The Man Who Made Adidas Cool Again

Paul Gaudio, Adidas’s quiet creative director, transformed its product line and turned a perennial runner-up into the hottest name in sportswear. How the 67-year-old brand harnessed the rise of 24/7 sneaker culture.

On a late summer afternoon in Adidas Village, a complex of five Rubik’s cube–like buildings with colorful, tile façades on the east side of Portland, Oregon, a brood of young footwear designers gathered in a second-floor common area for the final presentation of an outgoing summer intern. The space was softly lit and industrial, with pendulous silver light fixtures hanging from the ceiling amid exposed metal piping. The designers — casually fit, tattooed, and dressed in solid tones that balanced conventionally conspicuous footwear — spread themselves across an array of sectionals and bright, fabric lounge chairs.

The intern, a young woman named Laurance, wore a coral blouse and long, dark brown braids that hung to her chest. She took her place facing the audience, standing in front of an oversized poster board plastered with sketches of a shoe of her own design. The sketches portrayed three months of labored iteration, each sheet of paper representing a fresh go at the canvas. A high-top in one sketch became a low-top in the next; straps appeared and then went away. The final result — a spaceship-sleek, laceless running shoe that swooped dramatically from ankle to toe — studiously resembled the kind of sneakers that Adidas has produced with growing frequency over the past two years: radically exuberant, with a striking silhouette that pointedly diverged from the dowdy, functional designs for which the 67-year-old company had long been known.

“I’m super nervous,” Laurance said with a sheepish smile, spurring a wave of sympathetic laughter. She hunched slightly and clasped her hands at her waist. “I hope I get through all the information correctly.”

Like most of the world’s great sneaker brands, Adidas makes the bulk of its revenue ($19 billion in 2015) by selling shoes that were first introduced long before Laurance was born. The company is synonymous with a stable of baby boomer sensations including the Samba (1950), the Superstar (1969), and the Stan Smith (1973) that — thanks to splashy endorsements, persistent marketing, and humankind's collective failure to commit to a sixth toe — have never gone out of style. Each of those shoes, though slacker staples today, was originally tailored for specialized athletic performance (soccer, basketball, and tennis, respectively), but in an era when sneakers have crept into every arena of waking life — including formerly forbidden zones like the office and the chapel — envisioning who will wear new sports shoes and why has never been more subjective.

Classic, Nerdy, Cool: The Evolution of Adidas Design

Laurance began her presentation safely enough, discussing “the future of sport and what athletic performance can elevate to.” She outlined a sci-fi vision that was part Back to the Future, part The Six Million Dollar Man, part Fitbit, describing how her shoe would use biometrics and give intelligent feedback using haptic vibrations and electroluminescent wiring. But she seemed self-conscious about placing too much emphasis on technological enhancements, taking care to describe the product as “fashionable” and “stylish” whenever possible. Five years ago, the designer of a shoe this advanced would have inevitably focused on the competitive advantage conferred to serious athletes. But Laurance had a completely different species of customer in mind. In a painstakingly scripted backstory, she described him as a 20-year-old photography student and jogger at Brooklyn’s Pratt University.

In the audience, a design director wearing a baseball cap and Warby Parkers nodded approvingly. When Laurance was finished, she got glowing remarks from the room. “You dreamed big, but it still felt tangible and connected,” someone said. Everyone in the crowd clapped and cheered.

Adidas, an early pioneer in sportswear founded in 1949 by the German soccer cleats and track spikes visionary Adi Dassler, has recently remodeled itself in the face of profound changes in the industry. For decades, its familiar three stripes and trefoil logos have been a constant presence in public life — in sports stadiums, on the street, and in the classroom — all over the world. The company employs over 55,000 workers in 160 countries, who produce and market more than 300 million new pairs of sneakers each year. But after years of failing to replicate the success of early hits like the Superstar, even as demand for athletic gear exploded, younger and more nimble adversaries have threatened its perch. In 2014, an insurgent Under Armour passed Adidas to become the second largest sportswear manufacturer in the US after Nike, aided by a 30% and 20% decline at Adidas in footwear and apparel sales, respectively.

