In 2015 an American from Boston was visiting Copenhagen when he stumbled into a second-hand store on a sleepy side street. He'd only been in Denmark a few hours but he was already gaining a respect for the simple beauty and style on display in virtually every shop. Among the mid-century Scandinavian furniture, vintage clothing and costume jewelry he came across a slightly used pair of sneakers. They were canvas and they looked nothing like any other sneakers he'd ever seen.
They carried the essence of the 1970s. The stitching was heavier, the cotton laces felt fluffier and there was that asymmetrical patch of suede on the inside of each toe just like hand-sewn patches on a pair of retro, broken-in jeans.
They felt perfect when he tried them on. The canvas hugged every curve of his foot. It was clear that these sneakers were designed by the Scandinavians and he knew there must be a history behind them. The shopkeeper in her broken English told him a story of a cult-following in the 70s and 80s. She had owned several pair when she was a teen. She said the shoes were once legendary in Scandinavia but had been forgotten for many years.
This struck the American as very strange. There are very few wildly successful, cult-like products from the 1970s or 80s that have disappeared without a trace. There are exceptions of course. Like Polaroid whose technology simply became outdated. Or DeLorean, an iconic automaker that folded under the weight of a car that was too expensive and too fragile.
But popular fashion brands? They usually stick around. And they rarely vanish into thin air.
When he returned to Boston he couldn't stop thinking about the shoes. He jumped on the Internet and discovered this distinctive Scandinavian sneaker from the early 1970s had reached a level of success that defied their current obscurity.
The sneakers were designed by the J. Hammergaard Hansen Sport A/S Company in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1972 as performance court shoes.
Jorgen Hammergaard Hansen was a world class Danish badminton champion in the 50s and 60s and a national hero in Denmark. In the early 70s he set out to create the world's best performing court sneakers. And what he designed became the stuff of legends.
By 1975, world class athletes in tennis, racquetball, badminton and squash all wore the sneakers for one major technical reason. They were produced with a patch of suede on the inside toe area. This simple reinforcing patch protected the sneaker from toe-drag during serves and also provided superior support and resistance when making quick, slashing starts, stops and lunges.
Hansen's creation took off like a rocket-ship throughout Europe and the sneakers gained a cult-like following for their comfort and style. These were the days before Nike and before social media. As new sneaker technologies emerged in the 80s the little brand from Denmark switched gears and entered the world of fashion. Much like the success of Chuck Taylors (basketball) and Vans (skateboarding) the Danish racquet sneaker became an iconic fashion statement with club-kids, artists, bohemians, disco dancers and punk rockers from London to Lisbon.
But the intrigue doesn't end there. There was a legal battle over their name. Ironically the Nordic shoe company had used a Japanese brand name. When the dust settled the large Japanese motor company had won and the Danish sneakers were forced to change their name in order to sell outside of Scandinavia and Western Europe.
Still manufactured in the same European factory on the same machines from the 1970s, these Danish sneakers are a throwback to quality, small-batch manufacturing. Only natural materials are used. The soles are vulcanized (melted) to the canvas and no glue is used in the process. This type of hand-made quality is almost extinct in footwear.
Leave it to the happiest country on Earth to give us one of the greatest sneakers ever created.
It's been 45 years in the making and Americans hungry for authentic, quality products are finally seeing what they've been missing. The obsession has begun and thanks to social media the word is spreading.
Backyard Footwear (not the original brand name) is now seeing its revival and they're finally available in the United States for the first time ever thanks to that American who discovered a pair in a second hand store in Copenhagen.