In the 21st century, we live in a world filled with logos, brands and corporate identities. If you live in a big city, you’ll probably encounter hundreds of logos every single day without even noticing. But despite the ubiquity of branding culture, only a handful of companies ever make it to the level that their logos become effectively part of the mainstream lexicon; so widespread and familiar that their presence is as unsurprising as that of cars, trees or buildings. So embedded in the scenery that you never stop to ask where they came from.
You’ve probably heard the story about the Nike logo being designed for $35, or the apocryphal tale about the Apple logo being inspired by Alan Turing’s suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide (the bite mark was actually to indicate scale, to prevent the apple being mistaken for a smaller fruit such as a cherry), but one brand whose story hasn’t really been explored enough is, ironically, one who has arguably trumpeted its branding loudest: The brand with the 3-stripes.
That might be because, unlike the calculated, purposeful design of most contemporary brands, the adidas logo predates most promotional and consumer culture. In fact, it sort of predates the adidas brand altogether. So, in order to understand the 3-stripes in all their various forms, we need to lay a bit of historical foundation.
Himself the son of a shoe factory worker, Adolf “Adi” Dassler started making shoe’s in 1924 alongside his older brother, Rudolf. The two established the company Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) in Herzogenaurach, and began manufacturing rudimentary running spikes, which featured two stripes across the lateral and medial sides as a way of binding the shoe together and providing structure to the shoe. This is important to consider; at its core, the adidas logo is one born from function and practicality rather than aesthetics. Of course, it also provided a clear point of difference and mark of distinction when athletes wore the product at competitions, which certainly wasn’t a disadvantage, but that functional element remains central to the 3-stripes branding.
The company performed well over the years that followed, but in 1939, World War II broke out and, like most German manufacturers at the time, the Dassler brothers were brought into the war effort and their factories were requisitioned for military manufacturing. It was during this time that one of sportswear’s most iconic rivalries began; Rudolf believed Adi had reported him to Allied Forces as a member of the Waffen SS, and an off-the-cuff remark by Adi as he entered a bomb shelter caused a rift between the two brothers that never healed. In 1947, they would go their separate ways, with Rudolf starting a new company called RuDa (later rebranded to PUMA), and Adi starting adidas, a modification of the Adi Dassler name.
Unfortunately, when Adi started his new company he was no longer able to use the two signature stripes of his former company. The solution? Adding a third one in the middle, creating the now iconic 3-stripes mark that graces virtually every adidas product created in one form or another.
You’d think the story would end there, but funnily enough, by the time Dassler went to register the 3-stripes mark as a trademark of his brand, he discovered that another brand had already beat him to it. As it happened, a small Finnish sportswear brand called Karhu (which has seen a return to popularity in sneaker communities) lately) had already registered the 3-stripes in their name.
Fortunately, the Finnish label agreed to sell the trademark to adidas. The price? Roughly €1600 in today’s money. And two bottles of whiskey. An old school approach to negotiation, but one that was worthwhile considering how integral the mark would become to adidas. In fact, even in the early days of the brand, Dassler would refer to his brand as “the 3-stripes company”, foreshadowing how synonymous with adidas those three straight lines would eventually become.
Still in the very early days of performance footwear, throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the adidas brand would steadily progress, introducing gradual improvements in terms of materials, ergonomics and structural design. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when brands began using modern materials such as EVA rubber, that performance footwear really started to up its game.
Elsewhere in the world, a company in Oregon known as Blue Ribbon Sports had been importing running shoes from the Japanese Onitsuka Tiger company into the USA and achieving great success (BRS would later rebrand as Nike), and the rivalry between adidas and PUMA back in Germany was as heated as ever.
As a result, adidas decided they needed to rebrand their company and create a dynamic logo which communicated the brand as diverse, multi-faceted and about more than pure competitive running gear. Thus, the legendary trefoil logo was born; three leaf shapes branching out in a plant-like manner, with the original 3-stripes mark cutting across them horizontally. It served as the brand’s core logo for two decades before being phased out for a newer logo. Today, the trefoil is the logo for Originals, the heritage division of adidas which releases classic models like the Superstar and Stan Smith, as well as collaborations and casual apparel ranges that speak to the brand’s cultural history and style impact.
Just as cultural shifts in the 70s necessitated a shift in brand focus, rapid progressions in footwear tech and design aesthetics in the 1990s meant it was time for adidas to revamp their identity once more. In the early ‘90s, following the success of their hyper-futuristic ZX footwear series, adidas introduced its Equipment footwear series, a new line of progressive performance models that were calculated and precise in their design, intended to meet the specific needs of athletes in different situations.
In 1997, this renewed focus on performance, tech and progression was what inspired the triangular version of the 3-stripes mark (now often referred to as the Equipment logo). Shaped like a mountain, the logo supposedly represents “the challenge to be faced and the goals to be achieved”.
