A timeless battle, the American sportswear giant Nike and the historic German brand adidas have dominated the sneaker market for decades. Both rooted in footwear, Nike and adidas generated more than 35% of revenue in 2021 for the activewear industry. Both brands began by developing sports shoes for athletes before building lifestyle arms that cater to the everyday person, cementing the two companies as the go-to for the right product at the right time for the right price.
As the age of celebrity has evolved, collaborations are the flavour of the game, and no matter how many billions in revenue a company can bill, the battle for celebrity partnerships and endorsements can’t be avoided, even for behemoths like Nike and adidas. Nike, the clear leader in the sneaker game, is in a league of its own. Counting partnerships with some of the world’s most prominent athletes, Nike for a long time now, thanks to silhouettes like the Air Jordan 1, has held a stronghold on the sneaker game – one that seems hard to surpass. But the sneaker battles have been bitter, and Nike’s vanguard status continues to be tested by adidas’ full-scale assault by way of celebrity collaborations and partnerships. Following the adidas x Prada partnership, as well as the Gucci collaboration and now the rumoured Balenciaga and adidas link up, we have to wonder – why do all the cool collaborations seem to be with adidas and not Nike?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Nike, as the bigger brand, has all the culture-shifting artists signed to their roster for celebrity collaborations. I mean, why wouldn’t they? In the race of sportswear brands, Nike is the clear winner – with a larger market cap, inventory, cultural following – you name it, Nike is winning at it, except for when it comes to collaborations. As two of the most prominent brands in streetwear and the sneaker world, which at this point are synonymous, both Nike and adidas are the buyer’s choice for any creative that’s worth their salt who wants to collaborate on a sneaker of some sort. But while Nike started as the preference, it’s been adidas that has since dominated the fashion and music space with creative partnerships.
Nike’s brand ethos has always been centred around building products for athletes first and foremost, but this hasn’t stopped the brand from seeking creative collaboration from outside its four walls. Counting collaborations like the Air Yeezy, the Jun Takashi UNDERCOVER partnership, and its 2014 Riccardo Tisci Air Force 1 collaboration under its belt, the Swoosh brand has always been extra selective about its creative partnerships, generally choosing to go without if the synergy isn’t there. Case and point, the collaboration deal with Kanye West that ended abruptly, with the artist and designer telling anyone who would listen how Nike wouldn’t give him royalties for his designs – which at the time were the hottest thing on the interwebs, reselling for over £5,000 on sites like eBay.
For adidas, collaborations with Raf Simons, Donald Glover, Yohji Yamamoto, and Beyonce (to name but a few) have entrenched a generation of streetwear fans that would otherwise have chosen to wear the Swoosh instead of the Three Stripes. Successfully folding itself into collaborations with fashion brands and high profile entertainers, it wouldn’t be until Kanye West left Nike that adidas would become a preferred landing spot for some of the world’s leading figures who want to pursue sartorial endeavours. More so than Nike, adidas banks heavily on volume and visibility to the lifestyle consumer. For this, the headline “adidas collaborates with ‘x” has proven a more than effective tool for winning headlines and dominating social media.
Nike, not willing to compromise their silhouettes, and adidas being more flexible and less precious about their brand has been the sole difference-maker in why the German brand has scored so many great collaborations in recent years. Largely thanks to the influence of Kanye West and his Yeezy imprint, and Pharrell Williams’ HumanRace line, adidas solidified itself as the go-to collaborator for fashion brands. Recently, Jerry Lorenzo’s Fear of God label joined the cohort that counts heavyweight names like Prada and Gucci.
If we’re being brutally honest, since the Air Yeezy, we haven’t seen a good Nike collaboration since the Riccardo Tisci AF1, the collaboration with Sacai’s Chitose Abe and Virgil Abloh’s The 10. As a result, adidas has been able to capitalise. Although there’s still a lot of empty noise around adidas, mainly due to the endless volume of products it releases, we have to acknowledge that there’s a newfound cultural impact resulting from hyped-up collaborations with some of the biggest names in fashion and entertainment.
Whilst Nike doubles down on its athletic roots, currently, the world values internet cache. A shoe designed by your favourite rapper and a brand lauded by fashion’s premier designers will always be the commercial choice. For that reason, adidas will be ahead of Nike – until the bubble bursts.
Discover more from GUAP’s Fashion section here