A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: A Brief History of Asics
A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: A Brief History of Asics
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date June 10, 2019
Without Asics, there would be no Nike. Unfortunately for Asics, that statement is entirely much true. Most companies would crumble if a licensed regional distributor used its products to not only launch their own business, one that would inevitably dwarf its own. Asics, however, is not most companies. More than simply a sneaker company, the Japanese sportswear brand has a long and rich history few other brands can match. While historically limited to performance footwear worn by Olympians and marathoners, Asics has recently found itself in the midst of the fashion conversation, suddenly competing—albeit on a small scale—with the very brand it helped create.
Asics is one of the few sportswear brands founded prior to 1950. Following World War II, founder Kihachiro Onitsuka was working a normal job in Kobe, Japan when he noticed sneakers were suddenly in short supply. Seeing an opportunity, on September 1, 1949, Onitsuka founded his eponymous footwear brand, Onitsuka Company Limited. Inspired by a quote from celebrated Roman poet Juvenal, “if you pray to God, you should pray for a sound mind in a sound body,” Onitsuka’s goal was to create footwear for Japanese youth so they could maintain healthy lifestyles.
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Initially, Onitsuka focused on producing basketball shoes—then considered the most difficult footwear to master—believing if he could make a good basketball shoe, he could make anything. Working hand-in-hand with local manufacturer Yoshikawa Rubber Industry, Onitsuka developed a basketball shoe that looked like a hybrid between Converse All-Stars and PF Flyers hi-tops. While not novel in any sense, in 1950s post-war Japan availability outweighed originality, and the OK Basketball Shoe (named after the founder’s initials) were a hit.
Onitsuka’s first basketball shoe acted as a blueprint moving forward. The first shoe to feature the patented Tiger mark— replacing Converse’s star—the company went on to trademark “Onitsuka Tiger.” With a final product in-hand, Onitsuka focused on refining the details. First, he developed a sole with better traction, inspired by octopus suction cups. Unfortunately, the deeper sole divots proved to offer too much traction, resulting in various injuries.
While the octopus-inspired basketball soles flopped, Onitsuka’s shoes were a hit and before long the company began to focus on producing athletic shoes for other sports including volleyball and tennis. In 1953, Onitsuka opened its own factory, allowing for greater control over production and the ability to scale. That same year, Onitsuka officially introduced the Marathon Tabi, a running shoe based on traditional Japanese Tabi socks that featured a split toe and an elastic band around the midfoot for greater stability. Based off the custom model runner Shigeki Tanaka wore when he won the Boston Marathon, the commercial take on the shoe helped Ontisuka establish itself internationally as both a performance running company and distinctly Japanese. Unfortunately, a fire in 1954 destroyed the Onitsuka factory and production of the Marathon Tabi was abandoned. In its stead, Onitsuka introduced a new foam-soled runner, the Marup, which was a critical and commercial success.
If the company found its footing in the ‘50s, the ‘60s were a fast-paced sprint. In 1963, future Nike CEO Phil Knight—then just a recent Stanfrod business school graduate—visited Japan and pleaded with Onitsuka to license its shoes in the United States through his company Blue Ribbon Sports. Two years later, Onitsuka created a unified Onitsuka TIGER logo for all of its products after 15 years of disparate branding. The rebrand was timely, setting the stage for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where Onitsuka was able to highlight its products on sports biggest stage. Soccer cleats, track shoes and the Mexico 66—Team Japan’s warm-up sneaker—all prominently featured the brand’s recognizable side stripes. For the first time, a single symbol clearly demarcated the Onitsuka brand, and the stripes, Mexico City and the Olympics became deeply intertwined — so much so that the stripes were dubbed “Mexico Lines.”
During the latter half of the ‘60s, Onitsuka unveiled a series of updated running shoes including the Runspark Spike, Marup Nylon and Corsair which collectively established the label as the world’s premier running brand. Boasting those trademark tiger stripes, the shoes not just recognizable, they had the performance creds to back it up. Of the three, the Corsair is easily the most influential—if not infamous. Released as an American exclusive, the “Onitsuka Cortez” was designed with input from Blue Ribbon Sports’ Bill Bowerman (who went on to found Nike alongside Phil Knight). While Nike retained the rights to the Cortez name, Onitsuka continued producing the Tiger Corsair.
Throughout the ‘70s, Onitsuka continued to diversify, exploring ski gear with the help of Moncler—a collaboration recently revisted courtesy of Kith—and apparel, while doubling down on international expansion opening offices and factories in both Germany and the United States. In January 1977, Onitsuka Co. Ltd. merged with two other companies to create Asics. An acronym derived from the same Juvenal quote that inspired Onitsuka in 1949, “a sound mind in a sound body” or “[a]nima [s]ana [i]n [c]orpore [s]ano” in the original Latin, which became simply Asics. Featuring a new logo by legendary typographer Herb Lubalin, Asics opted to retain the stripes given their ubiquity within sports. The new brand, often referred to as Asics Tiger, was born.
