Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 4 shown last week during New York Fashion Week. Photos: Yeezy
Everyone’s keeping up with Kanye (too), so let’s not talk about the Yeezy Season 4 show (or what some members of the media called “a hot mess”) that was staged last week. (In case you’re allergic to hoodies and really don’t know what happened, it was, by most accounts, a “disaster”.) Let’s discuss, instead, what Adidas is doing with Yeezy.
Back in June, Adidas made a public announcement of the formation of adidas + KANYE WEST, an “entity” that the German company sees as “the most significant partnership ever created between an athletic brand and a non-athlete”. That, marketing students, is an example of puffery. What we shall see, expectedly, is more of Yeezy sneakers, clothing, gear, and even eponymous stores.
It was also widely reported that Adidas bankrolled the Yeezy Season 4 show after keeping away their cheque books for 3 and 4. Staged on New York’s Roosevelt Island and so poorly managed that it fanned the chagrin of those who attended, it isn’t clear how the show could benefit Adidas in the long term.
Sure, there’s publicity to be had from the media grumble, but is this the kind of foundation for adulation an established brand would lay with a potentially successful collaborator? Added to the incomprehension are the Yeezy clothes that have, hitherto, not escaped the bland and uncreative designs, first seen in Season 1. Has the man been so busy with blinding his followers with his publicity antics that they cannot see that he’s in a fashion rut?
The Yeezy boots that caused more than one model to trip. Photo: Nowaygirl
Perhaps Mr West knows that he can’t push Yeezy any further. In an interview with Vogue.com just hours before the Roosevelt Island show, he said he prefers to substitute fashion for “let’s say ‘apparel,’ especially for the style of clothes I make.” A seductive euphemism if there ever was one. He then qualified his word choice by claiming, “I’m not saying that this is a fashion proposition, I’m saying that this is a human proposition.”
That sounds pretty close to Adidas’s game plan for the collaboration. As the brand’s chief marketing officer Eric Liedtke said to the media when the pairing with Kanye West was announced, “This is what Adidas has always been about, empowering creators to create the new.” Or giving celebrities, rather than sportsmen, what they have always been good at doing: ring up the noise.
It is often said that, unlike Nike, Adidas isn’t big in the sporting arena—at least not in the US of A, where success there often means global recognition. For Adidas there is also the niggling problem of Under Armour closing in. Adidas probably had to rethink endorsements after a series of failed partnerships with sport stars. These include the high-profile but still-not-rising NBA player Derrick Rose, who, in 2012, was awarded a “lifetime deal” rumoured to be worth around USD260 million over 14 years. Then he got injured and injured and injured, and Derrick Rose fronting Adidas became less and less and less visible.
The first sneaker launched by Adidas and Kanye West in spring last year: the Yeezy Boost 750. Photo: Sneakernews
Big-name athlete association is integral to sporting goods brands. Nike had their money on the right guy when they signed with Michael Jordan, a Chicago Bulls star player. That pick was so spot-on that in no time, Air Jordans became a legit sub-brand under the Nike umbrella in 1985, and the launch of each style, till today, is still closely watched by sneakerheads and collectors alike. That the shoes were associated with Nike’s celebrated designer Tinker Hatfield didn’t hurt either. Adidas closest sport-celeb offering is the Stan Smith (named after the tennis player of the ’70s), a basically one-product category that’s been flogged to death.
So Adidas had to look outside of sport to raise its profile among consumers. Turning to celebrities—especially singers—isn’t a surprising move. The Three Stripes have always had the support of rappers as early as the ’80s, culminating in the RUN DMC single My Adidas of 1986. In the music video, not only were the trio decked in Adidas, they were even shown emerging from a RUN DMC/Adidas chopper! Street fashion, brought to music television by rappers, was on its way to being a multi-million business.
It was reported that the Adidas mention was completely self-initiated. Regardless, that song led to a USD1.6 million endorsement deal signed between Run DMC and Adidas. Hardly unexpected when you had rapped to the world, “my Adidas and me, close as can be/we make a mean team, my Adidas and me.” Their Adidas referred specifically to the Superstar, worn without laces. As if to relive those glory days, Adidas release a RUN DMC-co-branded line this year. Are we to expect a Missy Elliot collection? Maybe not, since we already have the Yeezy. Kanye West, the hip-hop star, will now change the fortunes of Adidas as RUN DMC did. Sport can wait.
Run DMC Adidas T-shirt, featuring the two names’ original logo. Photo: Adidas
The retreat of sport in the Adidas branding became more palpable with the push of adidas Originals (no idea why they prefer to spell it with a lower-case ‘A’), as part of a new division conceived in 2000 to advance the emerging popularity of “sport style”. It is under adidas Originals that Stan Smith was reborn and aggressively promoted. Yeezy too benefitted from the marketing might of Originals, but Kanye West isn’t the only rapper it has tapped. Others include Mr West’s G.O.O.D. Music label mates Big Sean (e.g., last year’s ZX Flux) and Pusha T (e.g., EQT Running Guidance ’93, also last year).
