Feb 27, 2020

adidas Superstar: How an Icon was Born

Developed in secret. Worn by champions. Find out how the adidas Superstar cemented its place in the sporting arena and beyond.
by Matt Walterseditor

As an adidas fan, the chances are you’ll probably have owned at least one pair of adidas Superstar shoes. What you might not know is that one of the most successful shoes that adidas has ever made almost didn’t come to life at all.

At the start of the story, it is important to understand what was happening in the sporting goods industry in the 1950s. Sandra Trapp from the adidas Archive explains it was a very different time to the world we know now:

"There were just two main sports companies in the world – adidas and Puma, both based in Germany. There wasn’t a sports fashion industry, the shoes were technical footwear, worn only on the football pitch or the running track."

Sandra TrappCompany Historian, The adidas Archive

adidas was dominant in Europe, but much less so in America where there were only a handful of distributors. One of these companies was run by Clifford and Chris Severn who sold adidas footwear to track and field athletes. Chris tells me:

“It was a very small business. In the early stages we sold shoes to the athletes one pair at a time – the sporting goods stores would not buy them because they came from Germany and in the post-war period there was a ‘Buy American’ policy.”

The original adidas production facility in Herzogenaurach, Germany in the 1950s. The company was at the forefront of the sporting goods industry producing technical sporting goods for athletes. ©The adidas ArchiveThe original adidas production facility in Herzogenaurach, Germany in the 1950s. The company was at the forefront of the sporting goods industry producing technical sporting goods for athletes. ©The adidas Archive

Despite dominance in football and track and field, there was one sport that adidas didn’t have a strong presence in: basketball.

In the newly developing American professional leagues one shoe reigned supreme… the Converse All Star. With its high-ankle canvas upper, and vulcanized rubber sole it was considered state-of-the-art. However, Chris had played basketball in All Stars at high school and knew that there was room for improvement.

“They were comfortable to walk around in, but when I started doing moves at high speed, start-stopping, landing from jumps, the inside of the shoe would collapse causing friction and I’d get terrible blood blisters on my heels. I began to think there must be a better shoe that would create less injuries.”

The seed of an idea had been planted in Chris’ mind.

The ambitious son

The other key player in the adidas Superstar story is Horst Dassler, the son of company founder Adi and his wife Kaethe Dassler. Sandra explains that in 1959 he was tasked with opening a new production facility in France:

“The Dasslers hoped that lower labor costs and the established shoe-making industry in France would enable them to make shoes at a more competitive price. This may seem like a big responsibility for someone aged just 23, but Horst had quite a lot of life experience.”

"He had traveled internationally, spoke several languages including French and English, and had regularly worked with athletes, traveling to the Olympic Games to provide shoes and promote the brand."

Sandra TrappCompany Historian, The adidas Archive

adidas France head office in the 1970s. Horst Dassler set up the first French production facility in 1959 taking over an old abandoned shoe factory. ©The adidas Archiveadidas France head office in the 1970s. Horst Dassler set up the first French production facility in 1959 taking over an old abandoned shoe factory. ©The adidas Archive

It was on one such trip to the 1960 Olympics in Rome that Horst witnessed basketball played at the highest level. By this stage, Horst Dassler and Chris Severn had been working together, providing American Olympians with track spikes. Chris had previously mentioned his idea of creating a new basketball shoe to rival the competition, but the idea hadn’t found traction…

“Horst wasn’t particularly moved by the idea until he went to the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. For the first time, he saw basketball through different eyes. The team that represented the US was the very best all-time USA Olympic team.”

"He fell in love with basketball and after the games were over said, ‘I really think it’s a good idea that we try to make basketball shoes’."

Chris SevernPioneer of the Superstar

Chris tells me Horst now had a vision. The problem was Adi and Kaethe Dassler didn’t agree.

“He went to his parents and they basically told him, ‘We don’t have the time nor the resources to waste on basketball. It’s a very minor sport. Don’t bother.’

