The Market's Sportswear Giants are at War in the Name of Fashion

There is an arms race underway right now and it is occurring right beneath our noses. It is not of Cold War proportions, but it is worthy of our attention nonetheless. We are, of course, talking about the recently intensified competition between the market’s foremost sportswear giants to, quite literally, hoard whatever design talent they can get their hands on. And, like all Cold War analogies, this one requires a bit of history to fully appreciate. 

Just over a decade ago, adidas decided to collaborate with renowned Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto on a limited range of products that would mix a hefty dose of his progressive style leanings, with adidas’s manufacturing and sports-minded know-how. The result was Y-3, the hybrid line credited with removing the novelty from designer athletic gear. (It’s worth mentioning that Puma also played a role in ushering in this new trend. By the mid-aughts, it had Alexander McQueen, Neil Barrett, and MiharaYasuhiro also designing capsule collections). 

Now, ten years down the road, Y-3 is the template for success, rather than the exception. Everyone knows that Nike, adidas, and most recently, Under Armour have the technical expertise to craft gym shorts, tops, and hoodies for any and every athletic pursuit under the sun. But, in the time since Y-3’s founding, consumer habits have changed. People do not merely wear athletic gear to sweat in; it is now suitable for dinners, dates, and in more progressive environments, even the workplace. And, voila, the the line between what used to be a relatively strict uniform for working out, and everything else, has nearly vanished. 

Because Nike and its rivals have billions of dollars and their reputations at stake, these sportswear behemoths have triggered a designer-cosign arms race. 

Yohji Yamamoto wasn’t enough for adidas; so, in the past several years it added Rick Owens, Raf Simons, Pharrell, and Japanese brand Kolor to its roster, among many others. (Note: adidas has also granted smaller capsule collections to Juun.J, White Mountaineering, Mark McNairy, Nigo, and Palace Skateboards within the past two years). Add to that the occasional (read: extremely frequent) artist collaboration, and adidas can outfit you for literally anything (and you can probably still wear some of it to the gym!), all without having to rely on their in-house design team or brand loyalty. Adidas has implicitly made it clear that you are buying designer wares produced by adidas, not imbuing brand loyalty to adidas and its core products generally.  

Nike, the perennial leader of the sportswear pack, adopted this new model a bit more begrudgingly than its German counterpart. It accepted, almost by accident or happenstance, the street and fashion worlds' obsessions with its retro models. Despite the uptick in consumer interest for products that catered to the lifestyle market, Nike continued to bring its highest levels of quality and innovation to bare only on its new, performance drive models.

But, alas, even Nike is not immune to fashion’s whims. First, it recruited underground Japanese fashion deity, Jun Takahashi and his label, Undercover, to design a running-inspired capsule collection, entitled Gyakosu. The end result was a bit different: Gyakosu was still firmly under the Nike umbrella in its mission to provide actual athletes with legitimate training gear, whereas adidas’s designer roster was free to run wild creatively. Nike doubled down on this when it recruited ACRONYM mastermind, Errolson Hugh, to revamp its outdoor-focused ACG collection. Again, the result was pure Nike branded merchandise (with increased technical capabilities), meant to appeal to a more discerning, fashion-minded customer.

Eventually, Nike, too, buckled under the pressure to collaborate with known entities from the fashion world.  It began with its footwear partnership with ACRONYM (separate from Hugh’s work for the ACG line), which launched last Fall, and a limited collaboration of Jordan-brand sneakers with Drake’s OVO imprint. Nike also lined up a partnership with Kolor contemporary, Sacai, which resulted in some thoughtful, progressive womenswear pieces that would look wholly out of place in the gym.  

More telling, though, is Nike's ongoing partnership with of-the-moment designer, Riccardo Tisci. The Givenchy creative director was tapped to meddle - albeit moderately - with some of Nike’s classic silhouettes. Tisci punched up the uber-classic Air Force One with some Givenchy-esque …stripes, and a slightly improved build quality. It was, like so many things Givenchy-related, a move to create hype by borrowing the momentum of a named design entity, and, to, presumably, benefit financially.

Then, in May of 2016, Nike unleashed its collaboration with Balmain wunderkind, Olivier Rousteing. The social media-loving creative director's collection consists of a series of considerably more athletic-minded footwear, done up in black and a visually overwhelming dose of gold, as well as a series of matching tops and bottoms – again, all in black and gold. It is entirely possible that Rousteing designed this capsule with actual fitness in mind, but that is sort of beside the point by now. Nike realized that if it wants to compete in the “Cool Wars” currently taking place in the athletic market, it will have to sink (err, rise?) to the level of its competitors, and blatantly cosign whichever designer would provide the most fashion cachet.

We saw this very clearly in the Tisci collection. The standout Ricardo Tisci x Nike t-shirt, for example, was a flagrant attempt to ride on the Street Goth Godfather’s coattails, and was so very un-Nike like that it could not help but seem out of place. It is, in fact, directly at odds with the mission statement that Nike has continued to espouse amid the changing tides and trends in the marketplace: That it will continue to focus its efforts on creating purely athletic products for the world’s best athletes. Where a Tisci x Nike t-shirt or an Olivier Rousteing anything fits into that mold, I could not tell you.  

This brings us to last week’s unveiling from burgeoning sportswear brand Under Armour, which recruited New York-based Tim Coppens to design its new lifestyle label. A relatively new competitor in this arena, Under Armour built its empire with a bottom-up approach to supporting athletes; first at the high school and college level, and eventually branching out into professional sports. And now, Under Armour is keen to the impending sea change; that sportswear, or at the very least, the fabrics and ethos of sportswear, will continue to permeate our wardrobes. Not wanting to be left behind, it added one of America’s most outwardly progressive designers to assume the creative director title for its new lifestyle imprint. And, with a company this young, it is unlikely that it would hint at an air of desperation (maybe adidas?) or capitulating on its own mission statement (definitely Nike).

So, what does this designer arms race mean on a grander scale? Well, customers are getting unique takes on sportswear, which is:

1. Generally a new concept and people are understandably excited about getting more affordable, less precious items from some of their favorite designers.

2. A warning sign about the role that these major brands play in our lives. Those that refuse to play the game risk getting left behind, as consumers demand a more forward-leaning design in their gym clothes. Those hop on this new trend (we’ll call it that for now) too aggressively, however, risk losing their own brand integrity and loyalty, as products with lone Nike or adidas or Under Armour branding are no longer worth purchasing. And why would they be, when you can get a Nike, adidas, Under Armour X [insert named designer here] for slightly more money? This could very possibly be the shape of things to come for the sportswear market.

3. Like all things fashion, this is a lovely little cycle (begat by H&M’s mania-inducing designer collaborations, perhaps?), and soon will be oversaturated and discarded and the idea of Nike, the sportswear giant, meddling in high fashion will be little more than a humorous afterthought.  

So, while it is easy to mock Rousteing’s Nike collection, the newly widespread availability of designer authored footwear is a boon to the clamoring masses that want more accessible and wearable, yet progressive, fashion wares in their closets. For those who may never obtain Raf Simons or Rick Owens runway pieces, there’s always adidas (for now). In this way, this movement represents a subtle democratization of the highest echelons of fashion, without the blatant intellectual property theft.