More Than Just a Man: A History of the adidas Stan Smith
More Than Just a Man: A History of the adidas Stan Smith
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date December 27, 2018
It’s been 33 years since Stan Smith retired from the game of tennis, but you’d never know it from his sneaker sales.
Smith won the U.S. Open in 1971 and Wimbledon in 1972, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2005, TENNIS magazine ranked Smith as one of the “40 Greatest Players of the TENNIS era.” Smith was winning Grand Slams, garnering acclaim and ascending to the world’s number one ranking in the early-1970s, but it wasn’t until adidas reached out in the hopes he would become the new face—literally—of its leather tennis shoe, creating one of the greatest and most successful partnerships in sneaker history. From here, the tennis star became a truly (unlikely) fashion icon.
But to understand the origins of the Stan Smith, you have to go back to the shoe’s original name: the adidas Robert Haillet.
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adidas produced its first tennis shoe in the early-1960s. It was Horst Dassler, son of founder Adolph “Adi” Dassler, who had this idea for a revolutionary product. He would produce the first leather tennis shoe in a world dominated by canvas, with its design featuring a pimpled outer sole made of rubber and an inner sole made of synthetic material.
The Three Stripes tapped Robert Haillet, one of just two French tennis professionals at the time, to be the sneaker’s namesake in 1965. According to the book Sneaker Wars—¸a must-read for any sneaker aficionado—when the sneaker was introduced in 1965, “the small cast of emerging tennis professionals widely agreed that it was by far the best tennis shoe on the market.” Much like the adidas Superstar—another popular adidas sneaker that was beginning to make some noise on the basketball court—the shoe’s leather provided more support, preventing twisted ankles and other injuries.
The debut of the Robert Haillet coincided with a surge in tennis popularity. In 1968, Wimbledon gave up its exclusively amateur status, thus ushering in the Open Era, where professionals began to take over global tournament play and ultimately, began to seek endorsement deals.
But in 1971, Haillet had retired from tennis (ultimately becoming a sales representative for adidas in the south of France) and Horst Dassler needed to find an active player to endorse an updated version of the shoe in his place. Donald Dell, arguably the most influential tennis agent in the business at the time, suggested his client Stan Smith, a hulking 6’4” American champion who was quickly rising up the rankings.
Smith, enticed by the endorsement dollars, signed a contract with adidas. Smith had previously played in canvas shoes by Converse and Uniroyal, an American brand who contracted him as part of an entire team. adidas’ deal was much different: It gave Smith a separate contract and promised to shower him with generous marketing opportunities. The American tennis market was booming and Smith was the perfect person to help adidas snag a large piece of the pie.
The sneaker has a very simple and sleek design, which has in part helped its sustained success over decades. White leather covers the entire silhouette, with the only real dash of color being the heel tab. The green foam padding was added to the heel in the late-1960s for added Achilles Tendon protection and a herringbone bottom sole—designed for use on clay courts. The classic version of this shoe has a thin tongue featuring Stan Smith’s portrait and signature. The typically green heel tab has the traditional adidas trefoil logo with “stan smith” written underneath. The shoe was also originally produced in Landersheim in France; those French-produced pairs remain highly valuable to vintage sneaker collectors to this day.
Unlike most adidas shoes, there is no overt external three stripes (literally speaking) branding anywhere. There are three rows of perforations on both sides of the shoe, in the same pattern of the traditional three stripes. The adidas branding on the shoe is very minimal overall, and its form has remained relatively untouched, with the exception of minor tweaks and customizations, over the last 40 years.
While Smith came to adidas in 1971, the shoe was not officially changed to the adidas Stan Smith until 1978. The German giant could not decide if the name should be changed or not. So, for most of the ’70s, the model was still named the Robert Haillet, before changing the name and adding Smith’s picture—his now-famous mustache notably absent—on the tongue.
Sales for the shoe reached new heights once the name was changed and Smith took over. Everyone began to wear Stan Smiths, even his opponents. “I got really annoyed the first time that I lost a match against a guy who was wearing my shoes,” he said in Sneaker Wars.
In the 1980s, as sneaker technology began to develop, Stan Smiths began to lose popularity on the court as performance shoes. However, they thrived off the court as a fashionable sneaker. By 1988, about 22 million pairs of the Stan Smith had been sold, with that number eventually hitting 23.7 million by 1994.