Do rappers have a particularly appealing taste that other singers in, say, rock or jazz do not? Or is it their visibility, as well as what can be heard from them that entices? One of the most audible (and still remembered) is Mr West’s very public outburst directed at his ex-collaborator Nike. It built up to the concert rant of 2013, when the rapper taunted Nike via the audience in a packed Bridgestone arena in Nashville, Tennessee: “Do you know who the head of Nike is? No, well let me tell you who he is: his name is Mark Parker, and he just lost culture. Everyone at Nike, everyone at Nike, Mark Parker just let go of culture.”
There must be something appealing about publicly berating the hand that once fed you, so much so that Adidas is willing to risk the same thing being done to them to go into partnership with a known hothead. It does look like it is true that publicity of any sort is better than no publicity. Let them talk about you, never mind if it’s a rant. Since its launch, Yeezy has spawned equal parts rant and rave. Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe Adidas is keeping Mr West so happy that they will not receive the same treatment if things should turn sour between them.
Revealed this week, Alexander Wang’s pairing with adidas Originals. Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images
adidas Originals by Alexander Wang editorial for Vogue. Photo Juergen Teller/Vogue
Why has Adidas become so bent on banking on celebrities to push their wares or elevate their brand? Because, these days, it is the thing to do, even if the best you can get is Rita Ora. Tommy Hilfiger, too, was once preferred and endorsed by rappers, but look at where the brand is today. They’re so threatened with irrelevance that they’ve (re)aligned themselves with celebrity—this time, the K-clan mirror image Gigi Hadid. And it isn’t enough that she is their face; she has to have a collection purportedly co-designed with her. Celebrities these days have more clout than designers. Designers have to be celebrities or use them to yield similar influence. Just ask Olivier Rousteing.
While Adidas continues its on-going collaborations with designers such as Stella McCartney, Yohji Yamamoto—Y3 is considered to have presaged the current love for athleisure—and Kolor’s Junichi Abe, they have not quite earned the cred and clout that Nike has with Junya Watanabe, Undercover’s Jun Takahashi (who, a runner himself, created the running-centric label Gyakusou), and recently Sacai’s Chitose Abe (a stunning collection conceived with Nike Lab). Nike has generally been rather judicious with their designer collaborations. Up next is Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear designer Kim Jones, whose last sport-brand collab was with the British label Umbro ten years ago. Nike has mostly paired itself with those considered the crème de la crème of the fashion business—champions of design, rather than seekers of fame.
Not to be outdone, Adidas has gone to team up with Alexander Wang, who showed an all-black capsule collection with the Trefoil logo given the dao treatment—turned upside down—during the recent New York Fashion Week (now considered season-confused since there were designers who showed autumn/winter 2016). Adidas latest choice is, of course, far from unexpected. Mr Wang had given the Stan Smith top billing when he designed a whole range of clothes inspired by Adidas’s most-known sneaker in 2014.
An undated picture of Barack Obama wearing Adidas tracksuit circulated on Twitter this year. Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images
His latest is homage to the Adidas tracksuit, all black, as most fashionistas desire. But do they bring anything new to the table, or, if you like, jogging track? Yes, he has toyed with the logo, but so has Junya Watanabe for Lacoste. He has outlined the three stripes, but so has Y-3. Mr Wang’s take on the tracksuit picks up after Gosha Rubichinskiy’s resuscitation of those by Sergio Tacchini and Kappa (even the Juergen Teller-lensed communication material featuring Madonna’s son Rocco Ritchie shares Mr Rubichinskiy’s eastern-bloc aesthetic). And the all-black get-up? Even Barack Obama has worn his version, Adidas no less.
The thing is, Alexander Wang, whose own design does not distance itself from the aesthetics of fast fashion (that’s why his collaboration with H&M was a better fit than that with Balenciaga), need not have to try that hard. Adidas isn’t known to excel in the marketing of design-centric lines such as the critically-acclaimed but doomed sub-brand SLVR (launched in 2009 and discontinued in 2014), last designed by Dirk Schönberger, Adidas’s creative director for its Sports Style division. With Mr Wang, Adidas can simply let the former’s online and offline cool do the work.
Adidas’s ardent embrace of Kanye West also attests to the prevalent sentiment that design doesn’t matter. Mr West may offer what, in New York parlance, is “dope shit”, but it’s the shit that seems to rile observers such as Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, who, in a taped interview with Access Hollywood Live two days ago, called the outfits “dumb basic clothes” and the designer behind them “a sphinx without a riddle”. Mr Gunn deserves more fans.