That same year, the German brand took bold steps to overhaul its reputation, particularly in America, where consumers have a disproportionate influence on the global sportswear industry. It relocated its product design headquarters from Herzogenaurach, Germany, to Portland, and appointed its first global creative director in 15 years to oversee it. The creative director, an American named Paul Gaudio, cut more than 30% of Adidas’s product line in the US, and outlined a new mission for the entire company to serve more customers like Laurance’s hypothetical Pratt student — trend-savvy, with a diverse range of interests — rather than the style-agnostic sports enthusiasts it had relied on in the past.

The results of the shift have been remarkably unambiguous. For three consecutive quarters this year, Adidas’s sales in North America have jumped by 20% or more compared with the same period last year, helping it to overtake Under Armour and reclaim its No. 2 position in the US after more than a year in third, according to an analysis by SportsOneSource. The company increased its share of the $36.5 billion US footwear market by 2.5% in the first nine months of 2016, according to the NPD Group. And on the German DAX index, which lists 30 blue-chip stocks, it’s the best performing stock of the year — a 180-degree reversal from 2014, when it had been the worst performing. “The great momentum across all major markets shows the strength of our strategy,” boasted Kasper Rorsted — who replaced longtime Adidas chief executive Herbert Hainer in October — on an earnings call earlier this month.

Off the balance sheet, evidence of Adidas’s cultural ascendancy is hard to miss. Its classic styles have never been more popular, uniting a pan-generational coalition of self-conscious teenagers, broke twentysomethings, and creative-leaning professionals. Its logo has become ubiquitous on fashion blogs and on runways during fashion week, thanks to oxygen-stealing collaborations with provocateurs like Kanye West, Pharrell, and Raf Simons, among others worth their weight in eBay markups. In 2015, Complex named it the best men’s style brand of the year, above Gucci and Rick Owens, himself an Adidas collaborator.

But the most important drivers of Adidas’s turnaround, and its best hope for sustainable growth, are the new sneakers it has designed in-house under Gaudio. Lines bearing his influence — including Ultra Boost, NMD, Tubular, and AlphaBounce — have fueled an across-the-board fervor for Adidas shoes not seen in the US since the late 1980s. One model, the Ultra Boost Uncaged, became the company’s fastest-selling American performance shoe of all time in June, selling 11,000 pairs within an hour of its release. Two years after pulling itself back from the brink of irrelevance, Adidas looks, acts, and earns like a different company. And after decades in Nike's shadow, it’s evolved into the savviest sponsor of the fabulous future of gym clothes, thanks to a product roadmap that leans into sportswear’s burgeoning role as the default uniform for life.

“They’re the brand of the year,” says Matt Powell, a sportswear analyst for the NPD group and longtime Adidas watcher. “After years of struggling here, they finally have their focus in the right place.”

As creative director, Gaudio is in charge of 650 designers that dream up everything Adidas makes — from shoes to clothing to posts on Instagram. He brings with him over 20 years of experience at the company — most of his adult life — and has approached the task of renovating its identity with a familial sense of devotion. He began at Adidas making far-out footwear prototypes as an advanced concepts designer in 1991 and has worked for the brand on and off ever since. During his longest period away, between 2000 and 2007, he helped redesign and resurrect the flagship vehicle of Norton Motorcycles — a British legacy brand — as a passion project.

His office in Adidas Village is Spartan, naturally lit, and modestly decorated — some sports posters, pennants, and mood boards — with the exception of a four-foot decal that says “Paul’s Boutique” in graffiti script on a large, interior-facing window. A bronze figurine of Adi Dassler, samples of Adidas’s patented “boost” midsoles, and other proprietary ephemera are scattered across two tables.

