There is no shortage of contemporary apparel that hosts derivative characteristics in the form of military gear. M-65 jackets, many wristwatches and even white T-shirts trace their roots to the army, while the prevailing camouflage trend certainly supports the idea that military apparel has been completely re-appropriated by the world of fashion. Within the confines of footwear, it is not uncommon to see designers looking to imbue their creations with functionality and the military seems to be an unending source of utility. Speaking of footwear, the mid-century German army trainer (GAT) is a glaring example of this intersection.
As Berlin was amidst preparation for the 1936 Summer Olympics, brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler shared responsibilities in their company Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, a name that translates to “Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory.” Before the start of the famous competition, Adolf, or “Adi” for short, reportedly drove to Berlin from his hometown in Herzogenaurach to meet the well-known American track star Jesse Owens and persuaded him to don a pair of handcrafted leather track shoes with extra long spikes for his participation in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m events. When Jesse made the podium, winning gold in all four events, this translated into early success for the Dassler brothers’ brand, with hundreds of thousands of annual sales to other athletes as a result.
Messages from around the world reached the brothers, many that were sent from other national teams who were all interested in the emerging brand. In 1948, the brothers split their business into two names that are still today synonymous with German sport; Adolf called his brand “adidas”; Rudolf called his “Ruda” before changing to “PUMA,” whereafter the brothers feuded between one another for decades. While this piece of history was unfolding, another footwear style was about to surface, one that directly reimagined the style of the track spike that Owens famously wore – an indoor-suited evolution of the track spike blueprint, which eventually manifested as the German Army Trainer. When the brothers fought over a German army contract to produce footwear for the troops in the 1970s, the result was adidas and PUMA both producing the now pervasive style, each claiming the design as their own.
With a rubber gum sole for traction and an all leather body for comfort, the standard issue shoe was made in Germany and offered basic elements to German soldiers during indoor training exercises, a far reach from its fashionable successors. As it was referred to, the bundeswehr sportschuhe, directly translating to “Federal Defense Sports Shoe,” held merit in its practicality and comfort rather than any aesthetic value at the time. Looking through the catalog of either adidas or PUMA, it is not difficult to spot styles that take cues from the original military trainer: the adidas Resplit Low, Samba and Gazelle, and the PUMA Whirlwind all feature a similar toe and silhouette. However, in the years to follow, the shoe would be repeatedly reinterpreted by a multitude of brands from around the world.
Examining the Margiela Replica sneaker, it may never cross your mind that every aspect of the shoe derives from the military, yet calling the style similar to the German army trainer would be an understatement. Another prime example can be found in the Dior Homme B01 and together with the Margiela, both are shoes that apply luxurious components to a style that was once favored in the army for its functional qualities, and these constitute one type of GAT that exists today: the high-fashion iteration. On the other end of the spectrum, deadstock versions still exist in Germany, albeit they are harder to find as production ended in the mid 1980s. It is easy to gloss over the appealing style and forget that these shoes are crafted to military specifications; up to the task of surviving the grueling workout regiment of Germany’s armed forces.
The leap into fashion is hardly one that many would have expected from the mass-produced German army trainer, and the Dassler brothers would surely marvel in the new pull this sneaker has found, yet this illustrates the sometimes unpredictable nature of the industry where inspiration found in obscurity is sometimes the most powerful. The purpose of a uniform is, of course, to create a sense of unity, whereas the high-fashion reproductions of today have curiously been popularized thanks to their individuality and exclusivity. On many levels, it only seems appropriate to compliment the iconicity of German engineering, which manifests pragmatically through this storied trainer, shaping not only the distinctly recognizable aesthetic of adidas and PUMA, but many sportswear and footwear companies that have followed in their steps.