Like most great sporting achievements, Adidas shoes were born of intense competition—in this case, between two siblings. In the 1920s, brothers Rudolf “Rudi” and Adolf “Adi” Dassler founded the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory), a small-town shoemaking business in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Adi was an athlete and trained cobbler who focused on designing innovative shoes, receiving his first patent for a pair of running shoes in 1925, while his brother Rudi handled sales and business development.
As the Nazis rose to power, both brothers became card-carrying members of the party, and Rudi eventually joined the German military forces. Connections to Germany’s ruling party helped fuel the brothers’ shoe business, particularly leading up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, as Adi sought access to the influential coaches and athletes attending the global sporting event. The glad-handing paid off—Adi was able to get a pair of the company’s spiked leather track shoes onto the feet of American runner Jesse Owens, who broke several world records and won gold medals in four different events.
Though the Dasslers were selling more than 200,000 pairs of shoes a year by the end of the '30s, the brothers increasingly butted heads over their business, and when World War II ended, Rudolf left to start his own company just across the river. In 1949, the duo formally established their new companies, respectively named Addas and Ruda (though they were eventually rechristened Adidas and Puma). With the stakes thus raised, the Dassler family feud permeated their entire hometown, as employees and neighbors chose sides in the battle of the two shoe manufacturers.
After Rudi had a falling out with West Germany’s head football coach, Adi saw another great partnership opportunity. He had already made the Samba, created as a football training shoe in 1950, so he was familiar enough with the sport to be named the West German team’s uniform manager. When West Germany unexpectedly beat Hungary at the 1954 World Cup, Adidas’ black-leather football boots with three white stripes immediately became famous.
In the decades that followed, the company continued to leverage the publicity of sports celebrities to lift its brand. Named for French tennis player Robert Haillet, Adidas’ first leather tennis shoe dropped in 1963. In 1971, after Haillet retired having never won a grand slam event, the company signed a new endorsement with American champion Stan Smith, whose name still graces the design. A year later, in 1972, Adidas SL all-around trainers were introduced for the Munich Olympics, where they were seen by millions of TV viewers.
Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, and at the urging of American distributor Chris Severn, Adidas ventured into the untapped market for basketball shoes, which was then dominated by the canvas hi-top Chuck Taylor model made by Converse. In 1965, Adidas released the Supergrip, a low-rise leather shoe with a cushioned heel, arch support, and padded ankle, as well as a hi-top version called the Pro Model. After experimenting with additional toe protection to decrease drag for tennis players, the company debuted the low-top Superstar in 1969, with its now-iconic rubber cap or “shell toe.”
During the 1970s, the Superstar became the go-to shoe of professional basketball players as Adidas aggressively pursued endorsement deals with players both in the NBA and ABA. Th...
Eventually, Superstar sneakers—more casually known as Shelltoes—reached a whole new customer segment via rappers like Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and Jam Master Jay, who wore their Adidas shoes on MTV and at live performances during the 1980s. In fact, Run-DMC released an entire song about the classic shoes in 1986 called simply “My Adidas,” which led to their own endorsement deal.
After Adi’s son Horst Dassler died suddenly in 1987, the company faltered and nearly went bankrupt as Nike surged to number one in the athletic shoe industry. However, during the next couple decades, Adidas refocused its efforts on technological innovation, the nostalgic appeal of heritage shoes, product variety, and partnering with contemporary celebrities like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, all of which helped regain much of its lost market share.