Designer Profiles: Adi Dassler

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From sports shoes to sportswear titan

From humble beginnings as a cobbler and inventor in Germany, Adi Dassler ascended to become the founder of one of the world’s most renowned sportswear brands, Adidas. Prior to founding what would become the crown jewel of his career he created a sports shoe manufacturing company with his brother, Rudolph Dassler. They had worked together on this project for almost two decades when a rift between them made them go their separate ways. Both created their own sportswear brands, Adidas and Puma.

Impossible is Nothing Muhammad Ali Adidas Campaign

Early childhood and adolescence

He was the youngest of Christoph and Pauline Dassler's four children and was born on November 3, 1900, in Herzogenaurach, Germany. He has three siblings: Fritz, Rudolf, and Marie. A downturn in the textile sector-led Christoph, who came from a family of weavers and dyers, to leave his job and look for other employment. He shifted his career focus to cobbling and began working at a nearby factory. At the rear of the home, Pauline set up a laundry service. Marie assisted with the washing, but the three brothers were in charge of getting it to and from the customers.

Adolf started working as an apprentice at a bakery in 1913 after completing high school, but he had no interest in being a baker’s apprentice. His real enjoyment in life came from playing a whole variety of different sports. He loved everything from track and field to skiing and ice hockey. As his father began to show him more about cobbling and designing shoes, it occurred to Adi that certain sports might need more specialized and custom design footwear.

Career

Adolf Dassler enlisted in the army in June 1918 and had an inactive duty until October 1919. When he returned his mother’s laundry room was shuttered. Adi converted this into shoe studio and set about designing his own shoes. Germany was in a precarious position just after World War I and had huge shortages of raw materials. Dassler employed his ingenuity and used old military surplus materials like helmets and rucksacks and machinery techniques to make the shoes very affordable to the general public. In truth he made most of his money from repairing shoes at this time.

Over time he used his skills as a cobbler to design loads of different shoes and one design in particular was a massive hit at his local sports club and he was quickly inundated with orders. Adi Dassler soon brought his brother Rudolph on board, and they formally registered their company the following year. Adolf oversaw shoe design and Rudolph managed sales and marketing. Some of their early successes included football boots with nailed leather spikes and metal spiked track shoes.

Original Shoe Design from Adi Dassler 1928

The company went from strength to strength and in 1926 they built a newer, larger plant that had upgraded machinery and room for more employees. His track shoes were soon being used by athletes all over the world at the highest levels of sport. He created the track shoes used by German distance runner Lina Radke in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, where she won a gold medal. Adolf also had a good relationship with the Head Coach of the German Olympic track and field team, Josef Waitzer. Josef even gave feedback on product development and encouraged his athletes to use the shoes.

The Dassler brothers joined the Nazi party in 1933. Adolf would become the Hitler Youth Sports League’s head coach and supplier. Adolf’s track shoes were worn by nearly all the athletes that performed in track events at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the most iconic of which was Jesse Owens who famously won four gold medals, becoming the first American to do so. This boosted sales massively, and rising demand led to a second plant being built in 1938. But quickly Adolf’s fortunes turned as the company was severely impacted by the outbreak of the war. The sharp fall in demand meant that the new plant had to be shut down and Adolf had to serve as a radio operator from 1940 to 1941.

Jesse Owens winning Gold Medal at 1936 Berlin Olympics

During the war they predominantly manufactured shoes for the German military but did continue to dabble in sports shoe design. During this time the relationship between Adolf and Rudolf became strained both personally and professionally. This only worsened when Rudolf enlisted in the military in 1943. Later that year the Dassler plant was forced to cease all operations by government decree. Once the war ended the denazification process created an even further rift between the two brothers.

The firm made shoes for the German military, but it also made a small number of sporting shoes after the war. Adolf and Rudolf's differences deepened at this period, both personally and professionally. When Rudolf was enlisted in the military in 1943, things only became worse. Later that year, the Dassler plant was forced to cease making shoes and make weapon components due to a government decree. Even after World War II, the denazification process widened the rift between the brothers even more.

In 1948, Rudolf and his brother decided to part ways, and Rudolf started Puma. During this time, Adolf created the now-famous three-stripe emblem for his new firm, Adidas. Over time Adi’s wife, Cathe, became more involved in Adidas and played and important role in it’s success. Cathe acted as hi second parter in business. Through exposure to top athletes at the Olympics, Adolf formed good relationships with elite athletes across a range of sports. He used their feedback to perfectly tailer a type of shoe to a type of sport.

The famous ‘Miracle in Bern’, where the German national football team beat the Hungarians in the 1954 FIFA World Cup. Whilst the were the underdogs they managed to overcome the odds to claim victory. And their screw in studs, one of Adi Dassler’s latest inventions, were credited as being very influential in the result. This propelled them to the status of ‘household name’ and gave them international fame.

Adidas’ first venture outside of footwear came in the early 1950s in the form of sports bags. Continuing the tradition of the business being a family affair Adolf’s son, Horst, worked for him. Horst supervised a new manufacturing facility in France. Adidas hit its stride and expanded rapidly. Off the back of this they launched their first line of sportswear clothing in 1967. Three years later Adidas would supply the official football for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. As Adi got older his son and wife and had a more influential role in the company. After he padded away because of a cardiac condition his family continued his mission at Adidas.

Adidas FIFA World Cup 1970 Football

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2 comments

  • Posted on by Madison P.

    I remember when I first started wearing this brand. I was in my teens and joined a sports team. It is insane to think back to where it all started. I had no idea about 90% of this. I always felt Adidas as a brand was bigger and better than names like Nike, Reebok, Puma, etc. at least in my eyes. Most of my friends wore the brand growing up as well.

  • Posted on by Mariana

    Such a helpful article! I recently got into vintage thrifting and love the vintage sports brands. My two favorite ones being Nike and Adidas. I read the other one about vintage Nike first and then read this one. Both gave me more insight as to what to look for in terms of size and fit. I love oversized baggy clothing now I know better what to look out for in terms of sizing.

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