Five years ago, adidas may have been viewed as simply a scrappy participant in the Nike-dominated world of footwear. But that has all changed after several key decisions which helped propel the German brand to unseen heights since being founded in Herzogenaurach in 1959 – causing this very publication and its readership to call it the most relevant brand of 2016.
Despite an extensive amount of analysis as to discover what has been the main ingredient in their success – causing fashion publications and general lifestyle portals to dig into the adidas archives for key moments – there are still many facets of the company that remain relatively unknown to the general public.
From military ties to whiskey-aided deals, and legendary comedians turned villains to utter failures, here are 10 key moments from adidas’s past.
Karhu & the Three Stripe Logo
Despite having existed for over a century, many people’s first introduction to Finnish brand, Karhu, came when Kanye West cosigned the brand in January of this year.
Karhu’s Global Lifestyle Manager, Remko Nouws, told us at the time, “It is for sure an important moment for Karhu. We have been around for 100 years, so I wouldn’t say that our existence is depending on it, but getting a stamp of approval from Kanye West is huge! It is a big compliment for the brand.”
Although it may seem like an unlikely pairing of sensibilities given West’s strong ties to adidas, Karhu’s lineage actually figures in nicely to the paparazzi snaps of him in the Finnish wear.
In the 1940s, Karhu trademarked what we now colloquially refer to as adidas’s “three stripes logo”—notably outfitting 15 gold medal winners at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in the design. But it wasn’t actually a logo, rather an ergonomic lacing system where the stripes could be loosened or tightened around key areas of the foot—each stripe coordinated to an eyelet.
Shortly thereafter, Karhu sold the logo to adidas—who had been formed four years earlier—for the hefty price tag of two bottles of good whiskey and about 1,600 euros.
Bundeswehr German Army Trainer
For even casual sneaker enthusiasts, the rivalry between Adi and Rudi Dassler is well known and represents a bitter feud which ultimately resulted in two different companies: adidas and PUMA.
The competition was fierce and often hostile – inevitably coming to a head in the 1970s when each company vied for a coveted military contract with the Germany army.
Ultimately, adidas won out and went on to produce what was referred to as “the bundeswehr sportschuhe”—directly translating to “Federal Defense Sports Shoe”—which would come to be known as the Germany Army Trainer (GAT). In addition, adidas manufactured several light blue and dark blue track suits with the bundeswehr eagle insignia.
While this was notable simply because it showed that the German government was vocally showing support for one Dassler brother over the other, the shoe silhouette also lay the foundation for high fashion sneaker silhouettes we see today from the likes of Maison Martin Margiela and Dior Homme.
As we noted in our history of the Margiela iteration, “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.”
Bill Cosby & ‘I Spy’
In a contemporary context, Bill Cosby’s name has come to represent the horrible sexual allegations made against him which not only sullied his body of work, but has also made him the brunt of many comedy specials that have come out since Hannibal Buresss discussed the topic in his act in 2014.
Before he became Dr. Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby played Alexander “Scotty” Scott on the NBC series I Spy where he became the first black actor to appear on a television drama in a lead role.
Since Cosby and his partner, Kelly Robinson, were portraying undercover operatives posing as a tennis coach and player, respectively, Cosby often opted for adidas’s popular silhouette at the time.
Cosby would go on to win three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1966, 1967 and 1968 (becoming the first African-American male actor to do) – not only increasing Cosby’s star power, but also giving lifestyle appeal to a brand that up until that point had only been viewed in a sports context.
When Jerry Seinfeld was asked in a Reddit AMA about his affinity for all white sneakers – famously opting for pair of Nike Air Tech Challenge II’s and Nike Air Delta Force ST Low Techs in the second and third episodes of his own series – he responded, “It started with wanting to be Joe Namath of the 1969 New York Jets, who at that time was one of the only football players to wear white shoes. And I wanted to be like him, so I always wore white sneakers. Also, Bill Cosby on I SPY always wore white sneakers. And they were my fashion icons.”
During the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, adidas was the main sponsor of sportswear. This immediately caused tension between the hosts and the brand over the desire to outfit Soviet athletes in sneakers that were made in Germany despite the icy history shared between both nations following the events of World War II.
The solution: adidas built a factory in Russia, making shoes specifically for the Olympics. After the games, the company left the country, but the factory carried on—creating shoes based on adidas’ specs and aesthetics, with a slightly modified trefoil and the new moniker “Mockba,” the Russian word for “Moscow.”
The agreement supposedly dictated that Russia would cease production and shutter the factory following the Olympic games, but they balked at the idea and continued to produce Mockba sneakers.
In turn, they became footwear favorites for Spetnaz soldiers, especially during the Soviet-Afghan War and Chechen Wars. The sneakers have been immortalized in 1/6 scale soldier depictions.
For those wanting a pair, they can be bought here.
