Written by Matt Welty (@matthewjwelty)
There was a re-alignment in the sneaker world today. Pharrell Williams officially joined adidas' new design core with Kanye West and Nigo— all signing on with the brand within the past four months.
If adidas' recent moves to snatch up relevant creative types seems like a new strategy for the brand—think again. Don't forget that adidas was the first to take a chance on entertainers. The trajectory of adidas has always been to combine function and culture ever since it signed Run DMC to a $1M deal in 1986.
When Run DMC signed to adidas, rappers and rap groups were easier to define. Today, rappers aren't just rappers, they're entertainers, media moguls, and creative directors. They wear many hats, or, in this case, sneakers. They want to be, and are, legitimate product curators, too.
Pharrell and Kanye both fit the rare rapper/designer/producer combo— professional cool guys. Nigo, who gained fame through founding A Bathing Ape, is also the creative director for Uniqlo, a DJ, and was a member of Japanese hip-hop group Teriyaki Boyz.
If we're talking about next-level fashion designers, adidas already had those on its roster. It partnered with Jeremy Scott in 2008, Raf Simons and Mark McNairy in 2013, and Rick Owens this year. But the brand's new signees are able to bring those designers' aesthetics to a wider audience. To most people, these designer fashion labels are just name drops on rap songs, but adidas partnered with entertainers who are giving these designers exposure through their lifestyle and music.
It's easy to label this new trio as adidas' "Big Three" and try to find parallels between adidas' new cultural talent and the three big athletes at Nike: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant.
But Kanye, Pharrell, and Nigo occupy a different space than those sports superstars. It's unlikely that any of these designers have a wicked jumpshot, but they have something that none of the Nike athletes have: crossover appeal.
Nike can try to make fashionable renditions of Kobe, LeBron, and KD's sneakers—check the Lifestyle collections—but those pairs don't have the same impact as a Pharrell, Kanye, or Nigo-designed product.
It's not a question of what these three guys can do for adidas, but how much. Their sneakers and clothing won't be designed for pro athletes, but it will be worn by rappers, actors, and celebrities. Oh yeah, pro athletes will probably wear them, too. But, more importantly, their adidas collections will be idolized by the Tumblr kids who watch everything that they do—from the events they go to, the clothes they wear, and the women they date—as aspirational.
This is the new form of rockstar that conventional athletes hardly ever reach.
That's why the three of them working with adidas makes perfect sense.
Kids watch LeBron and KD on the court, but don't care much for their off-court lives. LeBron has his own flavor of Sprite, but that can't touch Kanye and Pharrell jetsetting to the most exclusive parties in Paris.
Very few people are going to be exceptional athletes, and most people realize that by their mid teens. Kanye, Pharrell, and Nigo embody people's desire to become musicians, fashion designers, or just the cool guy behind the velvet rope. This is the new form of rockstar that conventional athletes hardly ever reach. It was only a matter of time before an athletic brand tapped individuals who could be peddled for more than being an entertainer. And adidas was the brand to make that move.
Pharrell and, his cohorts', multi-faceted life is exactly the image adidas wants to project. All three have also stood the test of time. Kanye's debut album came out 10 years ago, and people are still waiting on his next move. Pharrell's been making people dance for (what feels like) forever. And Nigo has very little to prove when it comes to streetwear.
Pro-athlete endorsers need to actually play in the big games in order to sell their product. Kanye or Pharrell can just walk out of their house and get snapped by the paparazzi and what they're wearing is instantly posted all over the Internet, regardless of the season or time of year. While it's hard to admit, everyone pays attention to celebrity news, while people who pay attention to NBA fashion is very niche, to say the least.
The thing is: Pharrell, Kanye, and Nigo don't excel at a sport - they're good at living life. That's what everyone is chasing, and why sneaker brands, like adidas, are willing to invest in them.