The only constant in sneakers is change. This may not only seem contradictory, but straight-up untrue, especially looking back at the so-called golden era of the ’90s, dominated as it was by Jordan and Nike. For those who came of age then, it must have seemed as if it would last forever. It wouldn’t. It hasn’t. One only needs to step outside, or into any school. Yes, Jordans are still everywhere. But now, in 2017, adidas has popped off, too. How did it happen?
The roots for the takeover were laid in 2013, when adidas did two things. First, in February, they introduced the Energy Boost, a state-of-the-art running shoe featuring an all-new foam—Boost—that looked and felt like nothing else. Then, later in the year, they put a plan in motion to sign a deal with former Nike endorser Kanye West.
A notorious perfectionist, West has never been the easiest person to work with. His time with Nike only produced two silhouettes, both produced in extremely limited numbers, both of which caused utter frenzies upon their release and re-sold for many times their retail price. But West wanted more. He wanted proper royalties on his designs, and he wanted his creations to reach a much wider market. With adidas, he would get both.
West’s first release, the Yeezy 750, seemed like a continuation of his Nike line—a bulky hightop with a midfoot strap. His second, the Yeezy 350, was something new. A minimalist Primeknit upper with a Boost sole, the 350 was a cozyboy runner with a Kanye co-sign. Outwardly it wasn’t all that different from many other running-inspired silhouettes. Nothing, save the rippled sole unit taken from the 750, screamed “Yeezy.” But the demand was the same.
Still, even with increased production, West alone wasn’t the difference maker. It was Primeknit, along with Boost, that really gave adidas the advantage. And as basketball shoes continued to fade as the go-to casual style, adidas’ Boost runners—or runner-ish—models filled the void.
The first Energy Boost shoe was a huge hit with runners, as the sole unit made an energy return promise that it kept. But the stretchy Techfit upper wasn’t exactly fashion forward. The Pure Boost, which featured an all-Boost midsole, came closer, although its minimalist upper was made from similar materials. What really broke through was the Ultra Boost, the Boost-iest shoe yet, with a Primeknit upper that was—and is—comfortable enough to run in yet perfect for non-runners, too.
And once adidas found the right formula, they expanded on it, from cageless Ultra Boost to Primeknit Pure Boost to the Boost-free Alphabounce. Rather than use their knit uppers to refresh retros, as Nike did with their own Flyknit, adidas chose to focus on entirely new silhouettes. And in a sneaker world seemingly growing less connected to classic designs and more focused on simple wearability, Boost spread.
When adidas did reach into their past, they brought elements of it forward in a new way. In December 2015, the NMD, an all-new, go-everywhere shoe inspired by three classic running silhouettes, complete with a Boost sole and a Primeknit upper, arrived. It was an immediate hit—and still is—even before high-profile collaborations with Pharrell Williams.
For regular readers of this publication—we’ve been doing it for a while now—sneakers have been mainstream for years. For others, not so much. Whether coming from the high fashion world or elsewhere, adidas has what new sneakerheads need, whether it’s the Kanye co-sign, the simplicity of a Stan Smith or high-fashion collabs from the likes of Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto or Rick Owens.
There was some good luck disguised as bad at work here as well. It’s not that adidas abandoned the signature hoops market, but while Nike inked guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, adidas signed Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose. Only later did they add James Harden, who, like former teammate Russell Westbrook, maintains a keen interest in the fashion world. And they may not have been able to sign Harden without ’Ye, whose presence spoke to adidas’ willingness to try new things.
West’s influence in general has been widely debated, with certain unnamed industry analysts scoffing at his ability to direct consumer dollars. And it’s true that, despite production numbers being way up from his Nike days, his Yeezy line is still only a blip on the radar, a high-dollar luxury item consumed primarily by would-be influencers and those seeking to make immediate profits on the secondary market. Strictly viewed by sales of his own products, West’s influence is indeed negligible. But “influence” can’t be measured by such a strict measure. How many would-be Yeezy consumers, thwarted by the Confirmed app or their local sneaker shop, settled instead for Ultra Boosts or NMDs?
It goes even deeper than that. A sneaker market that used to be overwhelmingly based on the Jordan model—whether it be by sales of Jordan’s own shoes or just on basketball signature models in general—isn’t anymore. The way to sneaker dominance isn’t as simple as finding the next All-Star and creating a sneaker line and a series of clever ads. The NBA learned the hard way that there will be no “next Jordan.” Sneaker companies are learning that, too. The running shoe revival came at just the right time for adidas to take advantage. And the Stan Smith, long a “sale” staple, became a must-have for damn near everyone.
In the meantime, we also know this: What has changed will undoubtedly change again. Perhaps one day basketball shoes will once again capture the hearts and feet of the sneaker obsessed. Or maybe the retro cycle will slow, then pick up again as a new generation falls for classics they’ve never seen. In the meantime, though, adidas is making its presence known. Just look down.
Photos via adidas