Before Gaudio’s appointment, more than a decade without unified creative leadership had left Adidas with as many identities as it had product categories. Plenty of people loved their Adidas soccer cleats, or basketball shorts, or Superstars, but not enough had strong feelings about the brand itself. As the head of design for all of Adidas, Gaudio is conductor-in-chief, directing scores of creative specialists — his players — toward a harmonious vision for how the brand’s products should look, feel, and function. His first order of business was overhauling the company’s organizational structure, installing dedicated design teams at each of Adidas’s core businesses (including running, soccer, basketball, football, and training) that report directly to him.

“It’s a collective consciousness rather than a set of directions,” he told me of this approach. “The brand is a narrative — it’s an idea that people both inside and outside the company have to buy into. My role is to shape the narrative: ‘What do we stand for? Why are we here? How do we think and feel and act?’”

Gaudio is average build in a fitted black T-shirt and jeans, with a square chin, snowy stubble, and a calm, unassuming manner that subverts the cartoon of the tempestuous creative visionary. Employees I talked to described him as “extremely even-keeled” and “a stabilizing presence.” Born and raised in blue-collar Pittsburgh, he speaks with a tempered Western Pennsylvanian accent (“They’re lookin’ fer something really comfortable”; “They run to get in shee-yape”) and uses the expression “holy cow” with aplomb. He worked in the parts department at the local Porsche/Audi dealership in high school and still renovates vintage cars and bikes in his spare time. Now 50, you can see vestiges of a life in and around garages in his knuckle tattoos (his wife’s initials), and in the slick waves of silver hair that he combs back and straight — part off-duty Jon Stewart, part Sons of Anarchy.

He trained to become an industrial designer and never anticipated a career in footwear or fashion. When he was around 8 years old, Gaudio would spend hours at a furniture upholstery store owned by his grandfather, captivated by the strange machinery, lumber, and fabrics that flowed from every corner. Building things, he found, was more fun than drawing them, and with his grandfather’s blessing he would take planks of wood to make an airplane or a boat, using vinyl left over from chair backings for the sail. In high school, Gaudio took up football, hoping he might get an athletic scholarship to college. The scholarship never came, but he never gave up sketching and building. He made go-karts, skateboards, and tree houses, and took up customizing the things he didn’t make himself, such as plain white sneakers that he painted with his own designs.

On an informational visit to the University of Cincinnati in the early ‘80s, Gaudio was thrilled to stumble upon an industrial-design studio on campus, where he found himself surrounded by kindred spirits. He eventually attended design school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and later worked at the consulting firm SG Hauser, helping to develop consumer electronics, medical products, and lab equipment. When a friend who had gone to work for Adidas in Germany reached out to him about a job opportunity in 1991, he was skeptical — the brand was then also in the middle of a downturn. But Gaudio was convinced by Peter Moore, Adidas’s creative director at the time and the last before him, who had created the first Air Jordan for Nike and was looking for industrial designers that could help elevate performance footwear.

Since the days of Adi Dassler, whose revolutionary adjustable soccer cleats are credited with tipping the scales for Germany at the mud-drenched 1954 World Cup, Adidas has often operated more like a tech company than a fashion one. Throughout the mid-20th century, its reputation for outfitting athletes like Jesse Owens and Cassius Clay with the best available gear was unmatched, helping to propel the brand past Puma, its biggest competitor at the time, famously founded by Dassler’s brother and bitter rival, Rudolf. By 1964, Adidas was the world’s biggest name in sports, with 80% of competitors at that year’s Olympics wearing shoes with its famous three-stripes logo.

But trouble in America began in the ‘70s, when Portland-based Nike rose to prominence on the back of a national craze over recreational jogging. Nike’s first commercially available sneaker, the Cortez, released in 1972, was embraced by joggers as both a running shoe and a status symbol, stylish enough to flaunt with a pair of jeans. Nike would successfully repeat that formula again and again, churning out one model after another — Air Max, Air Force 1, Air Jordan — that could double as both performance shoe and fashion statement. But Adidas failed to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of fashion, and had an internal culture that treated aesthetics as secondary to utility.

