After decades as one of the few athletic wear giants perennially in second place to Nike (think: Reebok and Puma), Adidas takes the top spot in only a few instances: football (aka soccer) and fashion. The latter is particularly interesting because in its attempts to out-shine Nike, what adidas is doing is not necessarily pouring money into the technology that goes into the footwear, or ponying up more cash for bigger name endorsements, which would make sense, on account of they’ve (generally) always been a sportswear company that outfitted athletes first, and the streets second. This is the Nike model that every other like-minded retailer has followed as well - if the shoes make it onto the athletes they’ll eventually find their way to the street. But, as it turns out, Adidas is trying to make waves of its own.
Now, Adidas is skipping the courts and fields (and pitches and rinks) altogether and going straight for the fashionable jugular. Beyond their long running and generally underrated Y-3 collaboration with the legendary Yohji Yamamoto, which brought fashion + sport to the mainstream long before we were wearing designer sneakers and expensive sweatpants to brunch, Adidas has begun signing free agents from every sphere of the fashion world.
Their first major acquisition was Raf Simons, whose collaboration, now in its third season, has set the bar for what high fashion designers can do with a new medium. The harmony that allowed Simon’s avant-garde sensibilities to translate so neatly into a running sneaker was a bellwether for this experimental new footwear niche.
The popularity of Simons’ outing with Adidas was followed by an equally hyped Rick Owens collaboration, which also looks to run for an undetermined period of time due to its initial success. Once again, the outré sensibilities of Rick Owens translated seamlessly into a legitimate “high fashion sneaker.” They might not function for their intended purpose (Owens claims they’re great for actual, real life running. If you’ve seen the shoes (pictured below) you know this to not be the case.), but they excel at their REAL intended purpose, stunting on people without Rick Owens Adidas shoes. Hence, true “high fashion sneakers.” These aren’t some rebranded Chanel x Reebok’s we’re talking about.
Somewhere in between Simons and Owens Adidas’ debuts, #menswear god Mark McNairy released a full capsule collection with the house that Adolf Dassler built, including fleece warm-ups and a slew of slightly-modified Adidas classics. While this collection might not have received the waves of critical acclaim or comments on hypebeast.com that the others did, it exemplified Adidas’ skill in picking current taste-makers and designers that are truly influential in the world of fashion, and few current NYC designers are as buzzed about as Mark McNairy. It doesn’t matter that his first outing with the tri-stripe fell a bit flat - every team needs good role players.
This brings us to the Big Three of Streetwear that Adidas has signed since the beginning of 2014 - three short, cold months ago. With Kanye West, Pharrell, and A Bathing Ape founder, Nigo all newly on the roster, Adidas looks to become an entirely different company by this time next year. More ink has been spilled over Kanye’s departure from Nike to sign with Adidas than was ever necessary, and we still haven’t seen any leaked images of his designs for the company, but if his past forays into men's footwear are any indication, the Adidas x Yeezy collaboration will be at least as talked about as any of his other footwear projects. And while Pharrell doesn’t court controversy the same way as Kanye does, his status as one of the preeminent taste-makers of this decade means his output with Adidas will find the same, or more, attention from hungry fans and curious critics alike.
And finally, Nigo, the Japanese streetwear mentor to both of the aforementioned musicians-turned-designers and hugely influential human being to anybody who was wearing sneakers in the mid-to-late-oughts. The man’s presence on this side of the Atlantic, not counting people who were already huge fans of Japanese streetwear, is pretty slim, at least compared to Adidas’s other new talent. But don’t let that fool you, his cult following (not cult-like, but actual cult) overseas is a testament to how well he knows sneakers, clothes, and whatever happens to be cool at a particular moment.
It’s possible that these three alone, fashion gods aside, could remake Adidas in their own image. For one, their approach to footwear is already lock-step with Adidas’s current strategy. Second, while the high fashion designers listed above carry a certain weight with a certain crowd, Kanye and Pharrell, and to a lesser extent Nigo, are tapped into the hearts and wallets of young people across the world. Their combined popularity behind one big brand could definitely create a new zeitgeist - one where Nike and Jordan (and even Riccardo Tisci, who recently debuted a collection for Nike) will be begging to sit at the cool kids’ table.
Of course, this hasn’t happened yet and is still wildly speculative. Kanye and Pharrell’s designs could flop and some of the fashionable relevance the brand has gleamed from Rick Owens and Raf Simons might never translate to sales of their more readily accessible lines. But that’s pretty unlikely. What is likely, is that Nike continues to be Nike while Adidas continues to create and then stay in its own lane. And this is the best of all possible outcomes for the consumer - because you don’t work at either company, you can eschew your sophomoric notions of “brand loyalty” and enjoy the best of both worlds.
*Oh, and Jeremy Scott has been with Adidas for a while now, too. Everyone has seen his Wings shoes, probably on Ryan Lochte or A$AP Rocky. Either way, he’s in the mix, but it sounds SO MUCH BETTER without him.
This article was initially published in October 2014.