If you’re a fan of clothes that feel like pyjamas but look like something you could wear to work at an ad agency, the news is good. “I don’t know if there’s really going to be an ‘after’ sportswear,” says Dirk Schonberger, creative director of Adidas. While the only constant thing about fashion (for the last thousand years or so, anyway) is that it’s constantly changing, Schonberger’s outlook on the longevity of joggers, hoodies and, particularly, sneakers is rosy. “At this point I think sportswear is so overwhelmingly strong it’s not going away.” He ought to know. Since joining Adidas in 2010, Schonberger has not just presided over some of the biggest sneaker launches of the century, but has made huge strides towards establishing Adidas as the coolest sportswear brand on the planet.
Schonberger’s first major project was the re-launch of the Stan Smith tennis shoe. “We felt that the Stan Smith had lost a little bit of the magic that it deserved,” says Schonberger over the phone from Berlin. He’s soft spoken, restrained and frustratingly modest at times. The shoe, named after the 1970s Wimbledon champ was released 50 years ago, but has recently become a favourite among celebrities, fashionable teens and the adults who follow them on Instagram. The shoe appeals with clean modern lines, like a Porsche 911 or an Eames chair, but what transformed it from a cult favourite to a global style icon was, at least in part, Schonberger’s marketing savvy. Adidas pulled the shoe from shelves in 2012, then reintroduced it in 2014 with a gradual rollout of limited editions designed to tickle the desire of sneakerheads and streetwear addicts. The rest of the world, of course, soon caught on; street-style photos featuring painfully cool subjects in their Stan Smiths certainly helped. By summer 2016, it seemed like the most ubiquitous shoe on the planet – if not also the coolest.
The former designer of an eponymous fashion label, Schonberger brings an eye for the runway to a brand that made its name selling soccer shoes and tearaway nylon pants. He keenly understands the relationships between celebrities, fashion and popular culture, and is focused on using this to shape Adidas’ future. Where Nike woos the run club crowd and Under Armour entices baseball cap-wearing bros, Schonberger wants Adidas to be the sportswear brand of the fashion set. While he doesn’t see Adidas as a fashion brand, and doesn’t aim to turn it into one, Schonberger pays close attention to what’s happening in Paris and Milan, parsing the catwalks of Vetements, Balenciaga and Raf Simons for subtle changes in the zeitgeist. “There is something happening where high fashion meets very democratic low fashion elements,” he says of his recent observations. “It’s not an elite approach to fashion. It’s much more approachable. Almost like deconstructing what fashion used to be.”
Schonberger didn’t come up with the idea of letting non-athletic people put their names on athletic shoes, but he has proved adept at furthering it. Raf Simons, Rick Owens and Pharrell Williams have all collaborated on Adidas merch under his watch, and in June the company announced that Kanye West had been signed to a new sneaker deal rumoured to be worth at least eight figures. And this month, the brand released an apparel and footwear collaboration with Vancouver-based brand Reigning Champ. While it’s modeled by the Toronto Raptors’ point guard Kyle Lowry, the clothing’s combination of vintage styling and modern materials are clearly geared to more fashionable than functional needs.
Interestingly, Schonberger seems less concerned today with how many shoes he sells than how those shoes are made. In 2012 he met Cyril Gutsch, founder of Parley, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, and by 2015 he’d brought Gutsch on board. Earlier this year Adidas released its first collaboration with Parley; a sneaker with a knit upper made from 95-per-cent reclaimed ocean plastic. “[The planet’s] resources are limited,” Schonberger says of Adidas’ goal to completely eliminate virgin plastic from its supply chain. “I think this is the biggest innovation that we can work on.” The brand has pledged to produce a million pairs of Parley UltraBOOST shoes by the end of 2017.
Schonberger has already moved on to his next project, though he’s not allowed to talk about it. If his current trajectory is any indication, however, it will likely determine what fashionable people wear on their feet for years to come.
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