Some models, most notably the Superstar — immortalized in 1986 by Run DMC — and the Stan Smith, favored by Celine’s Phoebe Philo, became icons of style in their own right. But the brand was never able to compete with the lust and envy inspired by Nike products, which came to be synonymous with American athletic life. Today, Nike dwarfs its closest competitor in US athletic footwear sales 60% to 7%, according to Powell. And just as Adidas lost America, it eventually lost the world.

Gaudio’s plan to resuscitate Adidas design was born from a reckoning with the company’s past mistakes. Over the past two years, he’s brought parity to aesthetics and performance at long last, and updated the aims of both to target a new generation of consumers. Adidas now refers to itself as “The Creator Brand,” a nom de guerre that derives from a strategic recasting of athletic pursuit as a form of creative expression. The Creator Brand posits that every athlete is a kind of creative professional — a basketball player on a fast break doesn’t simply dunk the ball, he “creates in the air” — and should likewise be afforded the indulgences of personal style. It elides the traditional boundaries between sporty and artsy, jocks and hipsters, zooming out to include both in a single frame.

Adidas isn’t an originator of these ideas — they map our current moment, when sports heroes like Cam Newton and Russell Westbrook are almost as well known for what they wear to the stadium as how they play when they get there — but it wants to embody them. Gaudio drew inspiration from the cohort that idolizes Newton and Westbrook, but also from his own background in Pittsburgh, as a self-styled high school football player who spent as much time in his sketchbook as he did on the field.

“Consumers have gotten more sophisticated,” Gaudio told me. “High school athletes that we talk to, they curate their own lives with bits and pieces from everywhere. Whether it’s making the team, or the clothes they wear, or the music they listen to, or the people they hang out with, for them it’s all connected.”

As a slogan, “The Creator Brand” is no “Just Do It.” Ads featuring brand ambassadors like James Harden of the Houston Rockets and the supermodel Karlie Kloss use a vague tagline — “Here to create” — that's as likely to raise questions as answer them. Internally, however, the idea has succeeded at undoing the company’s historic bias toward performance at the expense of lifestyle, allowing product designers to envision one modern customer that is assumed to move seamlessly between the two.

Serving the new generation of athletes has also opened a backdoor to growing legions of the athletic-adjacent. In an era when sneaker culture has fueled a $1.2 billion resale market and athleisure is settling in for the long haul, when everyone wants to feel sporty whether or not they get around to the actual sports, Gaudio’s more fashionable Adidas is better attuned to performances that are more social than physical.

“The culture of sport is so pervasive that everybody wants to be a part of it in some way or another,” he said. “The product has to be relevant whether you play or you just like the way it looks and feels.”

“The older models looked like the athletic shoes that they were,” said Petar Kujundzic, editorial director at the men’s style website Hypebeast. “But now you can match their performance shoes with different types of gear.”

Adidas’s first priority remains making goods for actual athletes. Gaudio is wary of straying from the brand’s commitment to the exigencies of sport, or diminishing its credibility by succumbing to the fashion world — a distorting hall of mirrors. High-end collections with trendsetters like West, despite representing a comparatively tiny portion of Adidas’s sales because of their limited runs, have turboboosted the brand’s image and moved the goalposts for in-house designers (“The proportions, and simplicity, and storytelling of [Yeezy, the West collection] ... had a big impact on how people design around here,” said Gaudio, who oversees designs for Yeezy). But those gains aren’t viewed as ends in themselves.

“The energies, and enthusiasm, and attitudes of sport — that’s what fuels us,” he said, when I asked how much he’d been influenced by fashion. “But when you’re on the soccer pitch putting on a soccer cleat, you want the same emotional benefit that you want when you put on a pair of jeans: ‘How does it make me look? How does it make me feel? What does it say about me?’ For me, that has to be the starting point.”

