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The Legacy of the Gucci Chuck Taylor With the Dragon on the Side

As Clipse’s Lord Willin’ turns 20, Boardroom celebrates the high fashion footwear moment that established Pusha T as a tier-one tastemaker.

For two decades, Terrence LeVarr Thornton, better known as Pusha T, has been setting trends.

Occupying hip-hop’s upper echelon of authors, King Push has ruled coke rap with an iron fist, mystifying audiences with heinous tales while doing so in fancy fabrics. For most, this reign began 20 years ago with the release of Lord Willin’, but more so through its lead effort, “Grindin’.”

The spooky single produced by fellow Virginia natives Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo — known collectively as The Neptunes — cracked Billboard charts through its cold beat topped off by even frostier flow. In the opening verse, an introduction to The Clipse for the world at large, Pusha bats lead-off, comparing his concrete duality to that of Pee-Wee Kirkland before letting big brother Malice go to work.

Over the course of Lord Willin’, Pusha brags on his early adoration for Air Jordans and Huffy, as well as his maturing taste for Yves Saint Laurent and green Aston Martins. After 20 years, it’s clear he meant what he said.

As a fully-fledged solo artist in 2022, Pusha T has released coveted collaborations with adidas while walking in fashion shows for the likes of Mark McNairy and Kenzo. Still, his fashionable footprints lead back to his famous first steps:

The Gucci Chuck Taylor with the dragon on the side.

As the world celebrates Lord Willin‘ on the heels of its anniversary, Boardroom recalls the history of the Italian-styled sneakers that Pusha name-dropped years before rap checks were getting cashed.

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Ford Explorer

Designer labels have not just been name-dropped since the Golden Era of hip-hop, they’ve forever been thrown around as bragging rights.

From Kool Mo Dee sonning sucker emcees with Porsche x Carrera shades on to Migos making their name synonymous with Versace, the craft of rapping has always flowed parallel with the art of fashion and the clout that comes with it.

In the last 15 years, rappers like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West have taken their love of runway a step further by not just putting on designer clothing, but actually putting on the designers themselves. On 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, the oft-early, always immaculate Jay-Z jumped this trend while subverting Lil B’s name-is-a-chorus-structure with the single, “Tom Ford.”

Then a director and designer of suits and cologne at his own namesake label, Hov used Ford as an antonym for the kingpins and celebs typically tied to such strong structures (think Rick Ross’ “MC Hammer” or The Based God’s “Ellen DeGeneres”) as a way of saying “I get things done in the most professional and elevated heights possible.”

Years before Ford became a known name in hip-hop culture, he was an icon in the fashion world as the creative director for Gucci.

Tom Ford acknowledges the audience in October 2001 in Paris. (JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP via Getty Images)

“I was born in a jacket,” Ford told The New York Times in Milan back in 1996. “I was the only 3-year-old who walked around with a blazer folded over his arm. I was very particular and very difficult, and I would only wear certain shoes.”

“When my mother would go out, I would move the furniture and rearrange the living room. I just wanted to redecorate the world.”

Six years after that interview in Italy, Ford’s footwear would redress worlds even his imagination may have missed.

Headed south from chic Manhattan to the bellows of Virginia Beach — roughly a seven-hour trip if you’re taking the Greyhound — Ford’s homage to a Converse classic became the object of affection for another artist on the rise: Pusha T.

Ironically enough, The Clipse MC and the shoe’s origin story were also aligned.

See, Chuck Taylor himself was a legend in two games, playing semi-professional basketball in the late 1910s before selling canvas sneakers door-to-door in the 1920s. In his lifetime, Taylor married a Hollywood actress and moved massive amounts of Converse shoes out of the trunk of his car. In fact, Chuck was so good at selling that hardwood classic that his employer named the model after him.

Today, reports suggest that over one billion pairs of that salesman signature have sold to date.

In 2002, Pusha T had a name around Virginia more as a salesman than a rapper.

Following the failure to launch Exclusive Audio Footage in 1999, The Clipse could have easily called it quits and stuck to their family trade. Instead, they leaned on local friends Pharrell and Chad to secure a deal with Arista. In 2001, they started sessions for their first official album on Star Trak, writing rhymes at the same time Tom Ford was using Chuck Taylor as a muse for his high fashion fantasies.

Though Converse began producing the Chuck Taylor in the 1910s, the shoe was only ubiquitous decades after. By the 1940s, many brands were mimicking the silo with their own take and maybe even their own tech.

At Gucci, Ford and his team of designers looked not to recreate the wheel, but enhance it, redressing the iconic cut in Italian leather and embroidering the upper with a detailed dragon.

