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50 is the New 35: Looking Back at adidas’ Most Important Sneaker Collaboration

  • Words: Jian DeLeon

  • Animations: Adam Blufarb

These days, the word “collaboration” means about as much as “influencer” does. It’s one of those marketing buzzwords that’s been so done to death that it’s almost devoid of meaning. But 15 years ago, adidas’ unprecedented 35th Anniversary collection — celebrating the adidas Superstar — invented modern sneaker culture as we know it today. As the same sneaker looks to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the impact of those 35 special pairs still reverberates today.

“The influence of that project is immeasurable. It set the stage for the future in a number of ways,” says Gary Aspden, adidas brand consultant and curator of the adidas Spezial range. He also oversaw 2005's epic collaboration.

The long and convoluted history of adidas’ second most popular shoe (the first, of course, being the Stan Smith — a sneaker so popular, its own mythology has all but eclipsed the tennis star it’s named after) starts in the early 1960s. The adidas Superstar broke ground as a first-of-its-kind low-top basketball shoe with a rubber shell toe to increase its on-court durability. Technically speaking it was designed in 1969, but it made its market debut in 1970 (this tidbit becomes important later on). Taking bits and pieces from predecessors like the herringbone-soled Supergrip and mid-top Pro Model, the OG Superstars were made in France and began as player exclusives for ’70s-era NBA superstars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

A decade later, the shoe became an indelible part of the hip-hop uniform. Arguably, it was the first leather basketball shoe that found a more enriching life on the pavement than the hardwood. Its pedigree as hip-hop culture’s go-to shoe is exhibited in the early works of seminal street style photographers Jamel Shabazz and Martha Cooper, and on the feet of burgeoning graffiti writers like Lee Quiñones in Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 film Wild Style. Next thing you know, Run-DMC released a little song called “My Adidas” in 1986, and the sneakers’ connection to hip-hop evolved from implied to official.

From there, the adidas Superstar became an integral part of several different subcultures. Heading into the ’90s, then red-hot streetwear label Stüssy’s seminal ads (lensed by the likes of James Lebon) featured the kicks prominently, giving them a subtle co-sign. The German brand also pushed its way into the skate world, signing heavy hitters like Mark Gonzales who were already rocking shell toes. But something was bubbling in Japan, where the Superstar’s European origins and high price tag of both the French- and Hungarian-made versions (by the mid-1990s, adidas shifted most of its production to Asia) had made the shoe a subculture in its own right, and when BAPE made the “Super Ape Star,” the rest of the world finally caught on.

To understand the significance of BAPE’s 2003 collaboration, you have to imagine a world where sneaker culture was nowhere near as rabid as it is now. There was no resource for looking up the latest drops — a term that hadn’t even proliferated street culture en masse at that point. If you knew, then you just knew. Initiated by Gary Aspden and designed by Kazuki Kuraishi (a Japanese streetwear legend in his own right), that particular collab encapsulated what it was that made two entities coming together feel special.

“We understood that Bathing Ape were admirers of the Superstar, and that they had been creating their own shoes that were a homage to it. We thought it would be exciting to embrace the fact that they were fans and work together,” says Aspden.

Under the slogan “The Respect Is Mutual,” the Super Ape Star left nothing to chance. It came in black and white colorways made of smooth chrome-tanned leather embossed with ape heads on the side, a clean black suede colorway with gold foil details, and a canvas camo version. The standout detail was the sole, which infused a bit of vanilla dye in the rubber formula to give it the slight yellowing of a perfect vintage pair. It embodied its ethos of reciprocal appreciation, filtered through the lens of a true connoisseur.

“For me, that project is one of the greatest collaborations of all time,” recalls Aspden. “Never before had the worlds of sportswear and streetwear collaborated in such an overt and powerful way.”

The resulting shoe created an instant frenzy. Fiends who absolutely had to have it lined up outside sneaker stores, setting the stage for what would be the Superstar’s most comprehensive collaboration to date: the fabled 35th Anniversary collection.

Dreamed up by Dean Lokes and Ben Pruess, the heads of adidas Originals at the time, they sent the concept to Aspden, whose feedback was integral to making the project unforgettable. “I thought it was a bold idea — I mean, who had ever celebrated the 35th anniversary of anything before that?” remembers Aspden.

Ringing in the new year with global midnight releases on January 1, 2005 (35 years after the OG Superstars first hit the market in 1970), the collection’s width and breadth spoke to the sneaker’s storied life beyond the basketball court. Thirty-five unique pairs were reinterpreted by a variety of collaborators, artists, and entertainers, who all spoke to its cross-cultural significance.

The most limited pairs (around 300 each) were all part of adidas’ inaugural Consortium label, a line of collaborations with top-tier retailers and brands like UNDEFEATED, Footpatrol, UNION, NEIGHBORHOOD, and D-mop. The first sneaker in that collab, of course, was dedicated to Adi Dassler himself. The shoe picked up where BAPE left off, utilizing the vanilla-tinged sole and old-school inspired upper — this time a true reproduction of the 1969 original — for a silhouette called the Superstar Vintage.

