Just last week we saw new photos of an adidas Tubular that is an obvious derivation of Kanye West's work on his latest collection of Yeezys. A ridged white outsole and upper portions of grey suede reflect the Yeezy 750 Boost while a heathered knit, single piece toe and tongue match the upcoming Yeezy Low. Adidas has not credited Kanye for his obvious contribution to creating this shoe through his work at the brand.
Is everyone okay with that? They should be.
Sneaker collaborations are just that: collaborations. They're meant to be the meeting of multiple creative forces, whether those forces are a designer, a designer's team, or a brand represented by dozens of creatives and brand managers. In a textbook collaboration each person at the table brings elements no others could. A brand might bring its ability to produce product while a single designer may bring their influence and guaranteed sales paired with legitimacy in a new market share.
Collaborations are also risks.
They are creative partnerships, where each collaborator willingly enters into a public pairing whose creation and results reflect on all entities involved. Depending on the brands and the figures involved, there are different levels of risk for each entrant, and so each collaborator follows their own standards to arrive at the final designs. In many projects there is innovation, whether it’s from the usage of new colors, to the creation of new materials and construction techniques.
culturally, collaborators own the designs, not the sneaker brands.
From a legal standpoint, adidas’ full solo credit on these new Kanye-inspired Tubulars is totally fine. Adidas owns their designs. Unless a contract states otherwise, copyright law assumes that a creator retains ownership of their creations until they are compensated for them. If Kanye created these elements independent of adidas, which is entirely unlikely, Kanye has received cash and royalties for his work. Adidas owns his work with them. The end.
That's the legal question. But copyright law has not seen a significant update in generations, it's out of date (and not in a way that would benefit a collaborator). But it's a totally different issue when we consider how the community views ownership.
The sneaker community is not the most legally savvy group of people, and they're pretty clear on this: culturally, collaborators own the designs not the sneaker brands. When Ronnie Fieg teamed up with Clarks on the Kildare last Spring, he utilized colorways he'd previously used with ASICS. The Gel Lyte III 'Salmon Toe' and GT-II 'Super Red 2.0' are both projects that are immediately recognizable to anyone who follows the world of limited runners. Each of those colorways were brought onto this new Clarks silhouette. In so doing, Ronnie took ownership of these treatments that had already been associated with his personal brand. But in the creative space the idea of ownership is fluid, and without public seizure they’ll remain in the grey. By using those designs across brands they become his.
Consider the Flystepper 2K3, a high-top lifestyle sneaker that Nike released late last year. It borrows a lot of elements from Nike's own work with Kanye. The sole glowed red like the 'Red October' Yeezy IIs. The toes featured a 3D pyramid texture, like the 'Red October' Yeezy IIs. They featured a strap, like the Yeezys, leather textured to mimic the skin of a cold-blooded animal, like the Yeezys, and ribbing on the heels, like the Yeezys (previously like the Louis Vuitton Don, another Kanye West collaborative project). They’ve widely been regarded as a less expensive alternative to their predecessor, drawing from the Yeezy tradition, while remaining a unique shoe.
Each of the elements that came from the Yeezy II is integral to making the Flystepper what it is. Were it not for the Yeezy, the Flystepper would not exist. So, who is to credit for this shoe? (Or, more appropriately, who is to blame?) The answer is Nike. These elements became popular because of a shoe that Kanye worked on, but Kanye never owned those designs. The dubbing of any all-red sneaker a 'Red October' version of that shoe is now ubquitous. Notice a veritable collection of shoes with black or grey uppers and neon green outsoles and red, pink, or orange liners. The 'Yeezy' colorways are alive and well at Nike without Kanye and aren’t going anywhere soon.
When the influx of collaborations started in the last decade, designers or shops had to be deeply established to even hope for one. But as the years have gone by, it seems anyone can achieve that level. And that's not a slight. Big brands are increasingly willing to take the risk. The cosigns are decreasingly expensive for them, and the innovations they achieve in collaborations continue to be fruitful for years. Just look at the most recent tease of ASICS Tiger's upcoming season: it's a veritable history lesson in recent ASICS collaborations made more accessible for a wide market (at a kinder price point and much broader production runs).
When Kanye West linked up with Louis Vuitton to create his series of sneakers with them, it was a risk for Louis Vuitton. His fans at that time no doubt called the collaboration a sure thing, and in hindsight it seems it only helped to raise the street legitimacy of a brand whose identity was largely owned by suburban housewives and couture customers. But at the time, Kanye was a popular hip-hop artist whose interest in fashion was untested at best, and confusing at worst. Since then he has gone on to study, very publicly, the subtleties and demands that a brand like Louis Vuitton faces every season. He claims to adopt those lessons into his own design work.
When Tom Ford went to Gucci he was an emerging, exciting designer who was about to face his biggest test. He aced it. He then went on to form his own brand. Ford didn't take the path that most designers, like John Galliano, do which is to flit from one brand to the next. Kanye has opted to follow Galliano's route, which is in many ways very high fashion of him. In high fashion the consequential designers perform tours of duty, each design generation leaving their mark on these iconic houses. It is relatively rare that a figure like Tom Ford comes forward and breaks away in such a fundamentally disruptive manner. Ford, McQueen, Wang. West is not one of these. He is performing his tour of duty. The problem is if your name isn’t above the title, it’s not yours.
In his showstopping interview with Style.com about Yeezy Season 1, Kanye delved into why he takes the creation of this line so personally. “I’m here to help people. I’m here to help the 14-year-old version of myself that couldn’t afford shit,” he says. “But what I will tell you is that we’ll eventually get [Yeezy pieces] super-inexpensive. And it will be all about everyone having them.” So far, the only fruits of Kanye’s collaboration have been the $350 Yeezy 750 Boost. It’s been reported that prices for the entry-level apparel items are to be $430, knits and sweaters starts at $880, outerwear starts at $1,740 and reaches upwards of $4,000. Responses to these prices were quick and violent. But with the introduction of this Yeezy infused Tubular, Kanye is made a truth teller. These shoes are obviously of Yeezy inspiration, and they’ll be at a price point that is certainly more accessible to the 14-year-old version of Kanye’s self that couldn’t afford shit. And, truth be told, these aren’t shit.
Kanye's contribution to this latest adidas Tubular is so obvious it scarcely demands consideration. Whether or not adidas was on a path to independently create designs like this one, they publicly signed the aesthetic to Kanye West with the debut of Yeezy Season 1. Even if it were their own, all evidence offered by their own signature shows that's not the case.
But, it should be noted, that's what they paid for. Adidas created these elements ostensibly for its collaboration with Kanye, but regardless of why they designed these elements, there is no doubt who created them. Adidas owns them. In working with adidas, Kanye is working for adidas. He is a consultant, a partner, an employee. Saying they ripped off Yeezy is saying they ripped off themselves. Adidas gives Kanye money, Kanye gives adidas his ideas. It’s a transaction. Kanye can spend the money however he likes, and adidas can use the fruits of their collaboration however they like. Kanye’s contribution to this shoe is undeniable. But it isn’t priceless. It cost adidas a reported $10 million plus royalties.
And now they’re finally getting what they paid for.
Pete Forester is a contributing writer for Complex. You can follow him on Twitter here.