In 1972, New Balance made just thirty pairs of shoes a day. The brand had been founded over seventy years earlier, but by the early seventies, there were just six employees working out of the brand’s Boston based headquarters to fulfill a trickle of orders that mainly came from a dedicated fan base of dedicated runners. All that changed on the day of the Boston Marathon that year, when Jim Davis, a Massachusetts based entrepreneur decided to purchase NB and propel them from middle-of-the-pack all the way up to the podium.
With the Euro Cup in full swing this week, I figured that it was only right to focus on the world’s game this week. And while I could have written about this years uniforms, or the best dressed players, or even Cucinelli’s own soccer team, I thought that I should start with arguably the most important of all soccer related brands: Adidas. When I started reading about the brand I anticipated I would find a straightforward story about a brand who’s best designs are also it’s oldest, but what I actually discovered was a complex story about two brothers, Nazi Germany, and not one, but two of the world’s most well-known sportswear companies.
The Adidas group website lists the brand’s founding date as August 18, 1949, yet the real story actually begins over two decades earlier. In 1924 brothers Rudolph (Rudi) and Adolf (Adi) Dassler were living in the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. Their father worked in a shoe factory, their mother worked a laundress, and the two brothers had just returned from World War One. It was within these humble beginnings, that the younger brother Adi started making shoes in the backroom of his mother’s wash house. Adi was soon joined by Rudi and the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory was born.
The Dassler Brothers’ hand-sewn shoes were unlike any other athletic shoe on the market, and they quickly became an integral part of the European sports world. Just four years after the company was starter their shoes could be seen on the feet of athletes in Amsterdam during the 1928 Olympics, furthering the Dassler’s success. But their big break came in 1936 when the two brothers drove from Bavaria to Berlin to give Jesse Owens a pair of their shoes. That year Owens won four gold medals while wearing the Dassler’s shoes and the company was propelled into the national spotlight.
Yet life in Germany was changing fast. The Nazi party was rising to power and naturally the Dassler’s company, as a successful German brand became a part of the party’s propaganda machine. Both Dassler brothers became members of the Nazi party (a fact that the Adidas and Puma websites clearly avoid) and their company began to change shape in the face of the impending World War. Around this time the brothers, who had already been suffering through a strong bout of sibling rivalry, began to bitterly turn on each other. Stories about the brothers range from simple snide comments all the way up to Rudi claiming that Adi reported him to the Allies as a Nazi, but one thing’s for sure, by the mid nineteen forties their relationship had soured entirely.
In 1947, Rudi had had enough, leaving the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory to form his own brand, dubbed Ruda, a combination of Rudolph and Dassler, which was soon changed to be Puma, a name that sounded a bit more welcoming. Which brings us up to August 18, 1949, the official start date for Adidas (which is as you have probably guessed a joining of Adolf and Dassler.) After the companies split, Adi developed Adidas’ signature three stripe logo. The stripes would guide the brand over the next few decades as Puma and Adidas competed fiercely for publicity. Both companies would alternate outfitting teams and players with their shoes in attempts to win over the marketplace. One year the German national team would wear Adidas, the next year they would wear Puma. One race a runner would be wearing Puma, and just a few months later he would be running in Adidas.
In the end, it wasn’t so much that Adi won, but more so that Rudi lost. In the months leading up to the 1954 World Cup, Rudi got into an argument with the German coach, and as a result the German Team was sponsored by Adidas not Puma. Germany went on to win that World Cup as every player wore black Adidas with the unmistakable three stripes running down the side. From then on Adi and his shoes were unavoidable, as the brand not only became one of the leading athletic shoe companies in the world, but also crossed over into everyday wear as more and more people began wearing sneakers.
Today, both Adidas and Puma are still based in Herzogenaurach, although they are now publicly own companies. Like a lot of major shoe brands, both company’s recent designs leave much to be desired in my opinion. While their modern shoes are often over-designed and clunky (case in point the down right horrendous Adidas and Jeremy Scott collaboration) their classic, simpler designs still prevail as some of the world’s all-time greatest sneakers. Shoes such as the Adidas Samba and the Puma Whirlwind have that clean and functional look that harkens back to the attitude that Adi and Rudi first had way back in the twenties when all they were trying to do was create a better sneaker.
Rubber soles, canvas uppers, not exactly comfortable, but cheap enough to not really matter, Vans were and still are the everyman’s shoe. No matter who you are, no matter what kind of style you have, odds are pretty good that a pair of Vans have found their way into your closet at one time or another. The shoes seem to capture this laid back west coast attitude that has always had universal appeal, yet the company’s roots actually lie on the other side of the country.
In the fourties, Paul Van Doren was just another teenage dropout living in Boston, making a few bucks here and there by giving out odds at the horse track and generally aggravating his mother. Eventually, his mother had enough and got Paul a job at Randy’s Shoe Factory, where she worked. Paul started out sweeping the floors, and working the line making shoes, but over the next couple decades he rose through the company until he was Executive Vice President. By the early sixties, Randy’s was the third largest shoe manufacturer in America, but they still had a factory in California that was bleeding money at an alarming rate. Paul, his brother Jim, and their friend Gordon Lee headed west to save the factory, and eight months later it was more successful than Boston.
While Paul was thriving at Randy’s, he still wasn’t satisfied. The problem was that Randy’s was only a manufacturer, and in the shoe business most of the profits end up going to the retailers. So Paul thought why not change this, why not create a business that makes shoes and sells them directly to the customer, cutting out the middle man. In 1966, Paul left Randy’s and he, James, and a few friends opened up the Van Doren Rubber Company in Anaheim. Customers would come into the store, order a pair of shoes, the Van Doren’s would custom make them right there, and customers would pick them up that afternoon. The process revolutionized the shoe industry, but that alone couldn’t make Vans popular, the shoes had to be worth buying.
Paul and his partners opened up shop at exactly the right time-late sixties California was on the brink of a skateboarding explosion, and Vans’ thick sticky sole and canvas toe were tailor made for these skaters. As skateboarding went nationwide so did Vans, first strictly as a part of skate culture, but then swiftly crossed over into the mainstream, offering a bit of California cool to the rest of the country. To this days Vans’ line of classics still represent the best of brand, embodying that clean and casual aesthetic that looks just as good today as it did in the sixties when the Van Doren’s created their first pair.
As Put This On recently pointed out, over the past few years designers have begun to reinterpret the understated GAT, or German Army Trainer, selling their versions of the sneaker at a price point, generally agreed to be outrageous. While brands such as Maison Martin Margiela, Dior, and Agnes B. were no doubt drawn to the GAT’s minimalist design, they nonetheless presented the simple sneaker in a high fashion context that’s a far cry from the trainer’s original utilitarian purposes.
In the seventies, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the recently reorganized German Military was outfitted with the original GATs. Featuring little more than a rubber sole for traction and an all leather body for comfort, German Army Trainers were first and foremost a shoe designed for soldiers during indoor exercises. For these soldiers they were a practical means to an end–a sneaker more revered for its comfort during training than for its aesthetic merits. Today, thanks in part to their recent reintroduction by contemporary brands, the GAT has become one of the preeminent options for a clean, white sneaker. And while those “designer sneakers” might run you several hundred dollars, it is still possible to find a pair of surplus GATs direct from Germany for about eighty bucks, just by doing some crafty eBaying. Check out the links below for some options.
“StyleForum German Army Trainers Thread” A few users in here are willing to proxy them Germany.
“SuperFuture German Army Trainers Thread” This user proxies GATs from Germany