A run for their money

When Nike's profits went into freefall earlier this year, many fashion commentators claimed that trainers were dead. So what, says Adidas, from its hi-tech laboratory in Germany: its shoes are made for running, not posing. But will they go the distance, asks Richard Johnson
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his is a picture of eternal damnation. Twenty-four hours a day, in a sterile laboratory outside Nuremberg, training shoes are being

tormented; this is damnation on a grand, Hieronymous-Bosch scale. Rows of metal hooks swing back and forth, picking at the trainers' tongue leather. Aluminium weights press down on their soles with industrial monotony, while a woman annotates their viscosity and elasticity. From a computer terminal she instructs a steel arm to scrape them across asphalt, Astroturf and linoleum - all in the name of calculating their "friction coalition". Some style experts may say trainers are dead, but from the look of this Adidas laboratory, they will be dragged around the nine circles of Hell first.

Trainers still constitute 40 per cent of total shoe sales in the United States, and Nike is the largest shoe manufacturer in the world. But analysts are talking about market saturation. Nike's very success is starting to count against it: what cool kid wants a new pair of Nikes if that's what his dad or, worse, his grandma, is wearing? When Nike's profits and share prices tumbled in the spring, headlines declared that the $8bn (pounds 5bn) wholesale domestic American sports- shoe market was witnessing a glut of product, and a uniformity of marketing strategy. Just Do It just wasn't doing it any more.

One of the things helping Adidas right now is that it's not Nike. Unsurprisingly, the people at Adidas insist that reports of the death of the trainer have been greatly exaggerated. They know that spoils in the trainer war are still considerable. They also know that the downturn has happened before. Three years ago, everybody got into Timberland boots. The trade called it the "brown shoe phenomenon" - a sudden fashion switch away from trainers to variations on work boots by brands such as Rockport and Caterpillar. It's a recognised cycle in the footwear market that just happened to coincide with the start of Nike's downturn. Adidas plans to keep investing in training-shoe research.

"People first started saying that trainers were dead around the middle of this year," says Johnny Davis, associate editor at The Face. "That was because of the return of Wallabies and Clarks [popularised by The Verve and Oasis]. But it was just a backlash against the production of endless versions of Nike trainers. There's certainly no evidence that trainers are dead. Niche shops are opening up - like Offspring in Covent Garden - and there seem to be more outlets every day. The future looks good. Adidas have had better designs than Nike recently, and people are saying that the trainers out in January and February next year are the best for two years. And, as far as I can see, this could go on indefinitely."

Adi Dassler first began making sports shoes in Germany in 1920. It certainly did his reputation no harm when Jesse Owens wore a pair of his spikes to win four Olympic gold medals in 1936. He formed the Adidas company in 1948, with the three stripes as his logo. (Nike was founded 25 years later, in Portland, Oregon and eventually superseded Adidas. It became the world's biggest sportswear company, with an annual turnover of $9bn - 35 per cent of the global sportswear market.) But Adidas has its past. To capture the future, it needs to trade on its history. And to stress its authenticity.

That's why Catherina McKiernan, winner of the 1998 London Marathon, is running - repeatedly - across the Adidas laboratory floor. A woman in a white coat films her feet, at 500 frames per second. The frames are then frozen to show the distribution of McKiernan's body weight. Unlike a lot of runners, whose heels hit the ground at an angle, her heel lands flat, but stability isn't a problem. McKiernan runs on the forefoot of her trainer. Adidas designers assemble and confer. No, she doesn't need extra shock absorption on her heel for the Amsterdam marathon. McKiernan will run in basic road shoes. Though even they are the result of God-knows-how-many years of biomechanic theory.

Over the years, trainer designers have brought us technological breakthrough models, with names like Hydroflow, Gel, ARC, Torsion, ERS, Twist, Pump, Disc, React and Huarache. Whether we wanted them or not. Not that the technology actually makes a great deal of difference - all consumers really care about is whether the trainers are available in red. Adidas estimates that youths wear 80 per cent of their product for leisure, and 20 per cent for sport. The majority of buyers want trainers for nothing more strenuous than a walk to the pub.

Trainers somehow glued together the 20th-century obsessions of sport, fashion and technology. And whether it's the thickness of the sole, or the position of a stripe, the trainers you wear speak volumes about you and your place in the lexicon of cool. It's no accident that sportswear companies want to endorse stars such as John McEnroe and Diego Maradona - stars who seem to have achieved personal fulfilment through winning and self-expression. Andre Agassi, Mike Tyson and Eric Cantona are today's anti-heroes, connecting that Nineties mind-and-body thing with rebellious, degenerate individualism. Trainers link kids with this new outlaw world.

"But it's changing," says Mikal Peveto, 35, Adidas's senior product manager (footwear) and a trainer geek based in Nuremberg. "The formula used in basketball - have a great basketball player, name a shoe after the great basketball player, sell a lot of shoes - it doesn't work any more. There's one guy who set a standard - Michael Jordan - but he's out on his own. [Jordan originally wanted to wear Adidas, but they couldn't match Nike's sponsorship offer]. It's an anomaly. Don't factor it into your equation, because when he's gone, that formula's gone. Things are blurring now. Endorsements are complicated. To some people, it's just as meaningful to see Liam Gallagher wearing Gazelles as it is David Beckham."

