To understand the top-sider, the clubby icon of summer shoedom, we need to travel back to a winter’s day in 1935 when a sailor and amateur inventor named Paul Sperry took a walk with his cocker-spaniel, Prince. Correction—it wasn’t so much a walk as it was a run, since Prince quickly took off across the snow-covered ice without any slips or slides. Sperry, intrigued by Prince’s stability, took a closer look at his paws and noticed a subtle texture that gave the pooch his traction. He then returned home and, with a penknife and a sneaker, carved the sole that would become the basis for Sperry Top-Siders: a pattern of way cuts called siping that opens and closes when the foot flexes and that squeezes out water to give grip on the slipperiest of surfaces.
Paul Sperry charged $4.50 a pair for the first boat shoe, demonstrating an early commitment to quality at a value. Speaking to value, Sperry actually offered a peg leg discount. A man who lost his leg in a war contacted Paul Sperry and told him how he hates buying pairs of shoes only to throw one of them away. Sperry gave him a special deal—selling one shoe at half the price.
After becoming established as a direct mail business, Sperry Top-Sider began to be distributed by Abercrombie & Fitch, then known as The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World.
In 1939 the U.S. Navy negotiated the right to manufacture Paul Sperry’s shoes for its sailors, leading the Authentic Original to become the official footwear of the U.S. Naval Academy’s casual uniform, which continues to this day. As a result of the Navy contract, Sperry’s business was purchased by the U.S. Rubber Co., which then marketed the shoe across the country.
Sperry’s popularity as a casual street shoe soared during the 1950s as restrictions on the use of leather and rubber associated with World War II were lifted. Photographs of the Kennedy family vacationing in Hyannis Port triggered an international love affair with classic American style in the 60s—of which Sperry Top-Sider’s iconic boat shoes and sneakers were an integral element.
The Kennedys at their Hyannis Port home
The founding of Sail magazine the following decade, the film Jaws, the star power of sailors such as Dennis Conner, high fashion’s obsession with nautical style and the creation of the American Sail Training Association created a maritime frenzy that helped fuel Sperry’s rapid growth.
With the publication of The Official Preppy Handbook, the tongue-in cheek satire that has gained beloved cult status, the Sperry Top-Sider is immortalized as the official footwear of preppy style. Sperry continues to celebrate their nautical heritage by becoming the official footwear of the U.S. Sailing Association.
Sperry introduces the Gold Cup collection in 2006, a line of luxurious styles offered at a higher price point and designed to take Sperry from the boat house to the boardroom. With features such as deerskin lining, 18K gold-plated eyelets and high tech memory foam, the collection launched to great acclaim and continues to be a popular part of the men’s collection today. In May 2007, the NPD Group, a market research firm, announced that Sperry’s Authentic Original is the best selling men’s shoe in U.S. department stores.
In 2007 they became the title sponsor of the National Offshore One-Design (NOOD) Regattas, sailing competitions in which all boats entered are identical. Today, the Sperry Top-Sider NOOD Regattas attract over 30,000 competitors and spectators who come to watch 2,000 boats race.
One-off collaborations have ranged from quirky fashion upstarts such as Modern Amusement to American icons such as Tommy Hilfiger and J.Crew. Sperry announced a collaboration with Scott Sternberg in the fall of 2007, designer of the acclaimed Band of Outsiders. The collaboration to this day continues to generate new fans around the world.
In addition to supporting the American sailing community by sponsoring some of the sport’s most accomplished athletes and young rising stars, Sperry has dedicated themselves to preserving the health of the sea by partnering with Oceana, an international non-profit dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans.
Sperry is releasing a 75th anniversary collection from the archives that features the original outsole Paul Sperry carved onto his sneaker to mimic nature’s ingenious design of Prince’s paw. To celebrate their 75th anniversary, Unabashedly Prep is teaming up with Sperry to give away a pair of boat shoes to one lucky lady and gentleman. Simply jot down where in the world you’d sail to in your new boat shoes and why. A spirit of adventure and vigor encouraged. Contest ends May 19, 2010.