A Quick History of Reebok
A Quick History of Reebok
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date October 18, 2018
What if we told you that there was a time when Nike didn’t reign supreme in the American sneaker landscape? Given the Swoosh’s ubiquity in contemporary American culture—both in the the sneaker community and popular culture at large—it may be hard to believe. But, in the 1980s, it was neither Nike nor adidas that controlled the plurality of the American market. Rather, the sneaker world took cues from a sneaker company that few would—today—consider to be a “sneaker war” titan: Reebok. Over the years, Reebok’s history has been one of astronomical ascents and colossal collapses; the brand has been both the preeminent athletic footwear manufacturer and the perennial afterthought, often swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other in the span of a few years.
Reebok was founded in England, in 1958, by a pair of brothers, Joe and Jeff Foster, to carry on a family tradition of making athletic footwear. Their grandfather, Joseph William Foster, had launched an eponymous company, J.W. Foster, in 1895 and developed one of the very first track spikes.
After initially struggling to copyright the name “Mercury”, the brothers turned to the Grey Rhebok, a species of African Antelope, which inspired the brand name. Reebok continued to produce running spikes throughout the ’60s and ’70s, with the company’s base remaining in England. In 1979, Reebok was exhibiting at the Chicago International Sneaker Trade Show, when Paul Fireman, an American outdoors gear wholesaler, discovered the brand; Fireman acquired the exclusive rights to Reebok in North America.
Initially, Fireman’s investment seemed like a modest success, with Reebok selling for roughly $1.5 million in 1981. By the end of the decade, it would become an investment that would reap legendary rewards.
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It was during the 1980s that people took a genuine interest in staying (or getting) in shape. It was the decade that gave us aerobics and saw a new emphasis on sports like tennis—which blended physical activity with a sociocultural lifestyle. In that context, Reebok thrived. The company expanded from running spikes, offering a range of casual athletic footwear designed for amateur athletes and fitness aficionados. Reebok’s initial explosive growth came from the women’s aerobics market when the brand introduced the Freestyle—a gamble at the time that Fireman was talked into by his West Coast sales rep, who had seen first-hand how passionate his wife was about aerobics.
In 1984, a mere five years after acquiring the North American license, Fireman took another risk that would help cement Reebok’s dominant status in the latter part of the decade when he bought out the British parent company. While Fireman’s previous rights to Reebok afforded him creative input, taking sole ownership of Reebok would allow the brand to capitalize on the decade’s fitness revolution. Nike and adidas were jostling for position in the men’s market, but had largely overlooked the women’s segment, which had facilitated Reebok’s continued success after the Freestyle. Using that momentum—and the revenue that aerobics brought—Reebok made a concerted push in the men’s market, pushing silhouettes like the Workout, Newport Classic and the Revenge Plus—which would later become the Club Classic 85. They were country club-ready sneakers that could be worn on and off the tennis court or outside the gym.
The emphasis Reebok placed on its footwear being fashionable outside fitness resonated with consumers: By 1986, Reebok was the foremost athletic footwear brand in North America. It certainly helped that, one of that year’s biggest films—Aliens—had its main character kicking ass in an abstract concept shoe, now known as the “Alien Stomper”. In 1987, Reebok’s sales totalled $1.4 billion—a thousand times what Fireman first generated in 1981. By 1988, that number had grown to $1.8 billion, with Reebok controlling 26.7 percent of the athletic footwear market and besting Nike’s $1.2 billion in revenue.
But, not all good things last forever; By 1989, The New York Times was reporting that Nike was “making strides in the marketing of shoes for the fashion-oriented customer—an area where Reebok [had] been strong.” Reebok’s response was to steal a page from Nike’s playbook and try to rebrand itself a performance-oriented company by placing technology ahead of fashion.
The first of those tech-infused sneakers, the Reebok Pump, debuted in 1989 and used inflatable chambers to offer a custom fit. It also coincided with Reebok’s emphasis on using professional athletes as brand ambassadors—something Nike had done with great success—and the Pump was consequently introduced by Dominique Wilkins. In 1991, Dee Brown wore a pair of Pumps—and pumped them up on national television—while winning the NBA Slam Dunk contest. Shaquille O’Neal was signed as a Reebok ambassador as well, and given a signature Pump sneaker; he’d also later get the Shaqnosis—based off the instantly recognizable Kamikaze—as part of Reebok’s continued push to challenge Nike in the basketball segment. In 1996, the brand added Allen Iverson as an ambassador and debuted the Question, which would eventually be followed by the Reebok Answer family.
Central to the success of the Answer franchise was DMX, Reebok’s standout technology from the ’90s, which featured ten bulbous pods and allowed air to flow from one pod to better distribute weight and support throughout the sole. DMX was, originally, a running cushioning system and debuted in 1997 on the DMX Run. It was an aggressive, in-your-face sneaker put out in eclectic colorways that Reebok marketed by telling customers to “Go to Hell (And back again)”. It was the antithesis to the clean, minimal sneakers that Reebok had made so much noise with in the ’80s and the preppy Hexalite runners of the early ’90s, but it worked to a certain extent.
