks superstar Walt Frazier to be the face of the brand. Frazier, who was coming off an All-Star season and a championship with the Knicks, was one of the first players to bring style and fashion to basketball. He had a sense of style that took as much attention off-court as he did in his game, making him the perfect player to endorse Puma. 

Given his stature and cultural presence, Puma made the revolutionary move to give the HoF point guard his own signature shoe, a first for the NBA. Originally developed from the PUMA Basket with elements of the Suede, the Clyde arrived with a more narrow and pointed toe as well as an improved sole that made it more durable for use on the court. The name took its cue from Frazier’s own nickname “Clyde” after the wide-brimmed hats he would wear, reminiscent of Warren Beatty’s style in the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde. 

While the majority of sneakers leaned towards traditional leather or canvas construction, PUMA’s innovation was in creating an entirely new idea of what a sneaker could be. With a thick rubber sole and a soft – but resilient – suede upper, the PUMA Suede was designed to be softer, stronger and more street ready than any other shoe on the market at the time. The idea took hold and it didn’t take long for it to become the sneaker of choice for America’s coolest and most influential. 

When the Clyde's debuted that year, they were a global success, but even more so in New York City, where Frazier’s endorsement made the silhouette a staple in the city. Though the signature sneakers were originally intended for Frazier’s quick movements on the court, the light and cushioned construction gave the shoe new context in a completely different type of sport: breakdancing. The Clyde became the shoes for B-Boys like the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew as well as DJs and emcees. 

The sneaker’s explosion in popularity coincided with the Knicks title win in ‘78, putting even more eyes on Frazier and his newly released shoe with PUMA. Everyone in the Big Apple wanted a pair to flex both as a fashion statement and an on court style. This made them the first pair of shoes to crossover from sportswear to streetwear. What made the Clyde’s so successful was the choice of suede uppers, which were a stark contrast to leather or canvas constructions that were already popular in the market. PUMA’s innovation was in creating an entirely new idea of what a sneaker could be. The idea took hold and it didn’t take long for it to become the sneaker of choice for wider audiences overseas too. 

The PUMA Clyde’s arrived in London in the same wave of hip-hop and breakin’ that took hold in the UK in the early 80’s. From the cobblestones of Covent Garden to Black Sheep bar in Croydon and music videos of Malcolm McLaren, B-boy culture permeated Britain with young teens emulating the style of pioneers back in NYC with sneakers included. 

Later in the 1990s, PUMA got a new lease of life through a new generation of kids who co opted the brands OG stiff-soled, soft top kicks as part of their uniforms in skateboarding. As The Hundred’s point out, it was Mike Carrol who was one of the first skaters to embrace retro ‘70s sports sneakers in early 1990s skateboarding. Acknowledging how the Clyde’s were taking off in the sport, PUMA would go on to start an entire skate division within their company, updating styles like the Clyde with the new footwear technology and premium materials. 

Beastie Boys were another outfit who helped push the Clyde into a new era of streetwear during the decade. The New York trio were one of PUMA’s biggest ambassadors at the time and have secretly influenced everyone through their footwear choices for more than three decades. While most rappers were keeping their sneakers pristine, the Beasties wore theirs scuffed and beat with typical B-Boy tracksuits or trashed tees and jeans. Their unconventional style made the Clyde’s even more appealing to wider subcultures in skateboarding, hardcore and punk who preferred their sneakers more lowkey. 

“I was super hyped on Beastie Boys too, back then, just that style,” Carroll revealed to The Hundreds. “I probably saw that kind of shoes on them first. Nick Tershay had a hookup in England that would send him shoes.” According to the interview, the mysterious hook up in question, internationally smuggling candy-colored, never-seen-before, retro sneakers overseas, happened to be none other than British pro skater Paul Shier, who would ship the styles he had found in an old wholesale shop in London overseas to the US. “We just came up with a deal where I would send Joey shoes and he would send me product,” Shier triumphs. “Mike Carroll and Rick Howard also found out this was going on and also asked for shoes. Mike wanted Pumas and Rick wanted the low top Converse Dr. J’s. I sent another box for those guys and in return I got a big box of Plan B and World Industries product.” 

At the time in the UK, PUMA’s low-top suede sneakers were having a moment during the decades Brit-pop boom with the era's biggest bands appropriating elements of 1980s casual and terrace-wear. Damon Albarn of Blur and Super Grass both donned PUMA, as a look inspired by the kind of stylistic pilgrimage football fans made across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Like most OG classics, the Clyde has received countless retro’s in new fabrications and colours over the years. Collaborations have been another way for PUMA to inject new life into the sneaker and give fanatics a chance to reimagine the iconic silhouette for a new era. Some of the best include the XLARGE 25th anniversary release rendered in a combination of off-white and green, a colour scheme donned by Ad-Rock on the cover of the hip-hop group’s Check Your Head album cover. In 2016, Nicky Diamonds, founder of streetwear giant Diamond Supply, added his own touch to the model in familiar Diamond Supply Tiffany Blue colour scheme, while in 2019 The Hundreds honour the legacy of the Puma Clyde through all of the eras where fans fell in love with it. This year, for the 50th anniversary the Clyde returns with a number of collaborations from brands like Perks & Mini, Second Best and END.