The History of the Supreme Nike SB Dunk High Prototypes

Words by Ross Wilson

Nowadays sneakers and streetwear are staples in modern mainstream culture, but rewind back two decades and the cultural landscape was wildly different.

Sneakerheads and streetwear enthusiasts were the outcasts, rebels and disruptors of style, purchasing items that were only available at specialist independent boutiques hidden among the backstreets of New York, London and Tokyo, rather than readily available online.

Although there was a natural crossover between the sneaker and streetwear scenes, the former didn’t fully embrace the latter until the arrival of the Stüssy/Nike Huaraches and Dunks in 2000/01, marking the first official partnership between a global sneaker giant and a pioneering streetwear brand.

In 2002 Nike launched their third attempt at a dedicated skateboard line. Under the guidance of the late Sandy Bodecker, the backbone of the new Nike SB division was a slightly padded version of the ‘80s basketball classic the Dunk Low. These Dunks would be produced in very limited numbers, and sold exclusively at independent skate stores. During its inaugural year, the only brand collaborations with Nike SB were with skate companies Zoo York and Chocolate Skateboards, and a small independent skate store in NYC called Supreme. The now legendary Supreme Dunk Low SBs became instant classics, and introduced a whole new demographic of sneaker collectors and resellers to the New York skate brand. Supreme already had a devoted underground cult following, but this moment was the spark that lit the fire for the brand to become a global phenomenon.

With their first Nike SB collaboration such a universal success, anticipation was high for a follow up. The following year saw the highly anticipated release of a trio of Dunk High SB sneakers in classic ‘Be True To Your School’ colorways, all with a Supreme twist - moc-crocodile leather uppers, oversized stuffed tongue, gold Supreme-branded lace lock and an eye-catching quarter panel covered in gold stars. The bold ostentatious shoe embodied Supreme all-over and just hit different.

Despite initial negative comments on Internet forums such as NikeTalk and CrookedTongues prior to release, when the shoes finally came out in August 2003, they were an instant hit. Twenty years later, these shoes are still regarded as one of the greatest Nike SB of all time, and remain one of Supreme’s most revered products.

When Supreme’s rising popularity as the most desirable brand on the planet was fused with Nike’s most coveted silhouette, it’s no surprise that the most hyped sneaker collaboration of all time was born – but how does this legend become something even more special and significant? It turns out that the 2003 Supreme Nike SB Dunks actually went through a couple of different design iterations prior to official release.

The SB line was founded on the very popular Dunk SB Low,with its High top variant only making three appearances in the line before the eventual Supreme release in August 2003, so the original plan was to follow up their 2002 Air Jordan III inspired debut with another set of the same silhouette. The format was very similar to what we know and love in terms of colorways, materials and accessories, however the mid quarter panel was wildly different. In place of the cluster of gold stars, the shoes featured a gold Nike Swoosh logo repeated within the section, much like a luxury fashion house monogram pattern. With Nike allegedly desperate to push their SB line as its own core-skate-focused brand, they didn’t feel that covering a skate shoe in their main sportswear logo would resonate, so the design was rejected.

For years these three Supreme Dunk SB Low samples have been infamous within both the sneaker and Supreme communities, ever since the brand published a grainy image of the sample shoes with the words “REJECTED FOR LEGAL ISSUES MARCH 2003” in a copy of their Japanese magazine. Collectors, followers, and media from around the world were treated to their first good quality image of the shoes in Spring 2020, when a renowned European sneaker collector posted detailed images on his Instagram profile. It’s unclear if the sample Dunk Lows even exist as pairs, as the only legitimate photographs published have been of the same single shoe samples, with the Red and Blue pairs in a single right foot shoe, and the Orange pair in a single left foot shoe.

These new images reopened a dialogue within the community: “What if they had actually sampled these as Highs, instead of Lows?”, with the overall consensus being that the unique design of the collaboration suited the higher cut version of the Dunk. For many, the Supreme Dunk SB High prototypes seemed like nothing more than an urban myth, but one dedicated collector made it his personal quest to track down one of the rarest Supreme grails.

Ryan Chang is the Chief Curator at Applied Arts in New York City, and has handled some of the rarest sneakers of all time including exclusive Friends & Family collaborations with Futura Laboratories, Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West. These sample Supreme Dunk SB Highs had eluded him for years, with stories of them being split into single shoes, or having never existed at all. Believing these to be the only three pairs in existence, Chang feels the cultural relevance of these shoes stretches beyond the ‘sneakerfreaker’ context, explaining “These shoes are cultural artifacts, physical representations of the rebellion and anti-authority culture that resonated so deeply with the skateboarding community and youth in general in the ‘90s and ‘00s. I love these shoes because you can see Supreme’s loud, in-your-face messaging in conflict with Nike’s subtle, understated ethos.”

In recent years there have been a number of high profile ‘grail’ sneakers selling for high sums at auction, but Chang believes these particular shoes are in a league of their own as they epitomize a defining moment in culture — “The term ‘grail’ is such a difficult one to define as it depends on what kind of collector you are… Some view sneakers as cultural matter, and they’ll have a different heuristic value than someone who collects game-worn sneakers and sports memorabilia. Art collectors are also getting younger and more diverse with musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs all investing in rarities that are both artistically and culturally significant to them personally. I feel that means less focus on fine art, and more on rare shoes and modern collectibles.”

His personal connection to this unique collection of shoes evokes a simpler time in New York skate and sneaker culture, “They’re particularly relevant to me because I was a teenage skater in the late ‘90s when Supreme had just opened up downtown and you could skate in and hang at the store. As a sneaker collector, seeing the brand come this far and spawn so many imitators, it’s really meaningful to have these pairs in my collection. Finding all of them together 20 years after they were produced was as close to impossible as it gets… for years I was under the impression that these shoes could never be reunited as pairs, let alone as a full set, but I’m thrilled that they’re all together now as they should be.”