There are many big-name sneaker companies out there and shoes go hand in hand with sports, music, and pop culture. But an upstart shoe company in the 80s was the one that really got the ball rolling.
British Knights shoes came out in 1986 and offered a variety of fashion athletic sneakers. They were able to impact the culture by aligning themselves with the emerging art of hip hop and helped to define the decade.
As a kid growing up, I felt like British Knights shoes were taunting me. I knew I was probably never going to own them and was only given the knock-off variety from our local Zellers.
The appeal of all shoes is pretty strong – especially the big ones like Nike, Reebok, and Adidas, but British Knights were at a different level in the 80s – they just seemed cool as hell. Turns out that they did a lot of smart marketing and maneuvering to put themselves at the forefront of the emerging hip hop culture and created great awareness of themselves.
This blog will be a look back at British Knights shoes, how they were at the forefront of what seems commonplace by the shoe industry today, and why they need to be on the Mount Rushmore of sneakers.
They took on the biggest shoe companies in the world and would make a dent in the market, and in the culture. So lace up and let’s do this.
What Were British Knights Shoes?
British Knights are best known as white high-top sneakers that came out in the 80s. They featured some pretty abstract designs, colors, and graphics which made their shoes really stand out from the crowd.
The bold imaging and features of the shoe were part of their direction as these were meant to be a fashion statement as much as a functional shoe. They had various sizes and styles of sneakers including lower top varieties, but when I think of British Knights, I think of the big, chunky, bold version that seemed like the best clothing accessory out there.
We’ll get into some more specifics, but the image above should give you a good idea about this iconic piece of 80s footwear.
British Knights Shoes History
So as a kid, I assumed these shoes originated in England – but I also thought Chewbacca was real, so that was the level of intellect I was dealing with. British Knights started in New York City in 1983. They didn’t originally begin offering up sneakers, but instead started with a whole other line of footwear.
This whole company started as Jack Schwartz Shoes, which was a family-run company. They had been in the shoe game for a while and are now going on 8 decades and four generations working in the business. This started all the way back in 1939, right in the heart of the depression.
They set up shop in Manhattan on 115 West Broadway. These days they are located in SOHO, but they started out as a wholesaler of other shoe brands. The founder, Jack, passed away at an early age, but the family jumped in to keep the business going. Jack’s son, Donald, kept things going and his sons would be instrumental in the growth of British Knights.
The first line of their own shoes came out in 1972 and were called “Pro Players” and the success of the company was growing. They weren’t British Knights just yet, but the business was growing to where they had to open up offices in China. Today, the outfit people like Guy Harvey and Emeril Lagasse, the latter being provided a shoe line geared toward those who work in the restaurant industry.
The success of Pro Players is what led them to create the British Knights brand and launch that line of boat shoes in 1983. And then one of Donald’s other sons would join the team…
Moving Into The Sneaker Business
Larry Schwartz is the man behind the sneakers. He joined on in 1985 and didn’t take long to inject some youth and a new direction into the company. His goal was to add an athletic footwear division to the company – but he wanted to make it more than just a pair of running shoes.
His vision was to create a “fashion athletic footwear” option to be released by British Knights. This all came about as he was literally looking out his front door and noticing the changing landscape of pop culture.
The growing rise of hip-hop was introducing a very expressive art form. Hip hop is not just about rapping but involves other components such as breakdancing DJing and graffiti. Some may call graffiti vandalism – and there may be some truth to that – but it is still a form of artistic expression.
Hip hop -and its culture- was introducing a wide variety of new colours, fashion, and style and Schwartz thought this needed to be reflected in a shoe. The other big shoe companies were still focused on athletic performance, but British Knights would also be about fashion and style
Striving For Fashion & Not Just Performance
It wasn’t just the hip hop demographic they were looking to target, but all forms of youth culture and music. British Knights shoes would set himself apart from companies like Reebok and Nike, by focussing on the inner-city kids.
They would specifically focus on the young male market but the main thing was about creating a culture in shoe form. British Knights would be a music-driven brand. This is very commonplace today, but, at the time, this hadn’t really been done before – especially by a shoe company.
Head over to Britishknights.com where you can see a whole history of their marketing and advertisements over the years.
Make no mistake; British Knights were still a very athletic shoe that you were able to find on the basketball court as easily as you could on the street corner. Shoes and athletic sponsorship were just starting to emerge with the introduction of the Nike “Air Jordan” in 1984, but they had barely been on the market for a year at the advent of British Knights shoes.
Michael Jordan was obviously a massive star, but he was just coming into his own at this point. For British Knights to fully integrate into the culture, and became a fashion statement, it would mean aligning themselves with a new style of music that was catching on like wildfire.
The Birth Of Hip Hop & The How Ya Like Me Now Campaign
I loved hip hop growing up in the 80s and still do to this day. The 1980s was an amazing time as this art form was just taking off. I liked all the regular pop music and top 40 stuff you would hear on the radio (check out my article on the best bands of the 80s) but I was enamored with hip hop.
This whole new genre really captured my imagination – and many others – and I loved Run DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, and even the “novelty” rap like Tone Loc, Young MC, and the first cassette that I ever bought: DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince – “He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper.”
