Celebrities and musicians have become the new athletes
How Kanye West surpassed Michael Jordan
Words— Marc Richardson
Athletes have long been at the centre of the sneaker industry. Converse Chuck Taylors were designed as basketball shoes at the outset and the ‘80s and ‘90s brought about a radical change in the way sneakers were marketed. Athletes like Michael Jordan became the face of brands, but were also given signature sneakers that became veritable lines unto themselves. Jordan, alone, is arguably the most important individual athlete in terms of his impact on the sneaker industry. His on-court exploits and brash demeanour helped entrench Nike at the top of the sneaker pile and his eponymous Jordan Brand line now exists as an entire division within Nike and is valued at over a billion dollars.
For decades, the Jordan-Nike partnership was the industry-wide blueprint. Reebok turned to Allen Iverson in the early 2000s, while Kobe Bryant was flirting with adidas before ultimately joining Jordan at Nike. The money that footwear brands were throwing at athletes — particularly basketball players — was ridiculous, but it represented a small percentage of the windfall that the companies reaped in return.
LeBron James supposedly signed a billion dollar lifetime endorsement deal with Nike that will see his signature sneaker line take on Jordanesque proportions and while it’s impressive, it’s unlikely that LeBron will have the same cultural impact within the sneaker industry as Jordan. That owes largely to the fact that musicians and non-sports-playing celebrities have supplanted famous athletes as the industry’s favourite pitchmen and women — yes, that’s right, sneakers are no longer just for men, and they’re not about on-court performance, either.
While athletes were cashing multi-million dollar cheques, staring in ad campaigns and lending their names and nicknames to sneakers, rappers were being largely overlooked by the footwear industry. But while the companies making sneakers were ignoring the impact that musicians were having on consumption, sneaker culture was very much influenced and inspired by what famous rappers had on their feet.
adidas was one of the first companies to clue into this in the ‘80s, when the brand enlisted Run-DMC as ambassadors. adidas paid the rap trio $1 million in 1986, but by the end of the decade, the brand had made an estimated $100 million thanks to their endorsement. Despite the commercial success of the partnership, the sneaker industry continued to ignore, for the most part, the cultural capital that the music industry offered. Still, customers flocked to buy Air Force 1s and Clarks Wallabees when they saw their favourite rappers wearing them or rapping about them. Perhaps the sneaker companies were wily, knowing that the always braggadocios rappers would flex their kicks without having to be paid to do so.
Things started to change ever so slightly in the aughts, when Reebok gave signature sneakers to Jay-Z and 50 Cent, and even Mike Skinner of The Streets. The S. Carter sold out almost instantly, surprising even a young Jay-Z. Before the Reebok collaboration, Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records had been bestowed an Air Force One, that released in 2000 and instantly became one of the most sought-after Nikes. Still, though, a few signature shoes and endorsement deals paled in comparison to the importance athletes were given. Reebok was really the only company working with musicians and treating them as tastemakers throughout the mid-00s; the brand worked with Pharrell’s Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream lines, as well as with Lupe Fiasco and Daddy Yankee.
The decisive moment, it seems, was Kanye West’s frustration with Nike. By 2013, Kanye had a pair of successful collaborations under his belt: Three colourways of the Air Yeezy and two colourways of the Air Yeezy 2 that all sold out instantly and fetched princely sums on the resale market — not to mention a wide-ranging collaboration with Louis Vuitton, too. At the heart of West’s disenchantment with Nike was the company’s reluctance to pay him royalties. “I need royalties. It's not even like I have a joint venture. At least give me some royalties,” he told Hot 97 at the time, adding that “Michael Jordan has 5% and[Jordan Brand] is $2 billion. He makes a 100 million dollars a year off of 5% royalties.” Nike’s response? Well, Kanye wasn’t a professional athlete, so a deal like that was off the table.
Of course, that set the table for Kanye’s move to adidas, where the rapper would be afforded more creative freedom and support and be handsomely rewarded by the German company for his efforts. Before Kanye joined adidas, the brand had already secured the services of Pharrell and had made a name for itself by tapping designers/artists like Jeremy Scott for collaborations. In the immediate aftermath of the Kanye deal, Nike signed Drake to Jordan Brand, but, in the grand scheme of things, that wasn’t enough to compete with adidas’ strong non-athlete roster. adidas’ sales grew in Europe and North America, powered largely by Pharrell and Kanye. Nike reacted by signing Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar (formerly of Reebok) and Kanye acolyte Virgil Abloh, who was neither an athlete nor a musician, but rather a celebrity designer.
"Kids want to be rappers when they grow up and even athletes sometimes seem in awe of the musicians they rub elbows with. It created the perfect storm for musicians and celebrities to become the new drivers of the sneaker industry and, really, culture."
All four have enjoyed stellar records with their collaborations. Pharrell’s HU NMD series and Kanye’s YEEZYs have boosted adidas’ fortunes. Travis Scott and Virgil have helped Nike reel adidas in before giving up too much market share in the United States. In the resale market, Kanye, Pharrell, Travis Scott, Drake and Virgil Abloh are outpacing athlete’s signature sneakers. Given the limited nature of their releases, they’d be hard-pressed to directly outsell athletes in the retail market, but the trickle-down effect probably owes more to rappers than to athletes at the moment.
adidas’ success with Kanye and Pharrell has led the company to sign more celebrity ambassadors — albeit from within Kanye’s extended family — with both Kendall and Kylie Jenner currently on the Three Stripes’ payroll. Kylie had previously been with PUMA and had a signature sneaker with the brand, offering a more active alternative to the lifestyle-driven PUMA x Rihanna Fenty collection. It’s unclear if the Jenners will get signature adidas shoes, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise — for the moment, Kylie Jenner is the face of the brand’s new Falcon Dorf sneaker.
Even niche artists, like Pusha T, have been given sneakers as part of adidas’ non-athlete-centric approach. Other companies are following suit, too. PUMA has the aforementioned Fenty project with Rihanna, while Converse has turned to Tyler, The Creator (previously with Vans) to help energize the One Star.
So what explains the change? Well, sports captivated society’s collective imagination in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Michael Jordan was one of the most dominant athletes of all-time, so were other brand ambassadors, like Bo Jackson. Kids aspired to be pro athletes. But, eventually, those stars retired and gave way to a new era of pro athletes that were seen less as trailblazers. And, throughout the last decade and a half, the tide has slowly turned. With Instagram and social media, we have increasingly fetishized the lives of the rich and famous and hip-hop has become the dominant musical genre. Kids want to be rappers when they grow up and even athletes sometimes seem in awe of the musicians they rub elbows with. It created the perfect storm for musicians and celebrities to become the new drivers of the sneaker industry and, really, culture writ large. There are entire websites dedicated to identifying the pieces that specific celebrities wore — Kanye’s outfits being a favourite — so it makes sense that brands are banking on those same people to sell product.
Will it last forever? Who knows. In the late ‘90s and ‘00s it certainly felt like athletes would be the ones powering the sneaker industry for the foreseeable future, but that changed relatively quickly. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back to athletes when the next great generation breaks the established mould; maybe a new class of people — visual artists, perhaps, or actors, even — will be the ones to take the baton. But, for the time being, it’s a moment to be cherished for the musicians who long fought to have their influence recognized.