With a global footprint, solidified brand and encouraged by an industry-wide innovation race, Asics unveiled some of the most influential silhouettes of the ‘80s. There was the SKYSENSOR—known as the X-Calibur outside of Japan—in 1980, the first Asics shoe to use an EVA midsole and at the time the lightest running shoe on the market. EVA midsoles were subsequently upgraded with Air Flex, or air canals inserted into the EVA. The canals gave birth to the Alliance Runner, could “turn shock waves into ripples” according to its own marketing campaign. At the root of Asics' new technology was the Asics Research Lab, created by Kihachiro Onitsuka in 1979 to push Asics' performance footwear further. As the jogging craze took off in the ‘80s, a recognizable sneaker was no longer enough—it had to offer runners something new.
The Research Lab’s work culminated in 1986 with the introduction of a groundbreaking new technology. By the mid-‘80s, everybody was looking at air for cushioning solutions, Asics included. While Asics was churning out Air Flex-equipped shoes, the Research Lab was working on using semi-liquid silicone gels as an alternative. In 1986, it created a viable product: the Alpha GEL System. That same year, Asics debuted the GEL Freak, a Japan-exclusive that was the first to use the new cushioning technology. The following year Asics released the GEL-Lyte worldwide, which quickly became the brand’s flagship product. Lightweight, but equipped with the innovative Alpha GEL cushioning, the GEL-Lyte was, in many ways, the shoe that made Asics. Runners loved it from a performance standpoint, but the ’87 original also introduced an aesthetic hallmark for the brand: color-blocking.
The GEL-Lyte was Asics' equivalent of Nike’s Air Max. A GEL-Lyte II followed in 1989, and while it was a good shoe, it failed to make a lasting impression. In 1990, Asics unveiled arguably it’s greatest shoe, the GEL-Lyte III. Designed by Shigeyuki Mitsui, the GEL-Lyte III featured a unique split-tongue which sought to offer each runner a more personalized fit. Mitsui also developed a new tri-density sole that while supremely difficult to produce boasted extensive benefits to runners. Asics eventually took the gamble and produced the shoe, initially to great success. While retaining elements of Asics' DNA—like the color-blocking that made the GEL-Lyte a hit—the GEL-Lyte III went toe-to-toe with Nike replicating the visible air bubble by unmasking the Alpha GEL heel unit.
While today the GEL-Lyte III is considered the pinnacle of the GEL-Lyte family, when the GEL-Lyte V released—IV was skipped, considered an unlucky number in Japanese culture, and the Gel-Lyte Ultra was a dud— the newer silhouette stole the spotlight. By 1992, the GEL-Lyte III was all but dead.
Rather than rest on the success of the GEL-Lyte III and V—which did away with the III’s split-toe in favor of a single-piece sock liner that created a tighter fit—the GEL family continued to expand throughout the ‘90s, introducing models such as the GEL-Kayano, which became Asics’ flagship model. Meanwhile, Asics continued to develop new technology, which drastically altered its lineup by the end of the decade. The casual color-blocking was replaced with futuristic-esque silhouettes featuring metallics, whites and blacks.
In the ‘00s, it was clear Asics was lacking something. After 50 years in business, Asics success was limited to performance. The company had never successfully broken into the lifestyle sector, an area where competitors Nike and adidas were wildly successful. Whereas Nike was worn by sports phenoms and fans alike, Asics was the brand of choice for Olympians in less popular disciplines. While there are references aplenty—take Viktor Vaughn aka MF Doom’s line "and just for kicks make 'em gel like Asics" on “Saliva,” or Uma Thurman’s “The Bride,” in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, who wore a pair of yellow and black Asics Onitsuka Tigers, with the track suit to match—Asics pales in comparison to Nike or adidas relationship with the hip-hop community, and culture at large.
Until the mid-‘00s, Asics was not in the business of capitalizing on its history. The GEL-Lyte III was the result of relentless design and research. Despite its immediate success, when newer shoes were ready, like the GEL-Lyte Ultra, the GEL-Lyte III was shelved. Favoring technological innovation to nostalgia led Asics to create some of the world’s most advanced running shoes, but at what cost? Although there is a certain sector of sneakerheads for whom Asics are held in the highest regard, the lack of any serious cultural connection limited the brands non-performance appeal. When Asics began working on new colorways for the GEL-Lyte III, for instnace, with the hope of recapturing some of the ‘90s era excitement, while the retros did well, Asics remained an afterthought in the lifestyle sneaker game.
