A tale of two brothers
To truly understand running shoes you really have to take a moment to digest the history that helped shape the industry. In 2019 it is becoming a lot easier to forget that the likes of Nike and Adidas are ultimately sportswear brands first, and lifestyle brands second. What I mean by this is, the emphasis in the early days was almost solely on performance, and style was, in the beginning, an afterthought.
At the end of the Second World War two of the biggest trainer brands in the world to this day emerged Adidas and Puma. Born out of the ashes of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory. The brand that was responsible for providing Jesse Owens among others with running shoes during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Following the companies dissolution despite remaining successful post-war supplying American GIs stationed in West Germany with basketball shoes. The two brothers Rudi and Adi Dassler decided to start businesses on either side of the Aurach River.
Rudi Dassler established his company in 1948. First naming it Ruda a conflation of his first and last names. Before later changing the name to Puma. While Adi Dassler also conflated his name and registered Adidas in 1949. The competition that was created ultimately changed the look of trainers forever. Unquestionably transformed both companies into extremely important players in the international sports-shoe market.
World Cups and Olympic Games
Adi Dassler first showed his innovation to the world with Adidas when he developed the Adidas Samba. An all-around training shoe in 1950. Proving to be an instant success with amateur athletes. This shoe, the first adorned with the three stripes helped to establish the brand. Something that was only furthered by the West German football teams adoption of Adidas’ boots with removable cleats. During their World Cup 1954 triumph over Hungary. Adidas was quickly becoming a household name, and while quickly diversified their product line. Breaking into the American basketball market with the introduction of the Superstar, the first-ever low cut leather basketball shoe available. As well as seeing over 80% of the competitors at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics wear Adidas. The idea of commercially viable running shoes was still yet to be established.
Running almost parallel to the success Adi Dassler was achieving with Adidas. Rudi Dassler’s Puma was also making a name for itself designing football and track shoes. Medalists during the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics all wore Pumas. While probably most famously at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The new Puma Suede became a central feature in the protest made by American Olympic Gold medalist Tommie Smith and his teammate Bronze Medal John Carlos. Who took off their suedes, embellished with the brand’s signature panther logo. Mounting the podiums heads lowered with a black leathered glove aloft making a fist. A now recognised symbol of Black Power during the black civil rights movement.
Competition from the Far East
Adidas and Puma were considered innovators. As the shoes they were producing were in stark contrast to the traditional canvas-and-rubber basketball high-top and low lace-up trainers. Both were producing shoes that were athletically proven on the biggest stage. Allowing their stock as performance footwear designers to increase globally. The arrival of high-end Japanese Onitsuka Tiger in the American market only cementing the arrival of the new era in trainer history.
The arrival of Onitsuka Tiger was manufactured by a name you might in 2019 be very familiar with in 2019, Phil Knight. A man who as you know would later go onto co-found future Adidas and Puma competitor Nike. A very intelligent man who saw the opportunity for the Japanese brands to compete with their German counterparts for marker share in America. Citing lower production costs as his principle argument to support his theory.
Blue Ribbon Sports
Phil Knight capitalised on what we considered to be an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Quickly signing a deal to distribute Onitsuka Tiger’s long-distance running and track-and-field shoes in the U.S. Enlisting the help of his former coach at the University of Oregon Bill Bowerman they set up Blue Ribbon Sports to not only distribute Onitsuka Tiger’s shoes but also strike to create their own designs. In the hope of collaboratively landing on a better performing product for athletes.
What they perhaps didn’t fully understand, was the impact they were about to have on a broader demographic. Beyond just professional athletes, because running shoes were about to hit the mainstream, in a big way. Through the ’50s and ’60s, the concept of fitness was really only reserved for athletes. This all changed in the 1970s with the birth of the Me Generation. Which kickstarted a new found obsession with achieving personal bests. That ultimately led to the rapid embrace of jogging as part of a larger exercise craze in America. What this meant was, the customer base for performance footwear had just drastically increased. As it wasn’t just athletes buying running shoes anymore. It was everyone.
The Greek Goddess of Victory
By 1972 Bowerman and Knight had created Nike, named after the Greek Goddess of Victory and began to sell their own running shoes. Part of the allure being the models lightweight composition. As well as the willingness to experiment in search of innovation. The first commercially available Nike silhouette, the Nike Cortez that launched in 1972, was so successful in fact, that it still does numbers in 2019. Two years later in 1974 and the Nike Waffle was released. A shoe devised with the help of a waffle iron, into which they poured rubber to achieve the designs iconic outsole. Since receiving a highly publicised revival in 2019 from the help of collaboration with Japanese high fashion label Sacai. Providing some poetic symmetry if you take into account Phil Knight’s first collaboration with the Far East we have already touched on.
The very nature of the Me Generation quickly turned running shoes designed solely for performance. Into status symbols that stood to represent so much more for anyone who wore them. The rampant narcissism resulting from newfound wealth and the time in which to spend it, irreversibly altered the foundations for which the industry was built on. Something that brands like Nike and Adidas immediately capitalised on.
As from the newborn cultural climate of conspicuous consumption and dedication to personal bests. Sprouted greater opportunities for brands to push the product to its consumers. No longer was a single pair of trainers sufficient. Instead, each activity was purposely tailored too with its own specialised product. Shoes for grass, shoes for concrete, custom made shoes for problem feet, and night jogging shoes with fluorescent orange strips. This is when the running shoe genre as we know it today was first realised. Diverse, technical, and ridiculously lucrative.
Gender and Genre
The gendering of running shoes had also begun to emerge more than ever before. Driven by women’s liberation that saw the desire for fitness to be more apparent than ever before. With Nike even designing a women’s version of the Cortez called the Senorita. While Saucony found favour with women because of its specifically designed narrow heel cup. Branching out further, it wasn’t just the introduction of running shoes for women that changed things. It was the development of more sport-specific products that again took us a step closer to the industry we recognise today.
Tennis, for example, in 1968 became more accessible to the masses in 1968 with a rule change that allowed amateurs to compete in major tournaments. Of course opening the door, just as the introduction of jogging had to amateur runners, to another untapped pool of consumers. Adidas the first to cultivate this. Revamping the canvas and rubber-soled conventional tennis shoe with the introduction of the Haillet. Named after French tennis great Robert Haillet. Featuring a leather upper and innovative dish sole.
Although not a running shoe it is notable to illustrate that for brands like Adidas and Nike what was once a market that pushed products for general sport. Had now focused in on specific markets. You buy this shoe for running, and you buy that shoe for tennis, and so on and so forth. Arguably the main crux of the brand’s success in 2019 – the idea that you have to purchase multiple products to gain all the athletic benefits.
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