The history of German Army Trainers: The simple sneaker with a complicated past
Getting schooled: A brief history of German Army Trainers (GAT)
Words— Philip Mak
For many of us, a quick scroll through Instagram is an algorithmic fever dream of chunky and platform soles, cops, and drops. If you recognize those terms, chances are you too have been laced into the world’s ongoing obsession with sneakers. In the face of increasingly elaborate (and expensive) contemporary designs, sometimes it’s just easier to stick to the classics — enter: the German Army Trainer.
Colloquially known as the GAT, the German Army Trainer can be recognized by its rubber gum sole, comfortable all-leather low-top body and suede around the toes. While the shoe itself features a simple, streamlined aesthetic, its history is surprisingly complex — involving a fraternal feud that would change the fashion and sports worlds forever, conflicting reports of its true design origins and a chance adoption by the high-fashion intelligentsia.
It’s easy to see why these slim sneakers have such wide appeal; GATs are designed to be easy to slip on and get going, whether you’re a soldier performing a military exercise or just marching to the corner store. Deftly toeing the line between fun and functional, this everyday versatility is what makes the German Army Trainers such an enduring style — with a history dating back to 1930s Berlin.
Keep scrolling to see how the GAT became an OG cult classic.
The (somewhat complicated) history
Despite the name German Army Trainer being a nod to military service, the shoe (literally) hit the ground running at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler had launched a footwear company, Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (translation: Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory), in their hometown of Herzogenaurach. Adolf, better known as “Adi”, drove to Berlin during the Games and convinced American track star Jesse Owens to cop a pair of their leather running shoes with extra-long spikes, which helped him strike gold in four events.
Owens’ massive success led to a flood of inquiries from around the world for the Dassler brothers’ track shoes. Unfortunately, not long after the Olympics, Germany became dominated and divided by WWII. The brothers found their viewpoints to be at odds during the war and decided to split their company in 1948.
This would birth two of the most popular names in sportswear today. Adi Dassler combined his first and last names to launch Adidas; Rudolf called his brand Ruda, which eventually evolved into Puma. While they would compete fiercely for decades, the Dassler brothers’ businesses came head-to-head in the 1970s when the West German Army put out a contract seeking a training shoe for its troops.
Ultimately, it was a clash over cash; the West German Army had 500,000 male and female personnel, which made the deal especially lucrative. The winning design was an indoor version of the track shoe the brothers created for Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, sans the spikes. The style became known as the “bundeswehr sportschuhe” (translation: federal defence sports shoe), with a practicality and comfort that made it instantly favoured for training exercises.
Now, here is where the kicks’ origins get confusing. As Luke Leitch writes in the Wall Street Journal, while the German Army Trainer is generally credited to Adidas (and a company spokesperson confirmed it designed a shoe called the BW Sport issued to Federal German Army personnel in 80s and 90s), a representative for the Bundeswehr History Museum in Dresden stated its records indicate the designs came from Puma.
Someone call Jordan Peele because there’s an even weirder twist: Puma has no record of designing the shoe for the government. Plus, as the GAT was made for the German army, there was no branding on them either so, barring the footwear industry’s first-ever Maury Povich-style paternity test, it doesn’t look like this mystery will be solved any time soon. What is known though is after the Cold War ended, these classic kicks suddenly found themselves retiring to civilian life.
From the military to Margiela
Similar to bomber jackets, this former military item has been honourably discharged into wardrobes around the world. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, anyone could cop these soles without being a soldier. A recently reunified Germany hugely downsized its Bundeswehr and army surplus across the country were flooded with GATs being sold off by hundreds of thousands of ex-army personnel in financially uncertain times — with standard issue pairs still being sold on the secondary market today.
It was in an Austrian second-hand store that Belgian designer Martin Margiela first came across a pair of German Army Trainers in the 90s — an event that would move the style towards global high-fashion popularity. He picked up dozens of pairs of BW Sports and sent them down the catwalk of his eponymous label’s SS 1999 show. Maison Margiela would go on take vintage BW Sport GATs and emboss its iconic numeric label on the tongues, change the laces and customize the bodies by painting them or adding handwritten notes.
Following the turn of the millennium, the Maison Margiela Replica became the brand’s aptly titled in-house clone of the German Army Trainer. A Hedi Slimane-led Dior followed suit (or, shoe?) in 2005 with the B01. In a decade where fashion was often over-the-top, the GAT stood out for its understated appeal.
While the Maison Margiela Replica has become a perennial fashion staple, the Dior B01 was archived for a time. However, the brand revived the style for its SS 2018 collection and continues to sell it today. It’s a sign that the German Army Trainer has marched back into the editorial trend pages — now available in a variety of colours, it has once again found itself in both high fashion and high street shops, with the latter offering options that are just as aspirational and even more affordable.
Given the German Army Trainer’s simple, timeless design, its blend of minimalism-meets-military style is sure to make it a foundational piece of your footwear collection.
Need help finding your style without all the shopping? Try Style Plan, our new clothing subscription box. Answer a few simple questions and we'll send you what you exactly what you're looking for.