Adidas has always been great. Their classics are legendary, and they pioneered the now-ubiquitous designer sneaker with their blockbuster, Yohji Yamomoto-made Y-3 line. But starting a few years ago, they’ve been getting even better. A shift in style that coincided with the 2010 hiring of creative director Dirk Schönberger has made them not only one of the most popular brands on the planet, but one of the coolest. Schönerger has brought Adidas a wealth of diversity, often in the form of high profile collaborations with people like Raf Simons, Opening Ceremony and Rick Owens, that are as pretty as they are profitable. Last winter, he locked Nike defect Kanye West into the fold for an as-yet-unseen collection. Schönberger is keeping mum about that project, but offered a peek into how he wrangles such a massive brand.
What tone do you want to set with Adidas? I’ve been a fan of Adidas since I was a teenager. Of course, I grew up in Germany, so it was easy. I always liked not only the product but the graphics of the brand—the three stripes, the labels, the logos. Adidas broke all the rules by working with fashion designers on sneakers. Since the big collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto for Y-3, it was very evident that Adidas had started a journey away from [sportswear] into lifestyle and fashion. That intrigued me. When I joined Adidas, my initial thought was, Let’s focus on the brand Adidas, not collaborations. I’d known Raf [Simons] for a long time, and we’d had conversations about Adidas and about how much he liked the Stan Smith [sneaker]. Then I thought, Well, maybe it is interesting to invite people into the brand again as collaborators and start working on their vision. I’m thinking about our collaborators as a virus injected into our company that mutates the company into something else.
And you’re the mad scientist? What I like is that they bring ideas into our company and change expectations about our company—and also within our company. That’s why I started inviting interesting people. And when I’m talking to my team, I’m talking a lot about Adidas being a melting pot of different cultures: sports, music, fashion, art. We all come together.
How do you measure success? There are different measures, of course. Numbers tell: successful, not successful. When we launched the Rick Owens shoe, I saw on one of the reports during Men’s Fashion Week that it was being called the best shoe of the season. This is, for me, a recognition that we did something right. It’s a measure when someone approaches me and says, “I love what you are doing.” I was in Paris for fashion week and talked to Raf, and he said, “It’s so amazing to see how many people are wearing the sneakers we did a year ago.” And it’s true: it’s accepted maybe for a moment by a certain elite of fashion, but as we all know, it starts somewhere up there and trickles down. It’s up to us now to figure out an intelligent way to trickle it down to a mass market.
The clothes lately have been, more than anything, so pretty. I think it’s the time for that. In two years, we might be sitting here and talking about the grunge look for sportswear. But right now, I think it’s about being really clean. It’s about patterns, it’s about taking classic stuff like camouflage and injecting new life into it. We see that at the high fashion level, in Valentino and other brands.
How much of what you do is responding to trends? It’s about what we’re feeling is going on in youth culture. What music is happening? Which artists are people reacting to? We should not be the ones that copy other people and ideas. Adidas is such a big and influential brand. We are there to inspire other brands to use color the way we do, to use shapes and new technologies before other people do it. Wherever I go, I keep my eyes open. And my team does the same, so when we come together we combine very different aspects of culture. I go see an art exhibition and I just take a mood home with me. It’s not about a special piece of art; it’s a mood. I went to see the James Turrell exhibition in LA and I was fascinated. There was amazing stuff there, but I would not come back and put a James Turrell print on a T-shirt. It’s about a mood. It’s about color, it’s about geometry, it’s about light and shadow and all these things. We need to put them all in a pot and create something new.
Do you ever just sit around and wonder, “What’s the most insane shit that I can get away with?” No, but maybe I should start.