“But Horst was still enamored with the game. He told me ‘we are going to make basketball shoes, but you must not tell my parents.’ It wasn’t meant out of disrespect. It was like his parents couldn’t see the vision that he saw.”

Horst Kassler with brothers Clifford and Chris Severn at the 1965 National Sporting Goods Association show in Chicago ©The adidas Archive
1978, Horst Kassler becomes the first non-American to become inducted in to the US sporting goods industry Hall of Fame. ©The adidas Archive
Horst Dassler in front of a portrait of his father Adi. ©The adidas Archive

Developing a legend

Then began several years of development work undertaken by Chris, Horst and the team at adidas France, all without the knowledge of the company’s owners.

"Chris knew that to convince the professional players in America to switch away from their beloved All Stars they were going to have to make something completely superior."

Matt WaltersEditor GamePlan A

Starting with the silhouette of a training shoe called the Olympiade, he added technical features to solve the problems he had experienced as a young player: An oversized heel counter (the cup that the heel sits in) stopped the foot sliding around and reduced the risk of sprained ankles; a padded tongue stopped tight laces cutting off blood circulation; and a wedge in the heel stopped the shoe collapsing when the players landed.

There were also several features that we would recognize from the Superstar that we know today.

“First and foremost, I always felt that I did not have enough grip on the floor in my Converse. We created the sole in a herring-bone pattern to provide more traction and made it out of grippy Morvan rubber.”

"We also chose to make the upper from leather to provide better support. This was very unique for a basketball shoe at that time as they were all made from canvas."

Chris SevernPioneer of the Superstar
The development of the Superstar went through many stages, prototypes, and even names before the design team perfected the shoe ©The adidas Archive
This prototype shows the addition of the 'single unit dish sole'. A revolutionary sole made of one piece of material that would come apart under the stress of on-court play. ©The adidas Archive
A high-top prototype still owned bz Chris Severn. You can see the wonky line of stitching that had been applied as a test to secure the sole.

Each time a new prototype was developed, Chris tested it with players in the US and got their feedback. One recurring issue was that, under the stresses of game play, the different layers of the sole would start to break apart.

“We only learned about this through trial and error and it ultimately led to the development of the dish sole. Instead of layers of sole materials glued together, the dish sole was a single unit where all the layers were molded together to produce this dish shape. It was revolutionary at the time. When we first got that single unit [dish] sole, we put the shoe together with glue, but it wouldn’t stay together.”

"It wasn’t until here in the US we decided to take one of the shoes to a shoemaker and have him stitch around the outer edge of the sole. Strange as this may sound, that tiny little thread held the shoe together."

Chris SevernPioneer of the adidas Superstar

Finally, in 1965 Chris and Horst had a basketball shoe that they knew was better than the All Star. It was named the Supergrip, with a high ankle version called the Pro Model. All they had to do now was convince the major players in the US to wear them.

If at first, you don’t succeed

The Supergrip’s problem was that it was SO different from what players and retailers were used to that they didn’t trust it.

Chris tells me that sports distributors weren’t interested so he resorted to approaching players individually, with mixed results: “They said, ‘Is it a track shoe?, What is it?’, I said, ‘Don’t worry, just try the shoe on and just play in it, then you’ll understand just how terrific this shoe is.’”

"I can recall literally getting people to take off their Converse, slip into a pair and personally tying up the shoes on their feet. If I could get them to play in the shoes, that usually did the trick."

Chris SevernPioneer of the Superstar

One professional player Chris did manage to convince was a rising star called John Block. He had recently been transferred to the San Diego Rockets, a brand-new team being set up in the NBA.

NBA rookies, the San Diego Rockets, wearing the original Supergrip shoes. John Block wears the Number 34 vestNBA rookies, the San Diego Rockets, wearing the original Supergrip shoes. John Block wears the Number 34 vest

"John loved the shoes because he had serious foot problems, the very same problems I’d had as a young player in high school."

Chris SevernPioneer of the Superstar

“He became my strongest advocate. He introduced me to the new coach of the Rockets, I put the shoes on the coach’s feet, he walked around and said, ‘These feel great, if you want to, you can talk to the players. I won’t stop you from doing that, and if they want to wear them, fine.’ That opened the door for me.”