The “Robert Haillet” becomes the “Stan Smith”
There aren’t many instances when a product undergoes a complete rebrand with little explanation. But in the case of one of adidas’s most recognizable silhouettes—the Stan Smith—that very thing occurred in 1971.
For seven years, that exact silhouette was sold to the public using Robert Haillet as the namesake for the tennis-inspired shoe which rewrote sensibilities and ushered in an era where leather trumped canvas.
Although he competed in the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, Haillet wasn’t necessarily the most recognizable player in the sport—dwarfed by the exploits of Aussies, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver—the latter who would receive his own adidas model in 1970.
Haillet retired from professional tennis in 1971 with career achievements in Monte Carlo where he scored back-to-back titles in 1958 and ’59.
In search of someone to carry the torch for their popular shoe, adidas simply dropped Haillet’s name from the shoe and swapped it for Stan Smith—a more established player who would go on to win the US Open that same year.
The shoe would still officially be referred to as the “Haillet” until 1978 despite the addition of Smith’s caricature and signature on the tongue.
“Well, it was interesting,” Smith recalled of the switch. “It was the only shoe out there at the time (with leather) and it already had a bit of a following and was fairly unique in tennis.”
adidas is certainly leading the charge in the ever-evolving sneaker war taking place in the 3D realm—aided by the warm reception for its Futurecraft 4D silhouette that is made from recycled ocean plastic.
While this technology is certainly helped by innovation and methods that only could have been accomplished in the digital age, adidas set the precedent with its forward thinking as far back as 1984 when they became the first major shoe brand to place a micro sensor inside a model.
The Micropacer’s sensor was embedded in the left toe and could record distance, running pace and caloric consumption. The left shoe’s tongue was fitted with a small screen where this information was retrieved and could be read by the wearer.
Although people applauded their forward thinking, the Micropacer was lauded for being a “dodgy premise” by serious runners.
The Micropacer never really connected with audiences. However, the spirit behind unlocking the analytics of performance was the precursor for what became miCoach.
Whether it’s with miadidas, NIKEiD or YourReebok, personal customization is an integral piece of the puzzle for sneaker brands.
adidas was on the forefront of this phenomenon as far back as 1985 with the adidas adicolor H which came with eight different colored markers that consumers could then use to customize their shoes however they liked.
This form of self-expression is something we identified as a major trend in 2016, stating, “today our options have never been wider when it comes to DIY customization.”
The Kanye West x adidas Rod Laver
Kanye West and adidas have enjoyed unparalleled success since he left Nike in the fall of 2013. But many might be surprised to learn that his relationship with the brand in fact predated his involvement with the Swoosh. Beyond his 2004 Def Poetry Jam appearance in a pair of adidas Forums, he actually got a chance to collaborate with adidas.
Created in 2006—three years before the Nike Air Yeezy—the College Dropout-infused Rod Laver never made it past the sample phase after adidas executives thought West’s grandiose vision was too large at the time after he stated his desire for his own dedicated line, shops and design team.
While this particular silhouette could have been viewed as a missed opportunity, we now understand that adidas’s reconnection with West after his departure from Nike came with the understanding that he needed to be the one in charge of creative as the Rod Laver silhouette in question was actually designed for West.
Fidel Castro’s tracksuit
Images of Fidel Castro clad in camouflage fatigues is what people will probably best remember about the late Cuban leader.
However, in his later years, Castro often opted for a number of different iterations of an adidas tracksuit—known as the “el chandalismo revolucionario”—which he had come to have an affinity for after the brand had served as official apparel sponsors for the nation at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics.
In many instances, Castro met with other world leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Brazil’s Luiz Ignacio and Russia’s Vladimir Putin while clad in adidas.
“We don’t really look at it as anything,” Travis Gonzolez, head of adidas p.r., told The New York Times when asked about the apparent endorsement after Castro had opted for an adidas tracksuit after leaving the hospital. “It’s not a positive, not a negative. We are a sports brand. We are making products for athletes, we are not making them for leaders.”
In one of the most high-profile examples, Castro met with Pope Francis in Havana in a blue adidas tracksuit.
Dirk Schonberger’s opinion shift
When Dirk Schönberger was hired as Creative Director for adidas in 2010, no one—not even he himself—could have anticipated that his tenure would be best remembered for the collaborative spirit he brought to the table which resulted in partnerships with Raf Simons, Pharrell Williams, Opening Ceremony Rick Owens and Kanye West.
“When I joined adidas, my initial thought was, Let’s focus on the brand adidas, not collaborations,” he said. “I’d known Raf [Simons] for a long time, and we’d had conversations about adidas and about how much he liked the Stan Smith [sneaker]. Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe it is interesting to invite people into the brand again as collaborators and start working on their vision.’ I’m thinking about our collaborators as a virus injected into our company that mutates the company into something else.”
It’s hard to imagine adidas without these other entities. That isn’t to say they wouldn’t still be flourishing, but Schonberger’s shift in opinion regarding possibly alienating one faction of consumer to satiate the desire of others was ultimately the right call.
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