The streets of Copenhagen are cold in April. But the promise of Spring surrounds you. With that promise comes the opening of Tivoli amusement park, a little gem placed perfectly in the middle of one of Scandinavia's most revered and lovely cities. An ancient roller coaster rises high above the gates of the park and the smell of roasted nuts and cotton candy drift through the air.
It was on a day such as this in 2015 that an American tourist discovered one of Europe's best kept secrets. While strolling on a pier near the famous Nyhaven Canal he met a young woman with sneakers so unique that he had to double-take. The canvas shoes had a patch of suede covering the inside toe-box. The patch was asymmetrical and clearly added for a reason other than fashion. He wrote the name of the shoe on a cocktail napkin and asked the young woman if he could take her picture.
Upon his return to Boston he pulled that napkin from his pocket and began researching the shoes. It turned out that Backyard Footwear had been developed in 1972 as a performance shoe for racquet sports including tennis, squash and badminton.
The early 70s were a time when racquet sports dominated the international sports scene.
In Denmark there was a famous player named Erland Kops. He was winning international tournaments and making a name for himself.
But Kops couldn’t find a pair of tennis shoes to keep up with his game. Between the toe-drag of his fiendish serve and the force of his lateral movements, he was literally tearing through his sneakers.
And that’s when a tiny company in Copenhagen, Denmark set out to create the ultimate court shoe for its national hero.
On paper the concept looked promising. The shoe would have arch support, a padded tongue, hand stitching, and a unique basket-weave pattern on the outsole.
And the signature element of this new creation would be a reinforcing suede toe patch designed to protect against toe-drag and provide stability. It was this simple asymmetrical design element that would create one of the best performing court shoes of the early 70s.
Soon they opened a factory in Europe and began making the sneakers in small batches. They used a process called vulcanization to make each shoe. This process of baking the sneakers meant two things.
First each sole was melted to the canvas upper so the shoes could never come apart.
Second the fiery temperature caused the rubber soles to soften and become more flexible.
What they created was the most comfortable, durable, flexible, lightweight shoe that anyone had ever worn. To this day the company still uses the same machines and you can see the proof of vulcanization on each pair.
Remnants of melted rubber can be found on the bottom of each sole and also where the sole is melted to the canvas.
It was unique.
It was imperfect.
And it remains as a hallmark of quality, small-batch manufacturing from the glory days of European sneaker production.
By the mid 70s the sneakers from Copenhagen were being spotted on courts all around Scandinavia.
But then something unexpected happened. Word spread about the unique design and the unbelievable comfort. The little-known court sneakers from Denmark exploded and became an iconic European fashion shoe of the late 70s and early 80s. They were spotted in the discos of Paris, on the streets of Milan and on the feet of celebrities and fashionistas from London to Lisbon.
Throughout the 80s and 90s millions of pairs were sold in every color and pattern imaginable.
But almost inconceivably the shoes never found their way to the retail shelves of America.
The American tourist contacted the Copenhagen based Backyard Footwear company. And through a series of skype calls and a second visit to Copenhagen he had convinced them to finally bring these classic sneakers to America.
They are still made with only natural materials and manufactured in the same European factory.
There are not many popular heritage products from the 1970s that have not been imported to America. But if you keep looking you just might find one in your travels.