The History of the Iconic adidas Superstar Sneaker
How the silhouette came to be one of the most recognized shoes of our time.
A little less than 50 years ago, the adidas Originals Superstar sneaker hit store shelves for the first time across the US. Since then, the silhouette has acted as a favourite on the courts and an impactful force within several subcultures, both in America and across the globe. Nicknamed the “shell tops”, “shell shoes” or “shell toes” due to its iconic rubber shell toe cap, the Superstar has been regarded as one of the main influences in the rise of modern day sneaker culture. And yet, while its relevance today is deeply rooted within lifestyle culture and fashion, its tenure began in quite a different arena altogether back in 1969.
Harking back to its very beginnings, adidas first introduced the Superstars in 1969 as the ultimate on-court sneaker. They were designed to completely revolutionise and change the basketball footwear industry. Predecessors to the adidas Supergrip – released sometime between 1964 and 1965 – it was the brand’s second attempt at entering the basketball market.
In the early 1960s, adidas embarked on a mission to expand the brand into the American market on a larger scale. They reached out to their US advisor, Chris Severn, for help. Severn relayed back that basketball shoes in the US were being made exclusively out of minimal supporting canvas, which often meant that players were injuring their knees or ankles whilst training and playing. For several decades, the basketball sneaker market had been lacking in any significant innovation in both design and technology. There was an opportunity here for the brand.
Shortly after such revelations, adidas produced their first-ever basketball trainer donning an all leather upper. Leather gave players a much firmer hold around the ankle than Converse’s canvas and the shell toe on the nose of the sneaker, as well as the thick rubber padding around the toe, protected the player’s feet mid-game. It was 30% lighter than other shoes and it improved stability. It was ideal for playing basketball.
It took a year or so for the Superstar to permeate the space and by 1973, 75% of professional basketball players across the US had swapped out their Converse All Stars and Pro Keds for adidas Superstars. They were being worn by top players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Gervin, George Irvine and Bob Verga.
By the mid 1970s, adidas had successfully managed to infiltrate the basketball sneaker market. Yet, as more modern technology began to hit the market, the Superstar’s sporting days were beginning to look numbered. Luckily for the brand, the silhouette was held in such high esteem at this point that it naturally evolved as a shoe for the courts to a shoe for the streets. This was largely thanks to the hip-hop and skateboarding scenes.
The explosion of hip-hop from the mid-1980s was where the adidas Superstar’s next chapter would begin. While their musical predecessors Grand Master Flash and Furious Five would rock full on glam looks and leather jackets, Run-DMC, the new favourite hip-hop group on the block, were slipping their feet into white/black, white/red, and white/blue adidas shell-toes. The trainer was the band’s onstage and on-cover shoe of choice. They sported them laceless with the tongues pushed out. Run-DMC were being nominated for the Grammys, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone and selling out arenas. They were doing all of this while repping three stripes from head to toe.
When the group performed “My adidas” – an ode to the brand released in 1986 – and asked fans “if you got adidas on, hold ‘em up,” 40,000 avid fans held their Superstars up in the air. After seeing this first-hand, the brand was eager to swiftly sign a deal between themselves and Run-DMC. This was the first time a sporting brand had used music to push their product and it was the first endorsement deal between a major corporation and a hip-hop artist. The Superstar was no longer just a cultural classic. It had now also become an immense marketing force.
Alongside the long-told tale of Run-DMC’s affiliation with adidas, the 1990s brought about several more ties between the Superstar and the music and skateboarding scenes. The Beastie Boys wore adidas on the cover of their 1992 Check Your Head album and Madonna was spotted rocking a white and red combo Downtown. Check into the world of skateboarding during the late 1990s and you’d find skaters like Keith Hufnagel, Mark Gonzalez, Kareem Campbell and Carlos Kenner doing their finest work in the signature shell shoe.
The rise of hip-hop and skateboarding culture naturally led to the beginnings of the streetwear culture boom. All around the globe the Superstars were merging with various movements, communities and cultures within the world of fashion, and as streetwear became a domineering player in the scene during the 2000s, so did adidas and their signature Superstar shoe.
Collectors culture in Tokyo at the time meant that exclusive and premium Superstars were highly sought after and resold internationally at a high price. Hiroshi Fujiwara’s endorsement of the shoe embedded the silhouette even deeper into streetwear’s cultural narrative and the Superstar slowly became a status symbol within the world of fashion. Fashion capitals such as London and Los Angeles took turns to put their own twists on the silhouette, and soon, the trainer could be spotted by anyone window shopping in their respective big city. The lifestyle market had now officially been checked off by adidas. The world of collaborations, on the other hand, was just beginning to open up to the Superstar.
The first Superstar collaboration came out in 2003 when Fujiwara’s protégé Nigo created four Superstar mash-ups between adidas and the brand that he had founded back in 1993, A Bathing Ape. The line was called the Super Ape Star and caused a huge stir around the world. The silhouette had infiltrated a yet untapped luxury market, with each of the four colourways going on to resell for more than double the original price.
In 2005, adidas celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Superstar by collaborating with a range of music, fashion and art icons to create the very much anticipated 35th Anniversary Edition. The series consisted of five different groups – Consortium series, Expression series, Music series, City series and the Anniversary series – and 35 different Superstar designs in total. 35 shoes for 35 years.
The Consortium series was a hit with Superstar fanatics: seven top-tier sneaker retailers were given the opportunity to remake the 1969 silhouette in any manner that they wished. On New Year’s Eve of 2004, queues of people eager to get their hands on the exclusive Superstars stretched across streets near London’s Footpatrol, New York’s Union, Tokyo’s Neighbour, to name a few. Other collaborations within the 35 designs included names such as Roc-a-Fella, Missy Elliot, Disney, Andy Warhol and adicolor.
The 2010s saw countless new models and iterations of the Superstar. Models such as the Slip-on, the Primeknit, the Boost, the Lite and the Clear were now readily available for Superstar fans. Adidas also released several more Superstar collaborations over the past ten years. Names such as Mastermind, Neighborhood, Nigo, Atmos, Alife, CLOT, SNS, Palace, Afew, Porter, XLarge, Parra and even Lego were found scribbled, stamped and engraved on the sneaker model.
Then there was the adidas collaboration with Pharrell Williams in 2015. The Superstar “Supercolor” Collection took the sneaker scene by storm: 50 differently shaded Superstars hit the market all at once, making it the biggest ever collaborative sneaker release the industry has seen for a while.
Some would say that the adidas Superstar is one of the greatest sneaker designs of all time. It’s gone through a multitude of variations, several cycles of collaboration and experimentation, and millions of dollars’ worth of sales. Its impact thus far on popular culture, although immeasurable, has been colossal. One thing that’s to be remembered about the adidas Superstar is that even through it’s most radical reiterations or collabs with big creative names within wider culture, its design has remained more or less the same. Whether as a performance basketball silhouette, a trainer being sky-rocketed into the air by thousands in Madison Square Garden, a sneaker hitting the decks or a collaboration with Prada fuelled by the contemporary multi-billion-dollar reselling scene, the Superstar was, is and always will be a timeless sneaker of great cultural significance.
It has fused the worlds of sports, pop culture and sneaker culture. In 2016, it beat Jordan, Nike, and the adidas’ Boost and NMD lines by a landslide in being the best-selling shoe in the US that year. Both culturally and through profit stats, the Superstar still sits at the forefront of sneaker culture 50 years after its initial release. What else does this gem of a shoe have in store for us in the near 10, let alone 50 years?
- Tora Northman/Hypebae