When facing a giant, the best way to win is to play by your own rules. Not that Adidas isn't a giant. It's still the number one sports brand in Europe, but globally, Nike is alpha dog in the sporting goods market (14.6 percent to Adidas' 11.4 percent).
Which brand is cooler?
Nike's been on a tear with focused, innovation-driven product launches produced with Apple-level drama, complete with grandiose proclamations about the future of sportswear and technology, and a cool-kid club vibe that pervades even the sportiest products signed with a swoosh. It's helped the brand build a stronger social media presence and a prestigious allure. Over the past few years, products developed in Nike's Innovation Kitchen—Lunar soles, Flyknit uppers, Free technology, Fuel Band—have found a new kind of audience: fans who aren't in it for the game. Like Apple, Nike has created a culture that transcends the market.
Meanwhile, Adidas has recruited an army of artists and designers to help determine how the brand will claim some of that fleeting, intangible currency. Adidas has been thinking outside of the shoe box for decades—collaboration is in its DNA. It has always been a brand that remains open to creativity from outside sources, from Run-DMC in the eighties to Missy Elliott in the nineties, up to Kanye West and now Pharrell Williams coming in 2014.
Its new collaboration with Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci notwithstanding, Nike isn't interested in building ongoing collections around individuals who aren't athletes, says the company's CEO, Mark Parker. Perhaps that's ultimately why Kanye West was never able to get his Air Yeezy sneakers into the hands of the masses, and why he's decided to set up shop with Adidas.
"Adidas is a melting pot of different cultures," says global creative director of Adidas Sport Style Dirk Schonberger. By definition that means in some ways Adidas lets its cultural identity be defined by its collaborative partners. Jeremy Scott is one of those partners. Scott and Yohji Yamamoto, whose Y-3 collection has been around for eleven years, are two of the longest-standing collaborators. "Adidas has always embraced people, artists, groups of people," says Scott. "And whenever they were embraced by these groups, they weren't scared about it or shunned it away like other sportswear brands who I'll leave nameless."
Adidas' roster of designers is unprecedented. Beyond West, Williams, Scott, and Yamamoto, all of the following will have collections with Adidas in 2014: Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Stella McCartney, Opening Ceremony, Mark McNairy, and Topshop. That is a staggering amount of talent.
The race to innovate faster and better will always have a loser, so Adidas has decided to run a different race entirely. And it's edging into the lead. Phoebe Philo's all-white Stan Smiths have inspired a small movement among fashion girls. Marc Jacobs took a bow in Adidas track pants this past season, giving the three stripes new context once again. Cara Delevingne, Rita Ora, and A$AP Rocky have all been rocking Scott's wild Adidas designs. With all the excitement and awe surrounding Owens' and Simons' initial efforts, and the legacies of Y-3 and Scott anchoring the ship, Adidas is betting that collections with West and Williams will tip the scales once and for all.
"It's very interesting and extremely inspiring to have them here," Schonberger says. "They are like any other people who come to work here. Kanye is drawing here, working with materials, changing styles, really working, as you would expect from a designer."
Unlike in the World Cup, there will never be a clear winner. What Adidas is doing to foster creativity should not go unnoticed and should not be seen as merely an attempt to keep up. "Collaborations really resonate and work well for Adidas, and sometimes they'd feel like PR stunts for other brands," Scott tells Style.com. "To take a chance on a rebel like me, and—voilà—have it pay off, I just think it's cool as shit."