In Herzogenaurach, Germany, the adidas archive is carefully temperature and humidity-controlled. After we enter, the head of adidas' History Management Team shuts the door to maintain the carefully balanced climate. There are no windows and no cell reception.
Reportedly, Pharrell Williams and his team recently spent over three hours inside. Kanye West on the other hand, was particularly fascinated with a specific luge boot. The archive contains a stunning 80,000 articles, including around 7,000 shoes, plus apparel, accessories, media files, and documents like the original Torsion bar schematics. Each product is assigned a numeric object number, and sometimes these reference codes even inform the names of new sneaker designs, case-in-point, the i-5923. While the archive is carefully preserved today, it wasn't always that way.
In the early 1900s, Adolf "Adi" Dassler started selectively cataloguing products. He was a shoemaker by trade, and his primary intention was to learn from athlete feedback, which helped him actually improve the product he was making. In a way, Dassler was setting up his own library of references to look back on.
Before long, Dassler hired an assistant by the name of Karl-Heinz Lang, who re-located the archive to a German town named Scheinfeld, where Lang became responsible for the archive. Now the biggest sport shoe collection in the world according to adidas, the archive has grown over time to include pre-adidas and pre-PUMA products from the early Dassler family company, Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik. The gallery above shows an adidas track spike with three stripes, where the middle stripe seems to have been added after the original two. Dassler might have been experimenting with the support structure of the shoe, which became adidas' now-iconic branding.
In a strange twist of fate, Peter Moore (Moore also designed the Air Jordan 1 for Nike) was later working at adidas when he instilled a sense of urgency in 2007, spearheading a team of dedicated archive staff to help understand adidas' past, therefore burgeoning the brand's future success. In 2012, adidas moved the full collection of products to Herzogenaurach, where professional archival conditions are now in place. Aside from the in-house archive, the brand also keeps a payroll of private collectors from around the world, including Overkill founder Marc Leushner, Gary Aspden, and Daniel Kokscht, aka Quote, whose collections frequently tour the world at various adidas events.
In the future, adidas plans on bulking up its digital archive of products, for anyone to use and research.
Maintaining these thousands of rare sneakers is delicate process. Each pair is wrapped in acid-free paper, and handled only with special gloves. Some of the articles are brand new, but many have been extensively worn or trained in by athletes. In the case of one specific pair of 1991-1992 sneakers from the original adidas EQT range, clay dust was still clearly visible, clinging to the shoe's outsole, as the shoes had been worn by a tennis player. But to restore the shoes is always a compromise, and cleaning the clay would be to destroy the original object, in a way. The adidas archivist quickly likens this to painting over a Rembrandt.
For current adidas designers, the archive is an unparalleled resource of details, colors, fabrics, and structures, to inform new products. Global SVP of Design for adidas Originals & Style, Nic Galway tells us "I don't tend to go back to particular decades. I go back to pieces or elements."
Although retro styles like the Superstar and Stan Smith (surely there are many among in the adidas archive) are pillars for the adidas business, the Originals thesis is to stay informed by the past, but focused on the future. Speaking on the balance of retro versus new product, Galway explains; "The balance is really important. I think it's about being timely. It's bringing back products at the right moment, capturing a wave, capturing a moment."
So could adidas designers still design without this archive?
Galway replies "The archive for us is more than just shoes from the past – it represents moments in time, people we’ve met and connections we have made. This links back to our collective memory which inspires our design and the way we are as a brand today. Without it, we would not connect to culture in such a meaningful way.”
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