The Toe to Know: A History of the adidas Superstar
The Toe to Know: A History of the adidas Superstar
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date September 10, 2019
Long before Run-DMC walked through concert doors and roamed all over coliseum floors in their signature adidas tracksuits and leather Superstars, the iconic shell toes were designed for a very specific purpose: to revolutionize basketball footwear. Who would have thought the shelltoe would go on to shift the entire sneaker industry writ large?
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The adidas Superstar as we know it owes a considerable debt to the adidas Supergrip. Created sometime around 1965, the Supergrip was allegedly adidas’ first foray into basketball footwear, and aside from featuring a herringbone outsole that would shape what we see on Superstars today, it would drop alongside another early-adidas icon: the Pro Model. Early Supergrip models didn’t focus on a reinforced toebox, but with adidas’ innovation inspired by more Euro-centric pastimes (tennis and soccer), it became clear that the rapid start-rapid stop movement of those sports would make a rugged toecap an excellent addition on shoes meant for other stop-start sports… like, say, basketball. The Supergrip may have morphed into what we’d call the Superstar today, but by the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s, the Supergrip was reworked to include a vulcanized sole, sold at a lower price and ultimately would influence the current-day adidas Campus model.
Outside of internal development, adidas had another hurdle: Competition. In 1969, Converse All Stars dominated the basketball sneaker market. The high-top All Stars were the preferred sneaker of hoopers from high school through the pros, and were an all-canvas performance shoe, seemingly unthinkable looking back on it all these years later. The basketball sneaker market in general was severely lacking in any noticeable innovation during the previous decades and Chris Severn, an adidas consultant at the time, sensed an opportunity.
Early canvas shoes inherently had poor grip on the basketball court and, due to the need to make abrupt moves and cuts during play, players routinely injured their ankles and knees. Severn and the design team sought to produce a performance shoe with an all leather upper instead of canvas. The leather would provide a much firmer hold than the Converse canvas, thus giving players added protection. The new shoe would also include a distinctive shell toe on the nose of the sneaker and a herringbone pattern of thin grooves lined on its outsole, with the signature adidas three stripes on the sides.
While Converse had a team of salesmen—some of which were even former professional basketball players themselves—Severn would travel to gyms around the country essentially by himself, imploring players and coaches to try out the Three Stripes. He knew that if players just gave the Superstar a shot, they would see how much better it was than what they were used to.
“They had played in canvas all their lives; the Superstar looked completely alien to them,” he said in the book Sneaker Wars. “They weren’t getting paid by Converse; it was just a habit.”
Jack McMahon, then manager of the San Diego Rockets, was one of the first to be receptive to Severn’s pitch, mainly because three of his players had been suffering from injuries which he attributed to their sneakers. He convinced nearly all of the players to give the Superstars a shot. When Converse received word that adidas was making a move into its market, it offered money to some players to continue playing in the canvas. Severn remained steadfast in his approach.
“When they ran into the arena, lo and behold, they were all wearing three-striped shoes,” he recalled. “It was a real thrill and it caused quite a stir among the public.”
The Rockets may have been the worst team in the league at the time, but every time they showed up in a different city against a new team, it gave the Superstar an entirely fresh audience. Players would take notice and Severn began to receive phone calls about his new shell toes. By its second year, the Superstar was being worn many players on the Boston Celtics, who won the NBA Championship in 1969. The tide was quickly turning in adidas’ favor. Within four years from the product’s launch, about 85 percent of all pro players in the United States switched to adidas.
Severn even convinced the higher ups to jump into the player endorsement game. They would go on to sign Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976, arguably the league’s biggest name at the time, to a $25,000 per year contract. He would become the first basketball player ever to be contracted by adidas.
The introduction of the Superstar simultaneously boosted overall business for adidas and threw gasoline on the demise of Converse as a performance shoe. By not only infiltrating, but dominating, what was a previously untapped market in basketball, adidas’ sales soared. By the early 1970s, basketball quickly accounted for 10 percent of overall adidas sales. And as adidas began to soar, Converse quickly found themselves floundering. By the end of the decade, the shoe which was synonymous with basketball for decades would be completely phased out of the game, and Converse faced money issues for most of the 1970s. It cannot be overstated just how incredible that turn of events is in such a short amount of time. Converse was the basketball sneaker market for decades. Within two years of the Superstar’s introduction, adidas not only carved out its own space in a market that had no competition for decades, it began to eradicate its competition. Converse went from all to nothing, primarily because of the introduction of the Superstar.
Much like the sneaker in which it surpassed, the Superstar would eventually outlive its usefulness as a performance basketball sneaker. As other sneakers with more modern technology would begin to hit the market, the Superstar would find its true calling and achieve new levels of popularity as a lifestyle sneaker. Thanks in large part to hip-hop.
In the early-1980s, adidas’ began shifting the Superstar from flat leathers to felt and suede; coupled with the introduction of a more American-centric wider footbed fit, adidas created a cultural behemoth. The Superstar transitioned from basketball, usurped by corporate in favor of the Top Ten sneaker model.
In the mid-1980s, Run-DMC was the biggest hip-hop act in the world. The groups sold out arenas and were true pioneers of a still nascent genre of music. It was the first rap group to have certified gold and platinum albums, as well as a Grammy nomination. They were the first rap group to have its videos played on MTV, appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, and they were the only rap group to perform at Live Aid in 1985.
