Combat Kicks: The German Army Trainer

German Army Trainer
Image is my own / All rights reserved

German Army Trainers — also known as GATs, Bundeswehr Sportschuhe, or BWs for short — are the kind of shoes you likely know by sight even if not by name. Although they have been endlessly reinterpreted over the years, the originals are distinguished by a few simple features: white leather uppers, grey suede detailing on the toes, gum rubber soles, and a single piece of leather overlay on the sides.

GATs, a perennial favourite among sneakerheads, army surplus nerds, and high-fashion fanatics, are a kind of ur-sneaker whose DNA is visible everywhere you look in sneaker design of the last half-century or so. It’s hard to imagine Adidas’s Samba and Gazelle, Puma’s Madrid and Rocket, or any number of other sleek designs from around the world without the mould first set by this archetypal silhouette.

Despite its profile and influence, however, the precise origin story of the German Army Trainer remains something of a mystery all while being embroiled in one of the biggest brand rivalries of the twentieth century.

As the name implies, the German Army Trainer originates from within the Bundeswehr. In the late 1970s, the West German Army was looking for a new training shoe to outfit its troops. The nation’s standing force numbered some half a million soldiers at the time, so a lucrative contract was guaranteed to whoever won the bid to supply the sport shoe in question. Two of Germany’s biggest sportswear manufacturers, Adidas and Puma, duly threw their hats in the ring.

Puma and Adidas had shared a long and unharmonious history up to this point. They were famously founded by two feuding brothers from Herzogenaurach named Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, the former creating Adidas; the latter Ruda, later renamed Puma. Before their hostile split, the Dassler brothers ran the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik and once collaborated in making a shoe very similar in appearance to the BW trainer for famed Olympic champion Jesse Owens (which is a great story in its own right, which I’ve written about before). 

Jesse Owens doing long jump in German-made shoes
Jesse Owens wearing a pair of the Dassler brothers’ shoes at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin
Image credit: German Federal Archives / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Fast-forward a few decades and the Dassers, each from their respective compounds on opposite sides of the Aurach River in Herzogenaurach, make a bid for the German Army shoe contract. It is at this point, however, that the story becomes a little less clear-cut. Some sleuthing by Luke Leitch for the Wall Street Journal revealed that official records from the Bundeswehr History Museum show prototypes for what would become the GAT as submitted by Puma, while the brand itself, meanwhile, holds no such record and told the WSJ they had no involvement in making the shoe. Adidas, by contrast, has been happy to claim that they did create the design, despite the Bundeswehr History Museum having no record of it. 

It’s a head-scratcher, for sure, and the exact truth of the matter might never come to light. Despite this uncertain provenance, however, the GAT would have an outsized impact on the sneaker world once it hit the civilian marketplace, which it did shortly after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Immediately prior to this point, some 500 000 soldiers had been issued Bundeswehr Sportschuche. With the Cold War at an end, however, the army was downsized considerably and hundreds of thousands of pairs of GATs both used and unused made their way into army surplus stores and from here into the wardrobes of everyday citizens throughout Germany and beyond.

Within a decade, the GAT would ascend another rung on its ladder climb toward cult fashion favourite after landing in the hands of Belgian designer Martin Margiela. By his brand’s own account, Margiela came across them in the ’90s in Austria and quickly set about buying a bunch of pairs which he ended up using for the first time in his Spring/Summer 1999 collection. Margiela’s various takes on the GAT, all of which have gained a kind of mythical status in the fashion world, involved buying a bunch of surplus pairs, cleaning them up, swapping out the laces, and embossing them with the maison’s famous numeric branding on the tongue of the shoes. They would also sometimes receive a coat of paint and, perhaps most famously of all, be covered in hand-written notes.

Maison Margiela eventually ran out of vintage models it could flip and so began making its own version of the GAT dubbed the ‘Replica’ — a move that has since been followed by countless other brands. The first and most famous of these was Dior under the helm of Hedi Slimane back in 2005, but other instances abound with some contemporary examples including Adidas’s and Puma’s various takes, as well as versions by Hender Scheme, Svensson, Oliver Cabell, Scarosso, Novesta, and others. And, of course, if you’re after the real thing, these can still be found in abundance and generally for an affordable price in vintage stores and on eBay, Etsy, or similar secondhand outlets.

Man wearing vintage German Army Trainers with chinos
Image is my own / All rights reserved

I chose the latter route and haven’t looked back since. GATs are one of my favourite year-round shoe choices for a host of reasons, chief among which is the simplicity of their retro design. While I have a keen interest in shoes, I’m not exactly a sneakerhead and tend to find the pace and variety of the trainer world to be more than a little bewildering as a consumer. As a result, I tend to look to historical designs rather than trendy drops when shopping for new sports shoes and typically choose models that have stuck around for a few decades to make sure I get bang for my buck as far as longevity goes. Hence my love of classic New Balance, the Nike Cortez, Converse All Stars, and any number of old-timey plimsolls — plus the OG GOAT GAT, of course.

There is a litany of other reasons too: I have a weakness for classic design and military clothes in general, I reckon that it’s probably the closest thing heritage menswear has to a signature sneaker, I like the BW trainer’s lack of branding, and love that it looks better as it scuffs and ages. Then there’s the fact that it goes with just about anything you could throw it at: militaria, obviously, but also workwear, collegiate stuff, streetwear, and high fashion. You can pop them on with shorts, sweatpants, jeans, chinos, fatigues, and even the right casual suit. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good origin story, and while the history of the German Army Trainer may be murky in parts, its appeal remains all too clear.

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