Most importantly, perhaps, the brashness of DMX proved to be a natural fit for rising star Allen Iverson. While the brand didn’t come close to equalling the success it had in the ’80s, Reebok enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the late-’90s and early-’00s as an anti-establishment brand, with classic Reebok silhouettes embraced by sub-cultures throughout Europe and the United States. The Workout—particularly those with icy soles—became fetishized in American inner cities and were known as “Souljas”. Around the same time, in 2003, Reebok did something that was unorthodox at the time by giving Jay-Z a signature sneaker, the S. Carter (a move that, while uncommon at the time, built upon the relationship adidas had fostered with Run DMC back in the ’80s). That said, the S. Carter enjoyed, to the surprise of most, immediate success, with all 10,000 pairs selling out. Reebok continued to pursue that anti-establishment cachet by signing subsequent deals with 50 Cent and G-Unit.
Outside of that moderate—and very niche—fandom however, Reebok suffered a downturn in the mid-to-late-’00s and early-2010s. The brand attempted to diversify its portfolio by going into sports like soccer, signing stars like Thierry Henry and acquiring the rights to the NHL, but with little to show for it in terms of cultural capital. It’s important to remember that, historically, Reebok has never really managed to gain a foothold in the apparel segment, at least compared to industry behemoths Nike and adidas; virtually all of the brand’s cultural success comes from sneakers.
In 2005, Reebok was acquired by adidas, in a bid by the German company to mount a two-pronged challenge against Nike. But, instead of focusing on the casual athleisure footwear that made Reebok so dominant in the ’80s, the brand tried to establish itself as a genuine technology-driven performance brand. The early-2010s saw the the rise of gimmicky technology—like ZigTech—and Reebok strike partnerships with CrossFit and celebrity trainers in a bid to reestablish itself as a fitness-first brand. The company even dropped its iconic Vector logo in favor of a “Delta” logo that was more aligned with CrossFit’s core values. While the moves may not have had the same crossover success as Reebok’s endeavors in the ’80s, they proved profitable for the company. To Reebok, CrossFit was the new aerobics and hitting the gym was the 21st century equivalent to tennis and running.
That being said, the perceived dilution of Reebok’s brand, on a cultural front, led to the loss of major endorsement deals with sports leagues, teams and athletes. Most telling was the shuttering of Reebok Basketball, once one of the brand’s foremost breadwinners—the franchise’s then-star, John Wall, would transfer over to adidas in 2013, 14 months before Reebok pulled the plug on the division.
But, rather than let the brand’s heritage die out, Reebok created the Classics division—akin to adidas’ Originals line—which was tasked with retroing models like the Classic, Insta Pump, Insta Pump Fury, Club Classic 85 and Workout. Recently, lesser known models, like the Aztec and Aztrek have made comebacks under the Classics umbrella. Until recently, the Classics segment was a relative afterthought in the broader sneaker market and the brand’s collaborative partners had relatively niche followings—including names like BornxRaised, Beauty & Youth, Garbstore and Maison Kitsuné.
But, since 2015, a renewed focus on retro trainers has seen Reebok Classics emerge as a formidable force in the sneaker landscape. Of course, Kendrick Lamar’s signature takes on the Classic Leather and Club Classic 85 helped—before he defected to Nike—as did the aesthetic similarities between the brand’s Workout silhouette and the recent Kanye West-designed adidas Calabasas. A clever collaboration with London-based skate brand Palace and a Soviet-inflected capsule with Gosha Rubchinskiy also helped boost the popularity of Reebok’s retro silhouettes.
But, what made the last few years markedly different from the last decade was Reebok’s return to making fashionable performance footwear. The Classics umbrella does not pretend to offer top of the line performance sneakers, but Reebok has struck up partnerships with high-end designers that have focused not on silhouettes from the Classics offering, but instead on creating fashion-infused performance shoes bearing Reebok’s more mainstream Delta logo.
The most notable of these partnerships is with Vetements, which debuted as part of the Gvasalia brothers’ “Official Fake” Fall/Winter 2016 collection. The first offering showcased a new silhouette, the Reebok Pump Supreme, a futuristic take on the brand’s iconic Insta Pump. It was a simple shoe that featured little branding outside the Vetements logotype and Reebok Delta logo and, in that way, was akin to what Reebok had done so well in the ’80s: create clean athletic footwear. Ensuing Reebok x Vetements releases have strayed a bit from that mold, leaning more towards the overly-distressed and graphically-driven, but the mid-calf sock runner that was born from the collaboration has found its way into Reebok’s main collection, as has the Pump Supreme. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will have the same timeless impact on Reebok’s brand as the white leather classics from the ’80s, but given the brand’s trajectory both up and down during the “sneaker wars,” it’s clear that only time will tell.
In 2017, Reebok collaborated with London-based Cottweiler on garments, as well as a series of hiking-inspired sneakers that again aimed to juxtapose technical sportswear and fashion, without compromising either.
That was followed by a 2018 collaboration with American designer Pyer Moss on a futuristic DMX Fusion 1 Experiment, and more ’90s-inspired sneakers are slated to drop in the latter half of the year. Of course, shortly after debuting the Pyer Moss collaboration, Reebok made it apparent that it was bringing back some notable ’90s trainers, including the Run DMX 10 and, now, the DMX Daytona.
For Reebok, today’s challenge is striking the delicate balance between paying homage to the brand’s illustrious history—through retros like the DMX Daytona and Aztrek—offering something aesthetically new—through collaboration with fashion labels like Vetements and Pyer Moss—and remaining true to the brand’s DNA as a fitness-first brand (hence why the brand has lucrative deals with CrossFit and UFC). It seems, though, that Reebok has decided that these are things that can exist simultaneously and the brand appears primed for another period of success. Whether that success will be sustained or fleeting remains to be seen.