In 2007, though, Asics became a bonafide force within sneaker culture, thanks to a series of collaborations with some of the industry’s most well-respected boutiques and personalities. Patta, Ronnie Fieg—still at David Z in the pre-KITH era—and ALIFE all worked on GEL-Lyte III collaborations. Patta focused on the colorblocking that was not only a GEL-Lyte signature in the ‘90s, but mimicked his own aesthetic. ALIFE and Fieg opted for slightly more garish approaches—the former turned the GEL-Lyte III into a pair of “monsters,” while the latter dipped the silhouette in metallics. In the post-Nike Talk era, when vintage sneakers were all the rage, the collaborations proved successful and helped Asics transform into an important player in sneaker culture.
For most of the next decade, Asics maintained this duality, continuously innovating performance footwear—from marathon shoes to wrestling shoes to swimsuits—while developing a strong heritage diffusion brand. Sports-specific product was Asics-branded, while ‘90s runners fell under the Asics-Tiger umbrella and sleek casual sneakers like the Mexico 66 and Colorado were under the Onitsuka Tiger umbrella. Central to the heritage brand were GEL-Lyte III and V collaborations. While the aforementioned releases were what got the ball rolling, Ronnie Fieg was truly at the center of the Asics revival. His on-going series of wildly successful drops, first sold through David Z and later through KITH, helped Asics appear on sneakerheads rader.
But, by the mid-2010s, Asics faced a new dilemma: an over-reliance on GEL-Lyte. Be they IIIs, Vs or even Is, most lifestyle Asics sitting on boutique’s shelves were GEL-Lytes. Sure, part of that owed to the silhouette’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2015 that saw a slew of collaborations and limited editions, but it was still a problem nonetheless. The GEL-Kayano emerged as a popular alternative to the GEL-Lyte, offering the same comfort and a similar look that sneakerheads and boutiques had grown accustomed to. A popular choice for collaborations following the over-proliferation of GEL-Lyte, Packer Shoes, Sneaker Freaker and, obviously, KITH each dropped its own spin.
Rather than rely on yet another similar silhouette, in 2016 Asics reissued the GEL-Mai, first as part of a Kith collaboration and later alongside Slam Jam, Bodega and mita sneakers. Next came the GEL-Diablo in 2017, Asics bid to capitalize on the chunky retro runner trend. Despite proving itself to be larger than the GEL-Lyte, Asics' lifestyle sneakers remained firmly associated with the ‘90s retro nostalgia, colorblock and vintage certain sects of streetwear–predominantly jogger clad athleisure types.
In late 2017, as the dad-style began to peak and the walls between streetwear and high-fashion started to crumble, non-heritage Asics models suddenly began to resonate. The brand’s contemporary running shoes started appearing on the shelves of the world’s best boutiques, and were increasingly adored by the fashion-set as well. The first sign that Asics' contemporary performance-driven silhouettes were gaining momentum was a collaboration with Danish imprint WoodWood on the GEL-DS. While ostensibly a shoe one would find at any big box sports store, the GEL-DS was styled alongside casual tailoring and positioned as a decidedly fashion-forward silhouette.
While WoodWood’s GEL-DS, atmos spin on the GEL-Inst.360 and Harmony’s take on the GEL-Venture and the GEL-Quantum 360 have all certainly helped position Asics as more than a retro sneaker brand, it took a true runway designer to put Asics' running silhouettes on the fashion radar. That honor belongs to Kiko Kostadinov, who was approached by Asics shortly after graduating from Central Saint-Martins.
Essentially given free reign to mix and match elements from different performance shoes as he pleased, Kostadinov created hybrid silhouettes to his exact specifications, apart from the soles. “[Ascis is] the only company in the world that can make their own soles from scratch, instead of outsourcing it. For them it’s a big commitment to develop a sole because it needs to work and you need to give it to someone to run in. So obviously the only thing we couldn’t change is the sole,” Kostadinov said to Hypebeast. Inspired by running silhouettes (naturally), volleyball shoes and other performance footwear, Kostadinov developed the GEL-BURZ for Spring/Summer 2018—a shoe featuring GEL, FlyteFoam, Guidance Line technologies and a prescient lime green colorway. Since then, the designer has worked with the brand on the GEL-BURZ II and GEL-Delva I, which also featured an amalgamation of elements from various Asics performance shoes.
While this newfound focus on fashion may seem off-brand considering Asics performance-driven past, it’s not as drastic departure as one may think. While the GEL-BURZ, GEL-Venture, GEL-Inst.360 and GEL-DS have all become “fashionable” over the past two years, the brand has not actually made a pivot in the slightest. Asics is still first and foremost a performance driven brand, creating some of the most technologically-advanced footwear in the world. It just so happens that tactical and utilitarian qualities are currently driving forces in fashion—and since the 1950s, few brands have embraced either quite like Asics. Working with Kostadinov, a designer who values performance and practicality above all else, only helped prove as much to the fashion community.