Adidas may proclaim that its footwear is functional, but these days, in the trainer game, image is everything. And David Beckham certainly had an image problem after his sending-off in England's World Cup campaign. Adidas (publicly, anyway) is standing by him. "We don't regard David Beckham as the five weeks of the World Cup," says Peter Csanadi, head of Adidas's global public relations, and based in Nuremberg. The 38-year-old Csanadi started with Adidas Hungary, but the only clue to that is his taste in knitwear. "We regard David Beckham as the season before with Manchester United, the qualifying rounds, and then next season. For us, the World Cup is just a signpost - not a destination."

Adidas has created a fair share of its own problems. In the 1980s, American suppliers became unreliable. And the company wasn't listening to the marketplace. The classic example was its refusal to add more cushioning to its running shoes for the Americans, who ran on concrete roads and not the cinder trails of Europe. And there was no investment in technology. "We missed 1985-1995," says Peveto. "That was a tough decade to miss in a business like this.

"But you get to a point where you're so far behind that you're ahead," he continues. "We were so out that we were in." Adidas recognised first there was money to be made by remaking the shoes we loved as children. Replicas of the company's famous early trainers - the Gazelle, the Super Star and the Oberliga - picked up on trainer nostalgia, and enhanced the desirability of the originals. The antique dealer's bible of prices, Miller's Collectables, recently advertised a pair of Adidas trainers (c 1971, worn, US size 9) for pounds 300-pounds 350. It's difficult to believe the shoes being created in the Nuremberg labs will ever become quite as collectable.

Lisa Broomhead has faith. Adidas in Britain has employed her as a "cool-hunter". It's up to Broomhead, the youth communications manager (even though she's 31), to predict trainer trends for Britain. Back in Nuremberg, Csanadi may think that Adidas is far from fashion but Broomhead has a different take. "Adidas is in fashion," she says. "It's not a fashion brand, but it's in fashion. And you can't ignore that." Broomhead, who previously worked on textiles development at Nike, has to reckon what will be "culturally significant" two years in advance. She shows Adidas designers round her idea of Cool Britannia to get inspired - from Clerkenwell, to Camden market, the Ministry of Sound and Soho. "Hopefully I can predict what people will want in the future. Because the UK is such a small country, fashion changes very quickly. What's in one day can be out the next. I try and tell Adidas what's happening - art, technology, cars, Sony PlayStations or films. We have to be way ahead."

The cool-hunting idea makes the team back in Germany laugh out loud. "These designers go to London and go to clubs because that's who they are," says Peveto. "They want to go to the clubs. They go to Paris or the Louvre because they want to get out of Herzogenaurach [the village where Adi first made his trainers]. You don't need to go to a club in New York to know a good-looking shoe from an ugly shoe. It makes me laugh when I hear the guys are going to the Ministry of Sound for inspiration. They go just because they want to go - and write off a trip. I can hear them saying, `This design was inspired by a reptile I saw on my trip to Guatemala.' Just be honest - you wanted to go to Guatemala."

Adidas has had brushes with fashion before - that's why the company is now trying to be a little quicker on the uptake. In 1986, Run DMC were the first rap group to cross over to music's mainstream. And one of their biggest successes was the rhyme "My Adidas". The rappers even wore the Adidas A-15 tracksuit. But it took a year for Adidas to bring out Run DMC hi- tops. If there is a flaw in Adidas corporate culture, it's a lack of communication. "That's probably where DKNY, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger [who are all getting in on the trainers market] see the big, giant opportunity," says Peveto. "The fashion thing. When you get down to it, we're just a bunch of broken-down jocks who make running shoes. But we do really love our business."

Adidas, for now, is still largely function-based. Even the branding is function - the three Adidas stripes were originally mid-foot arch bandages, designed to give extra support. "It's a mistake to try and sell Adidas as a fashion brand," says Csanadi. "We would be subject to the volatile trends of the fashion market. In 1994, we could have sold six or seven times as many Gazelles as we actually did. But we said, `This is the allocation for a country - we don't want to sell more.' We only made them available in selected outlets. We had to avoid being interpreted as a fashion brand. Sport drives the street - the street does not drive sport. So all this street credibility - we don't call it fashion - comes from core, authentic sports values."

Whatever they wear in the Ministry of Sound, Adidas insists it is technology that will shape the future of sports footwear. Especially the materials for growth areas such as individualistic sports - snowboarding and skateboarding - and outdoor adventure - scrambling and canyoning. One sportswear company is rumoured to be developing trainers with micro-chip sensors which change the shoes' molecular structure when necessary. Before long, all the companies will offer custom-made trainers. If Gap and Levi Strauss can do it with their made-to-measure jeans, then why not Adidas? It's already in the mind of every sports company product manager. Technically it isn't a problem, but it will prove expensive.

Whatever the cool-hunters say, you will never see Adidas platform trainers. "Buffalo-inspired stuff?" says Peveto. "They're so absolutely bad for you. But now I pick up a catalogue and see Fila are doing them! I say, `You're going to die, Fila. It's no wonder you're dying. Get off your turf, chase that fashion stuff, and you're going to get slaughtered.'

"I like it when they're on our turf. We still have Catherina McKiernan and Haile Gebrselassie, the hard-core long distance runners. And when Tommy Hilfiger goes out and tries to endorse a basketball player, he's got decades, decades and decades to go to catch up with the credibility of the real sports brands. Ultimately, cream rises and shit sinks"