At the turn of the 21st century, adidas introduced a re-issued version of the shoe, the adidas Stan Smith II. This version has a thicker tongue with no Stan Smith portrait. On the heel tab there is only the adidas trefoil logo. In 2008, a replica version of the classic Stan Smith was released under the adidas Originals line, named the “Stan Smith 80s.” This version was a callback to the classic design but with a few retro tweaks—notably the yellowing on the outer sole, yellowed laces and subtle color changes to the white upper and green heel tab. A white and navy pair was introduced, as well as a nubuck black colorway.
Phoebe Philo who, in 2011, as creative director of Celine, took her final bow at her Fall/Winter show in a pair of Stan Smiths. Everyman outfitters like J. Crew and others began to stock their shelves with the shoe as demand slowly increased. It quickly became one of the most important sneakers in fashion, despite routinely being found discounted on clearance racks at sporting good stores for the better part of the previous decade.
By the end of 2011, adidas was ready for a change. Executives met with Smith and Dell to tell them that it would stop producing Stan Smiths for 2012 and 2013. Smith resisted, but ultimately, adidas knew exactly what it was doing. It was a minor setback for what would prove to be a huge comeback.
Completely removing a product off the shelves as it was beginning to pick up steam amongst a trendsetting group of consumers could certainly be seen as problematic, but the risk seemed worth the reward for adidas. Why would people in high fashion seek out a shoe that was discounted? By removing the shoe from the market, adidas manufactured a need. People had to wait for the shoe to be re-released, and when it eventually was, the shoe would be presented the right way.
“We wanted it to get the respect it deserved and the conversation about it that it deserved and for it to be seen as a commodity item,” said Torben Schumacher, adidas’ vice president of product in an interview with The Cut. “We thought that it needed something bold and drastic to prepare everyone for the story again.”
On January 14, 2014, adidas re-released the Stan Smiths to much fanfare, even sending personalized pairs to stars like Pharrell and Ellen DeGeneres to build buzz. For the November 2013 issue of Vogue Paris, Gisele Bundchen posed on the cover in a pair of Stan Smiths (and largely nothing else). Instead of clearance racks at Foot Locker, Stan Smiths began to pop up at stores like Barneys New York and Colette, still at its modest price tag. Later in 2014, Philo once again took her bow at the end of her successful runway show in a pair of Stan Smiths.
Upon the re-release, a whole host of new Stan Smith colorways began to pop up, including versions featuring updated tech. The Three Stripes paired the classic shoe with both its popular Primeknit material and Boost soles. Thanks in part to its simplified silhouette, the Stan Smith has been quite literally a canvas for some of adidas’ most prolific collaborators, including (but not limited to): Raf Simons, Pharrell Williams and Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3. The shoes were being name checked by rappers in songs. Stan Smiths solidified their place as a mainstay in both sneaker and pop culture, this time to a generation of consumers who probably didn’t even know that there’s a successful tennis pro behind the shoe.
Smith himself was earning a flat fee each year from adidas until 2005, when Dell was able to convince the company that Smith deserved more. He would soon begin to receive royalties on every shoe sold. They both remain tight-lipped about how much he brings in from their lucrative partnership. “I’m not making Michael Jordan money,” was all Smith admitted to, joking with ESPN in a 2016 interview.
In adidas’ 2014 annual report, it was revealed that 40 million pairs of the Stan Smith have been sold since its debut. That number is now over 50 million, according to 2016 sales numbers. That’s a solid portion of lifetime sales coming in only a short time after its re-release. Footwear News named it “Shoe of the Year” in 2014, nearly 40 years after it was first produced. Other companies like Common Projects have done its best to come as close as possible to the Stan Smith design, but sells its versions for $300 or more.
In a post-Boost world, adidas Originals still account for a large chunk of the company’s sales. The adidas Superstar was the best-selling sneaker of 2016 and the Stan Smith continues to hold its own, proving that great sneaker companies like adidas and Nike must continue to preserve its iconic shoes of the past while still embracing new technologies and pushing the envelope with fresh, innovative products.
As for Smith, he’s long retired and living in Hilton Head, South Carolina, with dozens of pairs of Stan Smiths in a multitude of colors lining his closets. He still makes eight or so appearances a year for the company, traveling all over the world. Occasionally, he’ll even pop into the adidas store in SoHo and introduce himself to the staff, which usually elicits some kind of fun response. As of December 7, 2018, Smith was awarded a lifetime deal with adidas—similar to the one inked between LeBron James and Nike—proving just how transcendent (and commercially successful) Smith's sneaker still is. This announcement came right on the heels of Smith's fittingly titled Rizzoli book release, Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m a Shoe!.
“I keep telling people.” he once said with a laugh to The Cut, “I’m a fashion icon.”