Aside from the group’s great songs, Run-DMC were perhaps best known for its groundbreaking image. While their rap predecessors would don leather glam rock attire, Run-DMC became the first rap act to dress like people from the block, which in this case was Hollis, Queens. And a big part of that look was...well, adidas.
From head to toe, Run-DMC sported three stripes, from adidas tracksuits to shell toe Superstars. The group quickly started a style movement. It was simple and authentic, and in no time, every fan who would show up to every sold out Run-DMC show would also don adidas head to toe.
The group’s “My Adidas” is what cemented the Superstar’s status, serving as an ode to shell toes and the misconstrued perception of the b-boy. Speaking to [Sole Collector](https://solecollector.com/news/2014/03/this-history-of-run-d-m-c-and-adidas-as-told-by-d-m-c, Run DMC explained, “There was a doctor in our neighborhood named Dr. Deas, and he was like this community activist dude...he was saying [that] kids and youth in the streets that wore Lee jeans and Kangol hats and gold chains and PUMAs and adidas without shoe laces were the thugs, the drug dealers and the low lifes of the community.”
It was in rebellion to this stereotype that spawned the songs, and in turn, brought the Three Stripes into contact with Run-DMC directly. By the time adidas rep Angelo Anastasio had identified the group as a direct cause for a spike in sales, he was witnessing history at Madison Square Garden. “When Run went out there during the show, ‘D, take it off your feet; hold it up. What’s those? Everybody in here, if you got adidas on, hold ‘em up,’ Run DMC said to Sole Collector. “So, 40,000 people in a sold-out Madison Square Garden held a sneaker up and Anastasio was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s true.’” The global phenomenon was cemented in 1987 on the Together Forever tour, as the group famously posed in front of the Eiffel Tower while in Paris, in the signature black adidas track suits, gold rope chains and Superstars with no laces.
“‘My Adidas’ was a song about our sneakers, but it was bigger than just talking about how many pairs of sneakers we had,” Daryl “DMC” McDaniels told MTV in 2011. “It came from the place where people would look at the b-boys, the b-girls and go, ‘Oh those are the people that cause all the problems in here.’ And, ‘Those young people are nothing but troublemakers and those young people don’t know nothing.’ So they was [sic] judging the book by its cover, without seeing what was inside of it.”
By identifying Run-DMC as a force, adidas made not only a savvy business decision, but became pioneers in capitalizing on the budding popularity of hip-hop culture at a time when it was far from the norm. Rap wasn’t the behemoth then that it is today, obviously, but adidas had the foresight to know that it had become the genre of the youth, and that’s a powerful demographic. The deal between Run-DMC and adidas would set the tone for every other hip-hop deal to follow in the ensuing decades. Without Run-DMC and adidas, there’s no Kanye West and adidas. Rappers are sneaker culture’s most valuable endorsers now, the true arbiters of what’s deemed cool in a way that athletes used to be, and Run-DMC and adidas laid the foundation for that evolution.
Connected to the global hip-hop boom, the beginnings of the modern streetwear boom were taking hold. In Japan, the sneaker gained traction thanks to its bloated import price, spurring collectors and cultural commentators (like the trendsetting Hiroshi Fujiwara) to adopt the sneaker both as a status symbol and collectors item. In London, the beginnings of rave culture incorporated aspects of 1970s disco flair into the mix, meaning the retro sport shoe was ripe for reinterpretation. Out in Los Angeles, the Beastie Boys-adjacent (themselves also major proponents of the adidas Superstar) X-Large was a bastion of rare adidas pickups—including French-made Superstars—well into the 1990s.
The 1990s would also see the introduction of the Superstar II, updating the shoe, moving production to Asia and adding extra padding. As the 1990s bled into the 2000s, skaters like Keith Hufnagel and Mark Gonzales (a current adidas-affiliated rider and Supreme icon) skated in the Superstar; the Superstar’s signature shelltoe was almost predernaturally built to withstand the constant torture toeboxes undergo when attempting flip tricks.
As streetwear became a global force in fashion during the 2000s, Fujiawara protege NIGO worked BAPE into the adidas Superstar’s legacy, using the sneaker as a canvas for collaboration, and working with adidas well into the present day.
Over the last 40 years, the adidas Superstar has been released in nearly every colorway imaginable. There have been countless collaborations with artists and designers. Its design and style have remained relatively the same. The shoe is timeless and has long transcended from performance shoe to pop culture—the true litmus test of any classic sneaker.
The Superstar, like the Converse All-Star, is one of the few shoes that had two lives, if you will. It changed sport by shifting the market of performance basketball shoes. It infiltrated a market it had no experience in and dominated for years despite Converse previously having a stranglehold on the market. Then in another revolutionary act, the Superstar infiltrated the world of music—especially the then-nascent world of rap—becoming a pioneer in the fusion of sneakers and pop culture; it’s an endorsement scheme that adidas itself has turned to time and again, with Kanye West or Pharrell (just to name a few). The Three Stripes would even honor Run-DMC’s connection to catapulting the Superstar with a co-branded version of the sneaker on “My Adidas” 35th anniversary.
Even with all that history the Superstar’s run is far from over. In 2016, the Superstar was the best-selling shoe in the United States and would come in at number two in 2017. Despite massive retro releases from Jordan every year, innovative new products from Nike and exceptional Boost-equipped sneakers from adidas, the Superstar continues to outsell them all, nearly 50 years from its original release.