views updated


In an era before athletic-performance gear with distinctive logos existed as a market commodity, Adidas footwear were the designer sneakers of their day. For several decades, Adidas shoes were worn by professional and Olympic athletes, and the company's distinctive three-stripe logo quietly sunk into the public consciousness through years of television cameras trained on Adidas-wearing athletes. The company and its clothing—especially the trefoil logo T-shirt—became indelibly linked with 1970s fashion, and during the early years of rap music's ascendancy, Adidas became the first fashion brand name to find itself connected with hip-hop cool.

Like a Mercedes-Benz, Adidas shoes were considered both well designed and well made—and much of this was due to the product's German origins. The company began in the early 1920s as slipper makers Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik, in Herzogenaurach, Germany, near Nuremberg. One day in 1925 Adolf (Adi) Dassler designed a pair of sports shoes; thereafter he began to study the science behind kinetics and footwear. By 1931 he and his brother Rudolph were selling special shoes for tennis players, and they soon began to design specific shoes for the needs of specific sports. They devised many technical innovations that made their footwear popular with athletes, not the least of which was the first arch support. The brothers were also quick to realize that athletes themselves were the best advertisement for their shoes. Initiating a long and controversial history of sports marketing, in 1928 the company gave away their first pairs of free shoes to the athletes of the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Eight years later, American sprinter Jesse Owens was wearing Adidas when he won a gold medal in track at the Berlin Olympic Games.

In 1948 the Dassler brothers had a falling-out and never spoke again. The origins of their split, which dissolved their original firm, remain somewhat of a mystery, but probably revolve around their shifting alliances before, during, and after Hitler, the Nazi Party, and World War II. Rudi was drafted and was later captured by Allied forces, while Adi stayed home to run the factory that made boots for Wehrmacht soldiers during the war. After the war, Rudi Dassler moved to the other side of Herzogenaurach and founded his own line of athletic footwear, Puma. Adolf Dassler took his nickname, Adi, and combined it with the first syllable of his last name to get "Adidas," with the accent on the last syllable. Cutthroat competition between the two brands for hegemony at major sporting events, as well as formal legal battles, would characterize the next three decades of both Adidas and Puma corporate history.

At Olympic and soccer events, however, Adidas had the advantage, especially when television cameras began broadcasting such games to a much wider audience: Adi Dassler had devised a distinctive three-stripe logo back in 1941 (and registered it as a trademark for Adidas after the split) that was easily recognizable from afar. The company did not begin selling its shoes in the United States until 1968, but within the span of a few short years Adidas dominated the American market to such an extent that two American competitors, Wilson and MacGregor, quit making sports shoes altogether. In 1971 both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier wore Adidas in their much-publicized showdown. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, every official wore Adidas, and so did 1,164 of the 1,490 international athletes. Adidas also made hip togs for tennis, a sport then enjoying a wave of popularity, and by 1976 the Adidas trefoil-logo T-shirt had become a status-symbol item and one of the first brand-name "must-haves" for teenagers.

The Adidas craze dovetailed perfectly with the growing number of Americans interested in physical fitness as a leisure activity. By 1979, 25 million Americans were running or jogging, and the end of the 1970s marked the high point of Adidas's domination of the market. When Adi Dassler died in 1978, his son Horst took over the company, but both men failed to recognize the threat posed by a small Oregon company named Nike. Founded in 1972, Nike offered more distinctive colors and styles than Adidas, while also patenting the technical innovations underneath and inside them. Adidas soon sunk far behind in sales. The company was overtaken by Nike in the 1980s and even damaged by the ubiquitousness of the Reebok brand, which made shoes that were considered anything but high-performance. When Horst Dassler died in 1987, Adidas spun further into financial misfortune, and would be bought and resold a number of times over the next few years.

Adidas's only high point of the decade came in 1986, when the New York rap group Run D.M.C.—the first of the genre to reach platinum sales—had a hit with "My Adidas," a break-beat homage to the footwear. The rappers wore theirs without laces, a style imitated by legions of fans. Adidas signed them to an endorsement deal. But by the 1990s, Adidas was holding on to just a two to three percent share of the U.S. market and seemed doomed as a viable company. A revival of 1970s fashions, however—instigated in part by dance-club-culture hipsters in England—suddenly vaulted the shoes back to designer status. Among American skateboarders, Adidas sneakers became de rigeur, since the company's older flat-bottomed styles from the 1970s turned out to be excellent for the particular demands of the sport.

In the United States, part of the brand's resurgence was the common marketing credo that teens will usually shun whatever their parents wear, and their parents wore Nike and Reebok. Twenty-yearold Adidas designs suddenly became vintage collectibles, and the company even began re-manufacturing some of the more popular styles of yore, especially the suede numbers. Arbiters of style from Elle MacPherson to Liam Gallagher sported Adidas gear, but a company executive told Tennis magazine that when Madonna was photographed in a vintage pair of suede Gazelles, "almost overnight they were the hot fashion item." In 1997 Adidas sales had climbed over fifty percent from the previous year, signaling the comeback of one of the twentieth century's most distinctive footwear brands.

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Aletti, Vince. "Crossover Dreams." Village Voice. 27 May 1986, 73.

Bodo, Peter. "The Three Stripes Are Back in the Game." Tennis. July1996, 20-21.

Jorgensen, Janice, editor. Encyclopedia of Consumer Brands, Volume 3: Durable Goods. Detroit, St. James Press, 1994.

Katz, Donald. Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World. New York, Random House, 1994.

Rigby, Rhymer. "The Spat That Begat Two Empires." Management Today. July 1998, 90.

Strasser, J. B., and Laurie Becklund. Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There. New York, Harcourt, 1991.

Sullivan, Robert. "Sneaker Wars." Vogue. July, 1996, 138-141, 173.

Tagliabue, John. "Adidas, the Sport Shoe Giant, Is Adapting to New Demands." New York Times. 3 September 1984, sec. I, 33.