This past July, designers from Adidas’s basketball division hosted a four-day summit at The Seventh Letter Gallery in Los Angeles, a streetwear boutique and art gallery founded by the graffiti crew of the same name. Gaudio has encouraged more collaboration between divisions at the company, and the basketball designers, led by VP of basketball design Brian Foresta, were joined by a few dozen of their counterparts from other divisions — including Adidas Originals, which produces new models inspired by classics; the Creator Farm, a new “open-source” design lab in Brooklyn; and Yeezy. Over the four days, attendees brainstormed sneaker ideas for the spring/summer ’18 season, while a series of guest speakers, including the R&B singer-producer Raphael Saadiq, dropped by to help summon the muse.

One item on the agenda was sketching ideas for a future generation of Crazy Explosive, a vertiginous high-top worn by players like the New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis and Andrew Wiggins, the Minnesota Timberwolves small forward and 2014–15 NBA Rookie of the Year. During a group session, Foresta issued a challenge to the room: Using only a Post-It note and a Sharpie, draw a silhouette that looks “explosive” in no more than 15 seconds. The designers scribbled waves and spikes in various configurations. When the time was up, they posted their sketches at the front of the gallery and voted on their favorites, marking them with a dot in the lower right-hand corner. The five designs with the most dots were the focus of a subsequent challenge: Add detailing and flourish, based on free-associative prompts like “villain” and “fast.”

The challenges went on like this, each more granular than the last, until at the end of the day the group had created hundreds of elaborate shoe designs. When the summit was over, Foresta and his team brought them back to Portland to use as inspiration. Before Gaudio, he says, estrangement between divisions would have made the off-site impossible to imagine.

“Before you had all of these individual tribes that were all doing good work but not looking to each other as a greater whole,” he said. “Paul’s been really instrumental in building those bridges and kind of telling people that it’s OK to have humility, it’s OK to go to someone [from a different division] and say ‘Hey I really look up to what you guys are doing, can you talk me through how you got to that point?’”

Foresta is a former graffiti artist from Brooklyn who split 10 years between Reebok and Nike before joining Adidas in 2009. He’s short with an expensive-looking haircut — banker’s swoop on top, buzzed on the sides — and a bramble of a beard. One of the biggest changes over the last two years, he said, was a shift in the way the company thinks about creative failures.

“Before the restructure, you had people that were really, really, really afraid to fail — you wouldn’t want to try anything if there was a chance that you wouldn’t be able to make it happen,” he said. “Now there’s a level of confidence in us and our strategy where we can really put ourselves out into the wind on something, fail, learn, and then evolve.”

Gaudio doesn’t believe in micromanaging, preferring to give his teams broad latitude to solve problems. “He’ll let you stumble and then kinda coach you back up to speed,” Foresta said. Liz Callow, Adidas’s senior director of color and trend and one of Gaudio’s closest lieutenants, described his approach as an editor. “He doesn’t want to change something just because it’s the way he sees it,” she said. “If you’re presenting him with creative content and he questions it, it’s not to shut your idea down — it’s to have a dialogue and explore more where it comes from.”

When Gaudio returned to Adidas after the stint with Norton Motorcycles, he worked in brand strategy and saw how the company struggled to meaningfully articulate its values both internally and with customers. Charged with charting a new course for 650 designers across dozens of categories and subcategories, he’s leaned on a prosaic but time-tested tool of reformers, decreeing a list of universal principles meant to guide design work before it reaches his desk. The list, three items long, was printed on quasi-motivational posters hanging in the offices of every designer I spoke with: 1. Born from culture; 2. Built for purpose; and 3. Daringly simple.

“We want everything we make to drive the future of sport — in science, materials, technologies, and manufacturing,” Gaudio said. “But it also has to be familiar, and comfortable, and accessible. What fuels us is figuring out how to marry those two things — because I don’t want to make robots for feet, or iPhones for feet, or race cars for feet. I want to make things that are wearable and fit into people’s lives and the culture they live in.”