I was also aware of what wasn’t exactly mainstream rap at the time like Kool Moe Dee, and it was impossible not to be aware of his song “How Ya Like Me Now.” Songs like this have a bit of a dated feel to them now but the soul and passion is still there. With its James Brown inspired riffs, How Ya Like Me Now is a good song representative of this era of hip hop.
British Knights not only capitalized on hip hop culture but specifically Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now.” In 1988, they put out a line of sneakers inspired by the song and also included a commercial that acted as a music video too.
With an actual knight dribbling a basketball to the self-dancing sneakers, this shoe line – and commercial – blew my mind. This campaign was also launched with print marketing ads that incorporated the same type of colors and graphics displayed on the shoes.
Where other shoe companies were putting out boring, run-of-the-mill ads, British knights shoes were doing some pretty out-there stuff. It was bold, weird, but couldn’t be ignored. Hip Hop, at the time, was at its infancy as far as commercialism compared to today with Forbes reporting that the music alone is an $80 billion industry.
It was also around this time that Run-DMC would release their song “My Adidas.” This was another monumental moment of hip hop and shoe culture coming together, but in the case of this song, RUN-DMC was already talking about an established shoe that they happened to like.
Nothing was done specifically for Adidas shoes to become a symbol of pop culture – that was all due to RUN-DMC. The difference with Britsh Knights shoes is that they were capturing the essence of hip hop and reflecting this in their many styles of shoes.
Over the years they would also work with acts like:
- Public Enemy
- MC Hammer
The Success Of British Knights Shoes
British Knights were a massive hit right out of the gate. The timing of their release was perfect as it caught that sweet spot of the emergence of hip hop and the embrace of new unique and individual styles.
The big thing that made them stand out was their focus on variation. Looking back at the Adidas example; their shoes always stayed pretty much the same with very little – or no – different editions, and this was the case for most shoe companies. British Knights changed all this by offering a wide variety of styles, colors, and versions.
Today, we are very familiar with new shoe releases such as Yeezy’s, LeBron’s, Jordans, Air Force 1s, etc. They will put out specific editions that are a one time shot that collectors and shoe lovers will pay top dollar for. In the 80s, this wasn’t a thing at all – until British Knights.
British Knights would release new collections at least three to four times a year. This is the one big thing I remember about British Knights: If you saw a sweet new shoe that they had put out you had only one chance to get it – after that, you wouldn’t see it again. They had inadvertently created an even larger demand for their shoes and they could start putting out more and more unique versions.
No surprise though, they were a huge hit with the 15-24 male demographic. Urban communities ate them up and their unique catchphrase “ The shoe ate nothin’, without the BK button” propelled their diamond-shaped logo into the mainstream.
The even would appear in a video game. 1989’s Arch Rivals video game made by Midway would feature British Knights shoes.
The Inclusion Of British Knights Shoes On The Fun House Game Show
The TV show Fun House was the essence of what was cool to kids like me in the 80s. The show was based around the greatest game show a kid could imagine along with cool host J.D. Roth. Kids would get a chance to compete in challenges and earn points for the opportunity to run through the Fun House.
The Fun House itself was filled with adventure and obstacles where along the way you would collect tokens that corresponded to amazing prizes and cash. I’m not alone in thinking how I could not picture anything I wanted more in life than to run through that Fun House.
And another big feature of the show was their tie-in with British Knights who sponsored the show. As a young dumb kid, I had no idea that everything I was watching at the time was basically a 22-minute commercial – and that included Fun House.
But who gave a crap, the show was perfectly able to capture the coolness and uniqueness of these shoes and J.D. Roth, along with every contestant, would be wearing them. Along with sponsor JC Penny, they would make sure that British Knights were mentioned at every possible opportunity – and that was fine by me.
If you want to read more about the amazing Fun House game show, check out my blog here all about it.
The Future Of British Knights Shoes & Their Revival
Going into the 90s, British Knights would step up their collaboration game including a massive campaign with MC Hammer. They would also crossover into basketball sponsorship working with top athletes like: Dominique Wilkins, Derrick Coleman, and Lloyd Daniels.
They would introduce their Dymacel technology which was a silicon filled diamond-shaped cushioning in the sole of the shoe. There was a window on the heel where you can see in and if you remember this, you remember this being the coolest sh*t you had ever seen.
I remember one kid at school who was lucky enough to have these, stabbing it with a pen to see the silicon gel leak out. This was a pivotal moment in my life…
There was also some alleged controversy with the shoes. In the early 90s, infamous street gang The Crips were fond of the shoes and there was the thought that they wore them as BK stood for “Blood Killer” to them – assuming you know your Crips and Bloods history…
Many schools and universities began banning British Knights shoes, but their popularity was already beginning to slow. The ever-changing nature of hip hop, style, and fashion was begging to push British Knights to the side in favor of whatever else was new and cool.
But in 2014, British Knights began a comeback. Jack Schwartz shoes got back into the mix with designer Darren Romanelli, and Scooter Braun – manager of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande etc. They went back to their roots of style over function with the slogan “artists are the new athletes.”
The interest in British Knights shoes clearly had still existed due to that 2014 revival, and at the very least it was a tribute back to a shoe company that was an innovator and truly changed the game.