Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Permanent State of Sneaker-ness: Inside the Battle Between Nike and Adidas

Everybody wants the Yeezys. It's a frigid February night during New York Fashion Week, and Kanye West has just spent the afternoon at a runway event in SoHo unveiling his first fashion collection for Adidas—a collection anchored by the futuristic Yeezy Boost 750s, a.k.a. the Yeezys, a.k.a. suede high-top sneakers that look straight out of the Star Wars props department, complete with side zips and patented springy soles made from spaceship-grade foam. And now here comes Kanye, clambering onto a purpose-built stage at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, in the shadow of the Flatiron Building, at an event that's been billed as a concert but feels closer to a product launch. Ten thousand people have shown up tonight, many claiming their tickets with an Adidas app and the rest waiting untold hours in temperatures that barely top 15 degrees, the cold compounded by gut-punches of snowy wind barreling off the East River.

“We ain't even gonna mention that other company no more, right?” Kanye asks the crowd. “We ain't wearing that other company no more, right?”

That other company, of course, is Nike—not only the most popular sneaker manufacturer but the single most valuable apparel brand in the world. Nike has 57,000 employees and a market cap north of $86 billion. And in these halcyon days of sneaker culture—the once humble sneaker having become the focal point of personal style—Nike has a heritage that consumers respect and that its competitors can't buy.

In fact, until relatively recently, if you happened to be a big-name rapper or marquee athlete, you didn't really think twice about signing with Nike. Where else would you go? Kanye himself parked his Air Yeezy line at Nike for four years.

Then, in 2013, in a deal worth a reported $10 million, Kanye abruptly announced he was leaving Nike and going to Adidas, the German rival that keeps its North American headquarters in Portland, Oregon, just up the road from Nike HQ in suburban Beaverton. Nike was shackling his creative freedom, he said. Not paying him enough. Not respecting him as a designer. “They weren't giving me the opportunity to grow,” he alleged. “They were working off an old business model.” (...)

The experts who estimate the size of the global sneaker business put the number around $55 billion, greater than the entire GDP of Ethiopia. No one buys more sneakers than Americans, and we're buying more than ever. According to the premier analytics firm NPD Group, American consumers spent $28 billion on sneakers last year alone, an almost 50 percent bump from just five years previous. Matt Powell, a self-described “sneakerologist” with NPD, believes the growth will continue for the foreseeable future. We are entering, he says, a “permanent state of sneaker-ness.”

Subscribers to this magazine (or anyone who spends any reasonable time out of doors) will understand how Powell can be so confident. A decade back, sneakers were, for the majority of adults, casual footwear, designated for specific occasions: the gym, an athletic event, mowing the lawn. Today we wear sneakers everywhere—to work, to dinner, to church, to weddings—and spend as much on them as we do on dress shoes.

Controlling 62 percent of the market (compared with Adidas's 5 percent), Nike is the primary beneficiary of our addiction, and the reasons for its supremacy are myriad. It is big. It is smart. Its endorsement roster is a portfolio of human blue-chip stocks. It caters to traditionalists with old-school Blazers, Jordans, and Dunks—some of the coolest and most coveted sneakers ever made—while testing the bounds of how futuristic a shoe can look and feel. (See, most recently, the Flyknit.) It employs more designers than any other shoe manufacturer (650 compared with Adidas's 200) and gives them unparalleled resources. Nike will take expensive risks, and when it whiffs, as it recently did with an ill-fated and quickly canceled snowboarding line, it acknowledges the error and moves on.

For years, Adidas appeared destined to fall further behind Nike in the States. Yes, Adidas had its deep roots in soccer culture (it still outfits clubs including Manchester United, A.C. Milan, and Real Madrid), and yes, it remained a top sneaker retailer in Western Europe. But although it kept offices in Portland, most of its design staff and senior brass were stuck in Adidas's global headquarters, in the German factory town of Herzogenaurach. Unsurprisingly, Adidas products often appeared out of touch with the average U.S. customer and tone-deaf about the American holy trinity of football, baseball, and basketball.

That began to change last year, with the installation of a new Adidas Group North America president, Mark King, who has mounted an unprecedented challenge to Nike—of which the Kanye shoe is only a small part. Under King, Adidas has poured money into advertising and gobbled up new endorsees. His biggest coup came this summer, when he outbid Nike to snatch away the NBA's bearded wonder, James Harden, in a deal reportedly worth $200 million over 13 years. In fact, Adidas is in the midst of the most aggressive marketing campaign in company history, showcasing music-industry talent like Pharrell, who has designed his own polka-dot Adidas sneakers and lime green track jackets. Last year, Adidas also sold out of its $800-a-pair sneaker collaboration with goth designer Rick Owens, the dark lord of haute menswear, who stitched his freaky sneaks with goat leather. The low-top Yeezy Boost 350, with a Primeknit mesh upper and rope laces, dropped in June, selling out within an hour.

Adidas has unveiled a key innovation in its Boost line, which utilizes that springy, patented foam in the sole. It has also positioned classic Adidas Originals sneakers like the Stan Smith and the Superstar—recently relaunched for its forty-fifth anniversary—less as athletic footwear and more as straight fashion. And it has moved Adidas creative director Paul Gaudio from Herzogenaurach to Portland, along with a small army of top designers who have been tasked with ripping the American market away from Nike.

Young tastemakers are taking note. In August, Adidas announced the signing of the dapper, baby-Afro-wearing NBA rookie Justise Winslow, a national champion this year with Duke, whose statement about Adidas after signing was telling: “What they've been doing with Kanye and Originals is changing the game.”

Adidas may never be able to approach the reported $3 billion Nike spends every year on marketing, but it's trying everything it can to out-cool Nike—to win the battle of taste first, ultimately building enough street cred to win the long-term financial contest.

by Matthew Shaer, GQ | Read more:
Image: Getty