As creative director, Gaudio has provoked Adidas designers to imagine the full social universe that will surround a product before sketching the first line. That’s “born from culture.” It means inhabiting the mind of the consumer and asking questions about her life — from the mundane to the philosophical — that they might not have considered in the past: What do my friends dress like? What music do we listen to? What are our hopes dreams and desires?

One recent fruit of this approach was AlphaBounce, a running shoe aimed at a more casual consumer released this spring. Its creators began by interviewing high school football athletes who run out of necessity rather than choice — useful surrogates for other non–die-hard runners. The shoe, which resembles a slip-on and is sold in bold colors and prints, was an instant hit. “Performance aside, you can rock these jawns outside the gym — I mean just look at the sweet fade across the midsole,” wrote the streetwear blog Highsnobiety in its review.

“Born from culture” is reactive as well as proactive. It’s consciously engaging in the conversations around Adidas products, and allowing those conversations to materially influence the design process. This June’s Ultra Boost Uncaged, now one of Adidas’s best-selling running shoes, was inspired by owners of the original Ultra Boost, who cut off the shoe’s plastic side brackets, or “cages,” and posted photos of the hacked footwear online.

“As soon as we saw them doing that, boom, we got it out there,” said Gaudio. “That’s how we want to work, to learn from our consumers and redefine what an Adidas running shoe can look and feel like.”

The second principle — “Built for purpose” — is about old-school Adidas craftsmanship, the techno-utilitarianism of Adi Dassler and Peter Moore. Though his main project has been to challenge and expand notions of how Adidas products can function in the world, Gaudio’s reverence for industrial design has kept the brand rooted in a tradition of using technology to solve problems. What made the Ultra Boost Uncaged so valuable, after all, wasn’t its unconventional style, but the prospect of pairing that style with the performance credentials of the original Ultra Boost, replete with its advanced Boost midsole and lightweight “Primeknit” upper.

The third principle — “Daringly simple” — balances two warnings against each other. The main word, “simple,” is a caution against needless complexity — the cardinal design sin of reinventing the wheel. The modifier, “daringly,” preempts rote minimalism. It means, basically, “don’t be boring.”

“That’s maybe the difference between Dieter Rams and me,” Gaudio said, referring to the German product designer and paragon of austerity, an old hero of his. “As a designer, you can geek out on rationality and reduction, but I think that sometimes leaves people cold. What we’re trying to do, and where I think you see the brand changing, is bring in some excitement and more of an eye-opening component to the products.”

When Gaudio helped revive Norton Motorcycles in 2003, the brand was a century-old relic, a one-time Triumph competitor with a cult following (dubbed “snortin’ Norton” because of the bikes’ powerful engines) that shuttered in the late 1970s. He’d begun as a consultant — a Portland-based entrepreneur who’d acquired Norton’s trademarks approached him — but soon it was all he could think about. “Every day I'd come to work, all I wanted to do was work on the motorcycle project; I didn't want to look at anything else,” he said.

Gaudio and the entrepreneur, a bike shop owner and refurbisher named Kenny Dreer, designed an all-new version of one of Norton’s best known models, the Commando, from the bolts up. The project attracted press attention, and in 2008 they sold the prototype and trademarks to Stuart Garner, a British fireworks magnate and current Norton CEO, who went on to oversee the first proper production run of a Norton motorcycle in 30 years.

Gaudio’s experience shepherding the brand out of darkness validated skills he’d been developing since his salad days in Pittsburgh, when he was blacking his hands at the Porsche/Audi dealership. It would be a useful trial run for his eventual return to Adidas, where, in driving the brand’s creative resurgence, he’s playing a similar role.

“When we started, our objective was to become the best sports brand in the world — and we said we’d know when we’d done that because people would tell us,” Gaudio said, leaning forward with both hands on his office table. Through the window behind him, Adidas employees kicked a ball down the company soccer field in the afternoon sun. “We’re not where we wanna be yet, but we’re hearing it more and more.” ●

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