Aspden thought up the idea for the Consortium series during a long flight from Los Angeles to London. Prior to its establishment, it was much more difficult for retailers to partner with adidas on product, as they were beholden to high minimums. Its introduction set a new standard for the industry, elevating the importance that dedicated boutiques had to creating the culture around sneakers.

“It was a forward-thinking move by adidas that really opened things up,” says Aspden. “And [it] was an endorsement and acknowledgement of the influence those sneaker boutiques held.”

The "Expression" series brought things full circle by tapping graffiti writer Lee Quiñones — who rocked a pair of the kicks in Wild Style — to design his own pair. It also included renditions from Disney, Upper Playground, and even the estate of Andy Warhol. But it was the "Music" series that held a special place in Aspden’s heart.

The series included a Run-DMC edition, but also spoke to hip-hop’s future by including a pair by Missy Elliott and a crisp white pair with luxurious silver and gold stripes by Bad Boy Entertainment (a subtle nod to the white-on-white pairs Puff Daddy consistently made look rich), and a Roc-A-Fella Records pair with a black heel. As the global head of adidas’ entertainment department at the time, Aspden was instrumental in widening the scope of the artists adidas worked with for this collection.

“I love hip-hop, but music and trainer culture is much broader than rap music. We had the likes of Underworld highlighting the Superstar’s connection with electronic dance music, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ian Brown representing its connection with rock music,” says Aspden. “It was a credible mix and all the partners were really into it and were super accommodating.”

The remainder of the collaboration was produced in much larger numbers, and eschewed the niche appeal of the Superstar Vintage silhouette for the more democratic Superstar II, with a padded tongue and slightly different upper. The “Cities” series paid homage to key places that helped make the Superstar a global icon, from Boston to Berlin. Like the Consortium label, it aimed to provide a sense of localization and galvanize the shell toe community by giving these places a Superstar to call their own.

Finishing out the 35th Anniversary collection was a run of Superstar IIs, simply called the “Anniversary” series. A way for the label to celebrate the shoe itself, the Superstar was reinterpreted by adidas designers in materials like sleek black suede, perforated white leather, and etched trefoil uppers in black and white. Of all these, the rarest pair is the elusive “Top Secret” colorway, a white-on-white iteration of the shoe that was only available through a series of treasure hunts around the world. It came in a white leather briefcase along with shoe trees and a cleaning kit.

Unlike the other versions of the “Anniversary” series, this pair was made of all leather — down to the sole. It also hewed closer to the vintage silhouette, with its slimmer upper and thin tongue. Until the Hender Scheme collaboration 12 years later (a $900 vegetable-tanned leather reinterpretation made by Japanese artisans), these Superstars were the most elusive, painstakingly-manufactured interpretations of the sneakers to date. Then of course, adidas revealed the shape of Superstars to come by treating its first collaboration with Italian fashion house Prada as teaser trailer for the sneaker's 50th anniversary.

Fifteen years later, the Superstar is 50 years old and still looks as good as ever. Boosted by the success of the 35th Anniversary collection, the Superstar Vintage evolved into the Superstar 80s in 2008, a sneaker that not only builds on its true-to-original aspects, but truly returned to its roots by being made in France. In 2014, adidas followed that up with a more democratic release of the shoe made in Asia, but in larger quantities and at a lower price point. Among the slight differences between these pairs is the trefoil logo on the heel that otherwise doesn’t appear on the Made in France versions.

That heralded the next great era of the Superstar, like when Pharrell teamed up with adicolor to release an astonishing 50 monotone versions of the Superstar II in 2015. And although the true designer of the adidas Superstar wavers between Chris Severn and Horst Dassler (both get credit, depending on who you ask), the Superstar 80s sneaker has become the go-to canvas for collaborators.

Just last year, skate legend Keith Hufnagel made a pair of gum-soled shell toes with snakeskin stripe details under his newly resurrected Metropolitan USA imprint. Blondey McCoy’s interpretation of the shoe turned it into a see-through silhouette that shows off your best pair of socks. The aforementioned Prada collab melded its heritage of Italian craftsmanship with the purity of the original design. The polarizing colorway ironically isn’t that different from the coveted 35th Anniversary pair released two decades ago. That’s what the Superstar’s premise has always been about: Sometimes a shoe doesn’t need so many bells and whistles to be desirable; it just needs to embody an honest ideal of perfection.

When you think of what makes a collaboration truly great, it’s that level of respect between both parties who want to put their minds together to create something much more than the sum of its parts. The Superstar 35th Anniversary collection established that ethos, and lit a torch being carried by the same sneaker today.

“It was the beginning of adidas Consortium and innumerable streetwear collaborations with adidas,” says Aspden. “And with other sportswear companies who followed them.”

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