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The adidas tracksuit may have emerged as a uniform for athletes, but its adoption by subcultures around the world has made the three-striped set both a cultural icon and a staple for global youth. Today it is one of the most universally adored garments, worn by everyone from rappers to presidents, and remixed by designers from Demna to Kanye. Here we trace how the German sportswear giant’s iconic look went from the track to the streets and, ultimately, to the runway.
1967 - Track and Field
adidas launched its very first piece of apparel, the tracksuit, in 1967. Known as the Beckenbauer, the garment took its name from the adidas-endorsed German soccer superstar Franz Beckenbauer. While warm-up suits were nothing new to athletes at the time, adidas’ use of innovative fabrics and bold branding added a whole new feel to the uniform. The triple-stripe design was borrowed from the brand’s signature sneakers, with three lines placed down the arms and legs of the suit. Initially worn exclusively for sports, the Beckenbauer would exceed its athletic origins to become a cultural phenomenon.
1970s - Jamaican Reggae and Dub
Bob Marley’s first love was undoubtedly music, but soccer was a close second. Regularly photographed in adidas T-shirts, sneakers, and tracksuits, Marley was an early fan of the brand. Some say this was due to the phonetic similarities between the brand name and Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, which is considered the Promised Land in Rastafarianism. Rumor or not, Marley and many of his Jamaican musical contemporaries from the reggae, dub, and dancehall scenes are credited with wearing head-to-toe sportswear off the field, long before their American hip-hop counterparts followed suit. It’s a look that the British-Jamaican designer Grace Wales Bonner has mined for her recent collaborations with adidas.
1970s - Soccer Casuals
Through the late ’70s and ’80s, tracksuits were adopted in Europe — and especially in England — by soccer-centric “casuals.” Though this subsection of soccer culture is often associated with hooliganism, not all casuals were hell-bent on beer-fueled barbarity. For some, their love for the scene was realized in fashion and sport only. Casuals would be clad in “designer casual” clothing, rather than their team colors; and no tracksuit was complete without customary adidas trainers, such as a Samba. With the success of English soccer clubs, young fans traveled around Europe for matches, developing a taste for new, exotic, and stylish sportswear in the process. They brought brands like adidas back home to flex, and a new cycle of hype began. With various English soccer clubs wielding superiority, a club was regarded as especially good if its supporters were decked in the latest tracksuits from abroad. In essence, they were bragging rights in physical form.
1970s - B-boys
While casual athletics were thriving in the ’70s, the decade’s burgeoning hip-hop scene gave way to the birth of break dancing. B-boys across NYC made the adidas tracksuit a staple for their crews, taking advantage of the diverse and vibrant colors on offer. Thin and breathable, without constricting movement, these synthetic sets were ideal for the dynamic dances B-boys performed. The era also marked a new tracksuit silhouette for adidas: the SST, short for “Superstar.” It offered a modern twist on the three-stripe classic with a low-cut standing collar and slimmer trousers.
1980s - The Rise of Rap
The ’80s ushered in an underground style code, and the adidas tracksuit was by now a cultural signifier for B-boys, MCs, and break-dancers alike. When three guys from Hollis, Queens, donned their triple stripes under the name Run-DMC, the trio, widely considered rap’s first supergroup, helped establish the tracksuit as the unofficial uniform of hip-hop. Throughout the decade, their allegiance to adidas never wavered, with the release of “My Adidas” in 1986, wherein they professed their love for the brand’s shell-toe sneakers. Though there was no official contract between adidas and Run-DMC at the time of the track’s release, the group’s influence was hard to ignore. Eventually adidas came knocking, offering the trio a $1.5 million endorsement. The deal is considered the big bang for hip-hop’s financial relationship with sports companies. Musicians like the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J were other notable 1980s proponents of the adidas tracksuit, and the relationship between trackies and hip-hop continued to blossom into the 1990s.
1990s - Gabber
On the other side of the ocean, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, a new tribe of die-hard music fans were imbuing the adidas tracksuit with a completely new attitude, reinvented for the adrenalized rush of the ’90s. Inside the world of “gabber” (at underground parties like the famous Thunderdome), ravers wore tracksuits and Nike Air Max shoes to dance the night away, driven by the genre’s relentless rush of superfast BPMs. This niche yet mighty subculture provided inspiration for photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek, who documented gabber ravers in Exactitudes — a book inspired by the dress codes of various social groups and which was the basis for Demna’s Fall/Winter 2017 Vetements collection. Raf Simons and Gosha Rubchinskiy have also reinterpreted gabber style codes, the latter leaning on post-Soviet rave for his Fall/Winter 2018 adidas collaboration.