This phase would also see the functional element of the 3-stripes motif brought back to the fore through a number of design styles; many EQT models, for example, integrated the 3-stripes mark into shoe’s lacing system to create a series of straps that wrapped around the foot when they were laced; and 2002’s hyper-futuristic ClimaCool model transformed the 3-stripes into a molded TPU panel that structured the shoe’s lightweight mesh design.
The Equipment logo would appear on many of adidas’ new releases in the years that followed, with the trefoil remaining in use for heritage releases. But if you’re really interested in more experimental uses of the 3-stripes mark, many of the brand’s basketball releases during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s are essential viewing.
A sector of performance footwear which has never really been known for its conservative aesthetics, adidas’ basketball offering truly pushed the 3-stripes identity to its furthest extremes, translating that simple motif of threes into ankle straps, heel cages, rubberized panels and a myriad of other, frankly, bonkers design elements. Personal recommendations include the 1992 Mutombo, the 1998 EQT Vapor, and the 1998 EQT Solution, whose mindboggling midsole design and raindrop-like stripe marks are possibly too futuristic even by today’s standards. Also don't miss the adidas Real Deal or Kobe Bryant's signature adidas models like the KB1 or KB8. Outside of basketball, the adidas stripes also feature prominently on team kits from many sports around the world.
Throughout the 2000s, adidas would make a few subtle changes to its branding, officially establishing adidas Originals in 2001, and gradually phasing out the Equipment logo. The brand’s corporate identity was simplified into a classic adidas text logo accompanied by three horizontal stripes.
Corporate branding aside, the most recent new iteration of adidas’ 3-stripes branding is the adidas Style logo, which depicts a circle intersected by three claw-like stripes. The Style subdivision oversees many of adidas’ more fashion-focused endeavours, such as the collaborative Y-3 line designed by Yohji Yamamoto and the adidas SLVR line, and though it has been implemented into some retail stores and other projects, it hasn’t been used nearly as commonly as the other adidas logos externally.
One of the most interesting stories of the adidas 3-stripes, funnily enough, comes from a time when they weren’t technically present at all. The brand has long been a sponsor of the Olympics and indulged in the advertising and promotional benefits that come with it.
However, during the 2006 Olympics, other sponsors and sportswear manufacturers complained that adidas’ uniform designs with 3-stripes details violated IOC regulations on the size of branding details. Despite adidas arguing that the 3-stripes were a design element, rather than logo branding, the IOC banned the 3-stripes at the 2006 Winter Games. Not to be beaten that easily, adidas fought back, transforming the 3-stripes into a new motif constructed from a series of repeating 3s, segmented in such a way as to resemble the 3-stripes.
As history clearly shows, adidas’ fervent commitment to their 3-stripes insignia has paid off, building one of the most recognizable brands in the world. But having a name that big isn’t just about commitment; it involves defence as well. Over the years, the brand has fought viciously against any individual or entity which has attempted to infringe upon their trademark.
In recent times, this has included big name retailers like Forever 21, who had been caught out on multiple occasions imitating the adidas mark. Not only did Forever 21 use an ambiguous 4-stripe mark, but in some instances the brand went as far as to completely copy the adidas 3-stripes mark, positioned in similar places such as down sleeves. And it’s not just the high-street who play this game; Marc Jacobs was taken to court a few years back for the exact same thing.
Closer to home, in the realm of sports footwear, a number of brands have felt the wrath of adidas’ legal department over those stripes. In anticipation of inevitable lawsuits, Nike has at times gone to the effort of filing pre-emptive suits justifying their use of two stripe details on their apparel, knowing that adidas wouldn’t ignore it. It’s one thing to get sued over copyright infringement, but when other people are filing the suits before you’ve even seen anything, you know they’re scared.
Looking at the 3-stripes’ history on a whole, it’s interesting to reflect upon adidas’ manipulation and modification of its core identity over the years. On the one hand, it could be argued that using multiple branding details will have made it harder for adidas to establish itself as an iconic brand the same way as a brand that chooses a logo and hammers it home no matter what.
But on the other hand, that same versatility is what has empowered the brand with the 3-stripes to stake its claim in all sorts of strange corners of culture, from sport and athletics to music, fashion and art. As adidas was adopted by myriad subcultures such as hip-hop, graffiti, skateboarding and more, as well as continuing to create forward-thinking performance footwear designs, it surely must have become harder and harder to keep all of those different factions represented under one roof – even if the trefoil logo itself was intended to communicate adidas’ diversity.
So that multi-faceted approach to brand identity, creating different logos to suit different purposes, in many ways goes to the core of what the 3-stripes were born from. Just as how a functional, practical design element eventually evolved into a global corporate identity, the 3-stripes has been adapted and translated into all sorts of contexts. It’s a practical, flexible, versatile branding, and you can understand why the brand works so hard to protect it now. Because whenever you see sportswear, sneakers or apparel with 3 of anything, your mind goes straight to one place. That’s a level of brand recognition you just can’t buy.
Now, read up on 10 key moments in adidas’s history that you probably didn't know about.