Tracing the Cultural History of adidas Classics

07.10.23 General



When it comes to subcultural affiliations, few footwear brands can boast a deeper connection than adidas. In fact, the German sportswear behemoth most likely stands alone with the most in that regard, and that’s without even mentioning the sheer variety and longevity of their influence. Now consolidated in the omnipresent ‘Originals’ subsidiary line, it’s easy to forget that the classic styles this collection now includes all initially emerged as high-performance trainers for their respective sports.

The Superstar was introduced in 1969 as a speciality basketball shoe, however quickly became a fashion and lifestyle mainstay by the ‘70s, thanks to its timeless aesthetic and eye-catching rubber ‘shell toe’. The 1980s saw the release of another on-court icon, the adidas Campus, reminiscent of the Superstar with its minimal construction, its large clean panelling allowing for bright colour combinations in either smooth or suede leather.

Fast forward to the eighties, and technical specifications for basketball footwear were developing expeditiously. It was a decade synonymous with iconic court kicks, not least the debut of the Air Jordan series, which adidas would aim to counter Nike’s growing influence by partnering with another outstanding basketball talent, Patrick Ewing. 

Ewing was selected as the number one overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, and adidas subsequently signed him to a lucrative sneaker endorsement deal, releasing the Ewing Athletics line of basketball shoes in 1986. Ewing’s shoes helped adidas capitalise on the widespread appeal of athlete-endorsed sneakers such as the Air Jordan line, garnering a dedicated following. Coupled with the adidas Rivalry which launched the same year, the Ewing went on to emphasise the brand’s stature in the production of high-performance court footwear.

As sneakers started to become integrated into the everyday casual uniform of teenagers and young adults around this time, they inevitably took root in several burgeoning youth subcultures. As hip-hop came of age around the tail end of the 1980s, the three stripes became the essential sneaker brand for movers and shakers within the genre.

One of the key factors that contributed to adidas’ influence within hip-hop culture early on was its connection to the b-boy/girl and breakdancing scene. Breakdancers embraced the brand’s footwear, particularly the adidas Superstar, Gazelle and Campus. These sneakers not only provided the necessary comfort and durability for the dynamic dance moves, but also exuded a distinctive urban style that resonated with the hip-hop community, and their sleek designs with the already-iconic three stripes became a symbol of authenticity and self-expression for aspiring b-boys/girls around the world.

But adidas’ impact within hip hop extended beyond the dance floor. As well as their classic sneakers, the brand’s tracksuits, sweatshirts and accessories would all become staples of hip-hop fashion. Pioneering rap group Run-D.M.C. played a pivotal role in popularising the label within the subgenre. In fact, it could be argued the most enduring image associated with the ‘Old-School’ era of hip hop would be that of the Queens, NY group posing in their uniform of adidas Firebird tracksuits, laceless Superstars or Rivalrys, gold rope chains, and classic fedora or Kangol hats. Their groundbreaking 1986 single ‘My Adidas’  further cemented the brand’s status within hip-hop culture and led to the first-ever endorsement deal between a musical artist and a sportswear company.

Moving into the nineties, it was the turn of another trailblazing hip-hop act, the Beastie Boys, to carry the torch for adidas within the subculture. 1992’s ‘Check Your Head’ turned out to be a change of pace for the group not only musically, but also aesthetically. Its iconic album cover, shot by veteran hip-hop photographer Glen E. Freidman, showed Mike D sporting a pair of Campus, sparking legions of hip-hop fans to go out and grab a pair for themselves. Incidentally, Mike D was one of the figures behind streetwear originators XLARGE at the time, an LA-based label who were known for sourcing vintage deadstock adidas models to resell in their stores.

Hip-hop wasn’t America’s only burgeoning youth scene to adopt the three stripes early on. Over on the West Coast, skateboarding was rapidly gaining popularity amongst a section of thrill-seeking kids and young adults. Largely isolated from any official ties to mainstream sports companies, skaters of time had to make do with reappropriating casual footwear, largely styles designed for basketball and tennis, as skate-centric footwear was in limited offering, and harder to attain in a pre-internet retail landscape.

Skateboarders embraced certain adidas models such as the Campus, Stan Smith and the Superstar for their flat soles and robust construction, which made them suitable for the demands of skateboarding. The ridged rubber shell toes of the Superstar in particular, offered an excellent barrier against grip tape. These models’ blank uppers also provided skaters with a canvas to customise and express individuality, some would draw, paint or dye their shoes, or simply thread through phat laces. The brand became so popular that even the new skater-owned, made for skateboarding shoe brands began to rip off classic adidas designs for their own range. Etnies’ rotated ‘E’ logo is a direct reference to the classic Three Stripes branding, and Tim Gavin’s shoe for DVS took blatant design cues from the Stan Smith. 