Having built his relationship with the San Diego Rockets players, Chris felt he was making serious progress, but when he visited to watch the team play their pre-season exhibition games he was gutted to see NONE of the players had the shoes on.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re not going for it. They really like the Converse better; we just cannot get top players to wear the shoe.'”

"I really felt like giving up. But then the opening season game arrived, the Rockets came out, and the whole team was wearing the adidas shoes. That was such an exhilarating feeling."

Chris SevernPioneer of the adidas Superstar

“I asked them afterwards, ‘Why weren’t you wearing the shoes in the exhibition games?’ They said, ‘These shoes are so good that we want to make sure we have them for the full season. We didn’t want to wear them out.”

Now, the perfect ending to this story would be that the shoes were so good the San Diego Rockets went on to win the league in their first season, but of course, that isn’t how it goes. They were the NBA rookies and were beaten by every team in the league.

© The adidas archive
Adidas makes it in the NBA - old advertisements highlight the brands success in the American basketball league © The adidas archive
© The adidas archive

However, the exposure they gave the new adidas basketball shoe provided the springboard that Chris needed.

"For all the other players in the league this was the first time that they saw these brand-new shoes, this new concept in basketball shoes."

Chris SevernPioneer of the adidas Superstar

“As various teams came to California to compete against the Rockets, I would meet those teams and get acquainted with those players. I would get their sizes, I would order those shoes, then I would physically put individual players into the shoes.”

The following season, Chris successfully got the adidas basketball sneakers onto the feet of the Boston Celtics who went on to win the NBA. The arrival of adidas into the US basketball scene was confirmed.

The adidas Superstar

So what of the adidas Superstar? Its creation came from the DNA of the Supergrip and Pro Model and was driven by feedback from players.

The addition of the shell toe was one of the developments that changed the Supergroup in to the Superstar ©The adidas Archive
An advert highlighting the technical features of the Superstar that became its selling points ©The adidas Archive
One of the original Superstars, currently preserved in the adidas Archive ©The adidas Archive
The Superstar. Often impersonated, never bettered. ©The adidas Archive
This catalogue page from 1970 shows the full range of adidas basketball shoes that were in the market at that time. ©The adidas Archive

The distinctive shell toe was added, and the first adidas Superstar officially launched in 1970.

There was a time when the popularity of the adidas basketball shoe was so great that Chris estimates 75% of the players in the American pro leagues were wearing adidas Superstars, Supergrip, or Pro Model shoes. All without sponsorship deals. Whilst this number is hard to verify, it is clear that American basketball players had begun their love affair with adidas footwear.

In the early 80s, as shoe technology continued to evolve and personal sponsorship started to change the game, players moved away from the Superstar to competitor brands and newer adidas models.

However, this was not the end of the story for the adidas Superstar. Sandra tells me that unlike other shoes before it the Superstar took a crucial step away from sport:

"The secret of the Superstar’s long-term success is that it made that jump from the court to the street. Players could wear it home after a game directly after playing and it still looked good. It crossed over into street fashion."

Sandra TrappCompany Historian, The adidas Archive
During the 80s the Superstar made its legendary transition into streetwear. ©Lawrence Watson
The evolution of the Superstar didn't stop in the 1970's, during the 1980's the Superstar made its legendary transition into streetwear. ©Lawrence Watson
The evolution of the Superstar didn't stop in the 1970's, during the 1980's the Superstar made its legendary transition into streetwear. ©Lawrence Watson
The Superstar's place in footwear history was secured when Run DMC released their famous song dedicated to the shoe. ©Lawrence Watson

In the mid-80s, when Run DMC removed the laces from their Superstars and penned the famous song about their beloved sneakers, the Superstar name was cemented in history.

It has been re-imagined and re-designed many times since then but has always managed to retain its identity, so I asked Chris Severn why he thought the famous silhouette has had such longevity. His simple answer:

"It’s a classic look. They just look cool."

Chris Severn