The definitive Gucci Chuck Taylor with the dragon on the side. (Photo via Grailed)

Around the turn of the century, dragon imagery and Far East cues were as cool and contemporary as it got in hip-hop culture, ranging from Japanese character tattoos on biceps of ballplayers to Dru Hill album art.

Conversely, the Chuck Taylor was worlds apart in menswear and music, considered rock and roll by association and only regionally revered by rappers on the West Coast.

For a 20-something Pusha T knee-deep in remote Virginia, none of this mattered. The Gucci Chuck Taylor take was expensive, luxurious, and detail-oriented. It merged worlds while existing in another world, much like the beat for “Grindin'” itself.

When it was time to shoot the video for Lord Willin’s lead single, the Tom Ford shoes remained at the tip of T’s lips, though far from his feet.

Draped in a tough outwear crafted for all conditions and select hustles, hard raps rolled off T’s tongue as he established his footing in the street trade and his taste for the decadent.

“High designer sh-t has always been part of the dope boy aesthetic,” Pusha told me in 2016. “I’m thinking back to Slick Rick and all that. It’s like a right of passage to show that you’re achieving and that you’re making it. It was also that competitive spirit of coming back to the block like, ‘Yo, you ain’t got this!’

The video, seemingly shot on Pusha’s block, shot up the charts that spring, cracking the Billboard Hot 100 and peaking at No. 8 for Hot Rap Songs. For their decided debut, Pusha and Malice fought over cartoon sweaters and throwback jerseys, introducing an audience to their long love of hip-hop and their somewhat unknown home.

“I just remember feverishly hustling to get fresh Iceberg and debating with my brother over who was going to wear the Virginia Squires jersey,” Pusha continued. “I probably just got to it first, but we were just so hype about the video it couldn’t have been that much of a debate.”

The video didn’t just live up to the hype. Like their name, it eclipsed it. By the fall of 2002, Lord Willin’ had gone Gold, giving King Push all the rap money he needed to keep his Gucci habit alive.

Livin’ So Italian

While the visual for “Grindin'” sees a sea of Air Force 1s, foreshadowing their early affinity for A Bathing Ape Bapestas, trust, the gold boxed Gucci Chuck Taylor kicks were not just in Pusha’s lyrics then, but very much in his rotation.

“I actually had a pair,” Pusha said.

Clipse during NYC’s HOT 97 FM Radio Celebrates Summer Jam X – Show at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Theo Wargo/WireImage)

The proof was not just in the pudding but also the Pyrex pans as Terrence terrorized red carpets and Summer Jam stages in designer drops for decades to come.

Just a year after “Grindin'” sent shockwaves through the radio, HOT 97 hosted The Clipse for their annual high heat event with King Push rocking the stage nobly in the Gucci Tennis 84. Famous for dressing hustlers before them, the court classic turned street staple was opulent and perhaps ominous. See, that same summer the Italian tennies would be revised by Reebok and Jay Z for a feasible price point.

Effectively, it was a reverse if not Robin Hood approach to what Tom Ford had done with the Chuck Taylor just two years prior. It all spoke to the various worlds Gucci occupied over history.

“Gucci used to dress all the stars and celebrities,” Ford recalled to Vogue in 2004. “I thought this is what today’s movie stars and celebrities should be wearing.”

Rap’s Martin Scorsese thought so, too.

Years after Lord Willin’, a solo Pusha T was treated to a set of the infamous Gucci Chucks thanks to his friend Curtains for his birthday. The nostalgic treat inspired the shopping of an ascending Virgil Abloh and Clipse music would later score his first posthumous show with Louis Vuitton.

While high fashion houses commonly work with sportswear companies in 2022, the Gucci Chuck Taylor with the dragon on the side was not a collaboration, but remains an inspiration.

Today, Gucci works with Adidas — famous for backing Pusha T on numerous footwear projects — while Converse releases Chuck Taylors with Neptunes disciple Tyler, the Creator.

Shoe Detail at the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2018 on September 20, 2017 in Milan, Italy.

In 2017, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele unleashed the dragon not on a pair of tennis shoes but rather a leather Chelsea Boot, bringing back the same vibes instilled by Tom Ford over a decade prior.

These days, Pusha T is a regular at Fashion Week from Paris to Milan, often appearing in the front row and occasionally walking the runway. Tom Ford is still selling high-priced apparel and also directing high-budget films.

Though the two artists may have seemed worlds apart when “Grindin'” released 20 years ago, their footsteps run parallel today.

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