In the mid-1990s, adidas actively entered the skateboarding market by launching a dedicated skateboarding line under its ‘Equipment’ range. The brand recognised the skate community’s appreciation for Three Stripes’ heritage as well as the ever-evolving needs of skateboarding footwear and began producing skate-specific shoes with enhanced features like extra cushioning, reinforced toe caps, and improved board feel. It also eventually assembled a skate team which included legends Mark Gonzales and Lance Mountain, as well as exciting young pros such as Quim Cardona and Paulo Diaz, adding further credibility to the brand’s official skate venture.

As adidas’ profile within the skate industry expanded, so did its footwear offering. The brand initially made waves with the legendary phat-stripe cupsole styles Adimatic and Norton, but it would be the classics that still resonated strongly with skateboarders. Key ‘90s skate figures like Harold Hunter and Ryan Hickey were still being seen adidas classics like the Campus and Superstar, but this wasn’t going unnoticed at HQ, and the decision was made to revamp some of the icons, make them more skate-friendly, and have them sit alongside the newer, tech shoes the company was also putting out. Superstar became ‘Super Modified’, with rubberised stripes sitting lower down the upper around the ollie area to offer more resistance, whereas the low-key look of the Campus was channelled in the new ‘O’Reardon’ silhouette.

adidas’ skate integrity was cemented as the 2000s rolled around, and by the end of the decade, many riders were favouring a more classic, low-profile sneaker over the chunky silhouettes of the previous decade. This led to a surge in popularity for adidas models such as the Superstar, Stan Smith, Samba and Campus, as well as other indoor sport-referencing styles, which still make up the core skateboarding collection today.  

In Europe, however, the adidas Samba was beginning to spin its unique legacy within subculture. Originating as a football trainer in 1950, the Samba’s sleek design and durable construction made it a preferred choice among sports fans and 1980s terrace culture enthusiasts. Terrace culture, particularly in Britain, was centred around the fashion and social scene surrounding football matches. One iteration of the Samba became synonymous with it, being embraced by football fans who sought to showcase their team loyalty and exhibit a distinct sense of casual style. Its iconic Three Stripes and retro aesthetic perfectly aligned with the minimal sensibilities of terrace fashion of the era, which largely incorporated high-end European labels as well as classic casual staples such as denim and military surplus gear.

This terrace association reinforced the Samba’s counter-culture identity, which had been brewing after being spotted on iconic musicians such as Bob Marley throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Along with Trimm Trabb and the Gazelle (1966) model, originally released in ‘68 as a multi-purpose training shoe, the Samba helped form the foundation for what’s now regarded as Europe’s first sneakerhead scene, where casual connoisseurs became avid collectors, hunting for rare and coveted adidas shoe models.

Technological advances in the design of athletic footwear would spell the beginning of a dormant period for terrace culture, however, consumer interest in classic adidas models in the UK would eventually overflow into the 1990s thanks to a link with an exciting new music scene: Britpop. The chart battle between flagship bands Oasis and Blur may have signified a north/south divide in the country but if there was one thing both bands and their listenership had in common, it was a penchant for classic adidas trainers.

The Gallagher brothers’ signature look of an anorak, jeans and adidas classics (Gazelle and the Samba) reverberated around the country during the Cool Britannia era, and the band’s connection with the Three Stripes has been strengthened with both frontmen each designing their own shoe for the Spezial line in recent years. Down south, Blur led the charge for terrace-inspired fashion, teaming pairs of adidas with Harrington jackets, straight-cut jeans and old-school tennis track tops. The group’s love for the brand even extended to at least two lyrical references, including a song titled ‘Trimm Trabb’, on their sixth album, 13, in 1999.

A recent spate of 1990s nostalgia within fashion has brought the adidas classics range back to the forefront of youth culture. In an era where subcultures of the past can coexist thanks to widely available documentation and a seamless connection among like-minded individuals by way of social media, styles like the Samba, Superstar, Rivalry, Gazelle and co. are experiencing a profound renaissance. The perpetual athleisure trend, along with the classic range’s expansive heritage has created a renewed appreciation for the timeless designs and cultural significance of adidas classics, once again making them a staple in today’s fashion sneaker realm.

Copy by Angus McLaughlin for Samutaro

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