If you’re one to keep an eye on brand-related headlines, it might feel like Adidas has been in the news a lot lately. Most glaringly on the negative end of the spectrum, there has been the termination of their high-profile brand partnership with Kanye West resulting in a potential £1 billion loss in unsold Yeezy trainers. On the other hand, regular word of new drops, collabs, and sponsorships continue apace and in menswear circles and beyond many of their classic sneaker designs including the likes of Gazelles and Sambas seem more popular than ever.
In a sense, this kind of tug-of-war between good and bad fortune seems baked into the brand’s DNA at this point. Adidas is a company born out of conflict and it has been no stranger to fortune and adversity, despite managing to grow into the largest sportswear manufacturer in Europe and the second biggest (after Nike) in the world.
Adidas’s ur-conflict was a rift between two brothers. Adolf (Adi) and Rudolf (Rudi) Dassler first started making shoes in 1924 under the name Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik in the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. Theirs was a novel proposition: making shoes to be used exclusively for sport. The more outgoing Rudi took charge of sales, while the introverted and technically-minded Adi was in charge of design. Together the brothers made a success of their enterprise by distinguishing themselves from their competitors by making spiked shoes set apart by their supple, lightweight construction.
The brothers’ true breakout came via a windfall victory by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (which I have written about in more detail elsewhere) — a feat he achieved while wearing a pair of shoes created by the Dassler brothers. Owens’ gold medal wins thrust the Dassler name onto the world stage, although tensions had already begun rising between the brothers themselves. The long and hard-fought conflict between Adi and Rudi is meticulously documented by Barbara Smit in Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma and the Making of Modern Sport, which outlines the early days of the conflict as follows:
‘While Gebrüder Dassler was taking off, the opposing characters of the two brothers were the source of increasingly frequent rifts. Rudolf, who drove the company’s mushrooming sales, rolled his eyes at Adolf’s obsessive tinkering. He regularly lost patience with his brother’s aloof attitude towards business matters. As for Adolf, he became increasingly disturbed by his older brother’s brashness.’
It proved an ever-growing divide that was compounded over the years by countless factors, including broader familial tensions, the stranglehold of Nazism, and strict wartime rations imposed on the shoe industry during WWII. The conflict eventually tore the family apart and even divided the town of Herzogenaurach in two. The brothers set up shop on opposite sides of the Aurach river, with one bank belonging to Rudi’s supporters and the other being Adi’s. It became common knowledge that Herzogenaurach was a town whose residents always looked down at people’s feet and took careful note of the shoes they were wearing before striking up a conversation.
In 1948 the brothers formally parted ways and Rudolph soon set up what would become Puma, while Adolf combined his nickname and surname to create Adidas (today styled all in lowercase by the brand itself). Adi registered what remains a trademark of his eponymous venture in 1949: three soon-to-be iconic leather stripes adorning the sides of a pair of shoes. Such strips had long been used by the Dasslers and other shoemakers as reinforcements for their footwear, but they were typically kept inconspicuously monotone. Adi canilly realised that contrasting colours would allow for greater brand recognition even at a distance and settled on three as the number to go with since two had already been used by Gebrüder Dassler, while four simply looked too busy.
The nascent brand described its product as a ‘sports shoe with stripes running from the eyelets’, while its slogans referred to Die Marke mit den drei Riemen — ‘the brand with the three stripes’. In the coming decades, Adidas would stage a gradual takeover of much of the sportswear industry. In the 1950s, they gained a major foothold within association football to the point where they were even making the balls themselves by 1963 and would provide the official ball for the FIFA World Cup in 1970. Their expansion into other sports included a range of track and field events, gymnastics, tennis (shout out to Stan Smith and his titular kicks), and even mountain climbing.
Pretty soon their offerings also included apparel, beginning in 1967 with their enduringly popular tracksuits. But the 1970s brought new competition from newer brands like Nike and by the 1980s Adidas was losing market share. It made for a period of new technical developments — including the likes of a futuristic running shoe called the Micropacer which featured a digital fitness tracker — and novel frontiers, the most famous of which was a move toward the kind of lifestyle branding that has come to define much of how we think of Adidas to this day. The latter began with an endorsement deal with the rap group Run-D.M.C. following the released of their sales-boosting track ‘My Adidas’ in 1986. And while Adidas’s fortunes may have ebbed and flowed in the interim, they have remained firmly ensconced in pop culture ever since via sports deals with athletes like David Beckham, Lionel Messi, and James Harden; celebrity fans including Justin Bieber, Harry Styles, Pharrell Williams, Jonah Hill, and Ye (of course), plus not a few memorable on-screen appearances in movies like Beverly Hills Cop, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Adi Dassler died in 1978 shortly before his 78th birthday. The business remained family-run for another decade or so before becoming a stock corporation in 1989 with all of the family shares being sold by 1990. The company’s leadership has fluctuated in subsequent decades and there have been a handful of high-profile acquisitions of brands like Salomon and Reebok (both of which have since been divested) alongside partnerships with the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Stella McCartney, Porsche Design Sport, and, more recently, Gucci.
I was born just around the time Adidas was making its early forays into street style. Growing up it predictably got a hold on my clothing-related consciousness and hasn’t let go since. I’ve lost count of the number of Adidas trainers, jackets, and sporting gear I’ve worn over the years — Run-D.M.C.-approved Superstars, some adolescent Adilette slides, about two decades worth of running gear, and more. Some of it is stuff I still wear after more than 15 years of use. And there’s plenty that I’ve never owned but have eyed covetously for years: a full body Ben Stiller-style tracksuit, for example, or a pair of Gazelles, Sambas, Spezials, or Munchens to complete the football-loving, ladcore version of myself I dream of becoming. Luckily, there’s plenty of time to decide on what my next Adidas addition might be. Because despite all of the slings and arrows, the three stripes aren’t going away any time soon.
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