How the Berlin Wall Gave Birth to Germany's Sneaker Culture

The division between East and West Germany built a love for the Adidas EQT and ZX8000 in the East.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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For almost four decades, a wall separated East and West Berlin until 27 years ago when it all came tumbling down. Through sheer will and determination, people swinging hammers and pickaxes chopped away at the graffiti-covered concrete. The Berlin Wall was much more than a physical barrier that was erected to separate two political ideologies—democracy on the West and communism on the East—it also created a culture of have and have nots, all the way down to the sneakers people had on their feet.

Often when there are fewer financial opportunities within a community, it leads to people putting forth an image that’s the opposite of their socioeconomic status. Simply put, they wear expensive clothes. In East Berlin, and East Germany as a whole, this meant that folks gravitated towards high-end Adidas sneakers, Coogi, and Iceberg. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the preferred footwear styles were the ZX8000 and EQT line. The latter was designed by Peter Moore, the man behind the Air Jordan 1, and was described as “the best of Adidas.”

“The EQT series was popular in East Berlin and all of East Germany, especially in crowds of soccer fans,” says Marc Leuschner, the co-owner of Overkill, a Berlin-based sneaker boutique. “It was more important to wear brand-name clothing than to have a full fridge. When looking up to the big guys in our scene, it was obvious that you had to wear the very best and most-expensive stuff on the market in order to separate yourself from everyone else.”

Adidas EQT Berlin

People from West Berlin in the sneaker scene noted a significant difference between their side of the city and those on the East. “We had access to whatever we wanted,” says Hikmet Sugoer, who previously founded the Berlin sneaker boutique Solebox. “Those from East Berlin didn’t have access to anything.”

Those in West Berlin saw this as an opportunity to profit off the East’s obsession with expensive sneakers. Sugoer recalls selling a pair of Adidas Micro Pacers for 1,000 Deutsche marks, which translated to about $500 US dollars at the time.

But the EQT in the ‘90s was what reigned supreme and those from East Berlin tried their hardest to obtain these sneakers. “You possessed less wealth if you were born in East Germany,” Leuschner says. ”But to compete in fashion against the West, you bought and wore the expensive clothing. When it came to Adidas sneakers, it referred to the EQT and ZX models.”

These Adidas sneakers were marketed in such a way that it created an environment where people who couldn’t afford the sneakers wanted to buy them. “Adidas EQT was the ultimate sports sneaker when it was created, [it was] not only the most functional, but also the most expensive. Adding to this, the Equipment series was a product created by a German brand,” says Till Jagla, who works at Adidas as a Global Category Director. “Back in the day, sporting goods stores displayed shoes by price, so the Adidas EQT sneakers were always highest on the wall, literally unattainable. EQT products turned into currency in German street culture, and they still have this reputation.”

Adidas EQT 93 Berlin

Being associated with the rougher side of the city, the EQT became tied to the football hooligans. Adidas has been tied to this subculture over the years, first in England in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with the brand’s City series sneakers. “For me, the whole sneaker cult was always related to what was going on with people at the soccer stadium,” Leuschner says. “In East Berlin, it was survival of the fittest and these people were associated with the soccer club BFC Dynamo. It was a well-clothed family with light tendency for madness. It wasn’t that hard to find these sneakers, but it was tough to finance them. There were folks who would rob stores in order to stand out with those status symbols, as only a few of us had the financial means.”

Sugoer, through his work with Adidas, says that the brand knew that the EQT line gained a hardknock reputation, and it wasn’t something that pleased them. “Adidas didn’t want German hooligans wearing their products,” he says. “I told them, ‘It’s okay, that’s who the customer is who’s paying the money for the shoes.’ People were coming all the way from Poland to buy the EQTs I did in 2010, but 90 percent of the people lined for the shoes in the winter were East Germans.”

The EQT has become a mainstay in Adidas’ line over the past few years, and its popularity in Berlin has been able to remain strong. “Today we have an interesting situation, especially in Berlin because EQT connects generations. There always has been the die-hard EQT heads lining up for every single release, today this lifestyle is still very visible in the city,” Jagla says.

The scene that started in East Berlin isn’t much different than the Lo-Lifes who rocked Polo Ralph Lauren in New York City in the ‘80s, or the previously mentioned football casuals who did the same with European designer brands such as Ellesse and Lacoste. But the Adidas’ EQT line lives on as its own unique cultural phenomenon. As Leuschner says, “The hype of the EQT is still living. It’s a timeless silhouette, therefore I hope this [shoe] lives on for decades.”