1990s - Harajuku
In the ’90s, photographer Shoichi Aoki showcased the vibrant street aesthetics visible in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, narrating it in the pages of the iconic FRUiTS magazine. The looks he captured on Omotesandō Avenue and its neighboring streets were unlike anything the world had seen before: kitsch, colorful, and wonderfully bizarre. Many of these young fashion enthusiasts were dripped-out in hyper-bright adidas tracksuits, a kaleidoscopic reinterpretation of the hip-hop and rave-inspired looks that were popular in the West. Rollerblading was also a huge part of youth culture at the turn of the millenium, with games like Jet Set Radio, released in 2000, a virtual reflection of the era’s youth culture in Tokyo.
1990s - Britpop
Back in England, Britpop stars like Oasis, Blur, and The Stone Roses adopted the adidas tracksuit as a symbol of their working class roots. While American grunge band Nirvana had teens in distressed jeans and slouchy plaid shirts, Britpop provided an alternative style that was quintessentially British. Taking cues from soccer casuals, track jackets were worn zipped up to the face like parkas, giving the ’80s classic a ’90s lad-ness — the birth of #blokecore, if you will.
2000s - Gopnik
adidas was among the first global brands to become well-known behind the Iron Curtain. The relationship dates back to the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, when every Soviet citizen saw adidas-manufactured kits for the USSR’s team on TV. Communist party leaders refused to allow any logos on the gear of Soviet athletes, going so far as to limit the brand’s traditional three stripes to just two. But even that was not enough to stop the Russian public from putting two and three together. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a new era of capitalism was rushed in, with adidas becoming a new symbol of aspiration, particularly within the world of crime. During the 1990s, the mafia would recruit former athletes like lifters or wrestlers to work as enforcers. Due to their exposure to Western culture on trips abroad, these men would simply hang around the streets in their usual sportswear. Before long, the black adidas tracksuit was the official uniform of the gopniks — a Russian subculture of lawbreakers defined by shaved heads, a foul attitude, and a squat position, beer-in-hand.
2000s - Chav
Few garments reflect British chav culture quite like an adidas tracksuit, and few trouser styles more than adidas poppers. The look came to real prominence within mainstream British media on television shows like Shameless and The Catherine Tate Show. Composed of designer tracksuits, white sneakers, and caps, the uniform was demonized in the British press. Many of these depictions perpetuated “chav” as a derogatory social label, synonymous with notions of perceived criminality, lack of education, poverty, and, in turn, poor taste. Despite ongoing debate and controversy, the chav has become something of a style icon, with fashion houses everywhere looking to the British working class for inspiration.
2000s - Nu-Metal
When nu-metal infiltrated the popular consciousness in the late ’90s, it arrived like a subculture from outer space. Figures like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit and Korn’s Jonathan Davis replaced the traditionally denim-and-leather clad rock scene with sportswear more closely linked to hip-hop. “It was about breaking the mold, man,” Davis told Kerrang! magazine. “It was about going against everything that metal was supposed to be.” Korn’s smash hit “A.D.I.D.A.S.” introduced the youth to both a cheeky schoolyard acronym and a music video that showed how cool being decked out in a full athletic tracksuit could be.
Mid 2000s - UK Grime
To be clear, tracksuits are a definitive icon of the working class, especially in England, and have resurfaced decade after decade. The choice of Britain’s disenfranchised youth to adopt the black tracksuit as a means of moving incognito through a city full of opps, cops, and cameras is strategic. Musicians like Skepta, Stormzy, and Jme take a modernized, casuals-inspired approach to the sportswear classic. The success of grime in the mid 2000s onwards led to a continued reimagining of the relationship between culture and sportswear. Black working-class youth sported trackies throughout the inner cities, solidifying the garment as an anti-establishment clash against the status quo. Stormzy, at least, will be forever associated with the saturated red tracksuit he donned in a Croydon car park — a look that says, “I’m here, and I’m not hiding.”
2010s - Palace Skateboards
Skate brand Palace is known for bringing elements of London street culture and building them into its designs and larger ethos. It’s this approach that makes Palace Skateboards different from its contemporaries, whether it’s due to those witty quips or its unique awareness of the tracksuit’s capacity for style and gaudy luxury. Palace’s annual collaborations with adidas started back in 2014, and the brand never fails to supply multiple stylish pieces informed by a myriad of casual culture and menswear classics. On its own or with adidas, Palace has reappropriated the tracksuit from a uniform for British council estate kids into a prized staple for skaters across the globe.
2020s - Subculture to Pop Culture
While niche subcultures are rediscovered and repurposed as mass culture for the content era, statement-making uniforms like the adidas tracksuit remain as relevant as ever. Designers such as Demna, Wales Bonner, and stylist Lotta Volkova use their references to teach younger consumers about the cultures that matter to them. Balenciaga’s Resort 2023 runway at the New York Stock Exchange was heavily influenced by post-Soviet style, with a dash of nu-metal thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, Gucci designer Alessandro Michele pulled inspiration from collegiate and sports club-style uniforms from decades past, and recontextualized them as something both nostalgic and contemporary. This hybrid between luxury and sportswear, adopted long ago as part of working class culture, has created limitless opportunity for new dialogues. Where it heads next is anyone’s guess.
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