New East Digital Archive

Adidas, a love story: how Russians fell for the iconic three stripes

When Gosha Rubchinskiy showed his Spring/Summer 2018 collection in St Petersburg, it was, characteristically, an explosive blend of contrasting cultural references from East and West. The show took place at DK Svyazi, the former Soviet youth club where artist Timur Novikov organised one of the first raves after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The unexpected collaboration with Burberry — trench coats, jackets and plentiful variations of the cult working class-affiliated check — was the main talking point of the evening. But it is Rubchinskiy’s ongoing collaboration with Adidas which has really struck a chord as something deeply and authentically Russian. For decades, Adidas has been a significant part of the hidden history of material culture in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia — and of the Russian national psyche itself.

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Rubchinskiy’s collaboration with Adidas, which was announced last year, is linked to Russia’s role as the host of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. In the framework of the partnership, Rubchinskiy would incorporate football kit designs into his collections and show them in three Russian host cities (Kaliningrad and St Petersburg are already checked off the list). The St Petersburg installment, however, was clearly about a different kind of organised sport, namely the underground rave movement. The lanky boys walked down the runway sporting shiny emerald shorts and knee-high yellow football socks, grey and wine-red shell suits, acid-pink trackpants, sneakers with light-reflecting laces, tie dye and big round sunglasses. It looked as if the Adidas garments were pulled out of a time machine — odd fits and colours — and at the same they could be found in the wardrobe of any rave kid today. The collection clearly references the turbulent free-spirited 90s: Russia before consumerism, when foreign brands and garments still possessed symbolic power, and as the dawn broke over the first Russian rave, its attendants might have shared a hopeful look towards the West. There is a joke about Russian Adidas knock-offs — so fake that even the brand name was misspelled as “Abibas”. A quarter century later, the West looks to Rubchinskiy and his reworking of 90s heritage in search of authenticity.

Adidas was originally established in 1949 by Adolf Dassler, following a family feud between him and his older brother Rudolf, who had earlier founded the rival sports company Puma. Today, with revenue at over €19 billion ($22.4 billion) per year, Adidas is the largest sports manufacturer in Europe, and the second largest in the world, after Nike. It is among the most powerful global sports brands in the competition for emerging markets, design innovations and sports star sponsorship — but above all, for the attention and loyalty of the young global-minded consumer. Today its success might be dependent on how highly instagrammable the classic poolsides are, or the beautiful shade of blue of the Adidas tracksuit Stormzy wore during his performance at Glastonbury. But the popularity of Adidas in Russia dates back to a completely different era.

Adidas was among the first global brands to become well-known behind the Iron Curtain — every Soviet citizen would have seen three-striped tracksuits and shorts on TV, as the label provided kits for the USSR’s 1980 Olympic team. Adidas shoes were also manufactured in the USSR under a brands license starting from 1979: first at Moscow’s experimental factory Sport, and a bit later in Tbilisi, Kiev and Yerevan. The first and only model of trainer available — blue with three white stripes and ochre sole — had a cult status for decades after it went out of fashion in the West. All over the USSR, Adidas trainers have become a prised artefact of status, connections or simply luck. Trainers were hard to find in the late Soviet years — only a few Chinese or Czech options were available — yet Adidas trainers were much more than that, so precious and rare that they could be worn to the theatre or a restaurant.

The history of the notorious Russian Adidas knock-offs has gone hand-in-hand with the brand obsession since the early days — in the 1980s fake Adidas trainers were produced in the south of Russia, in the Caucasus. The 1990s, however, manifested a completely new era of wild capitalism: newly-established markets were suddenly flooded with Turkish and Chinese sports garments, jeans and leather goods. A colourful Adidas sport jacket was a must-have, alongside Levis or Montana jeans and baseball caps from the USA. Adidas had retained its aura of exclusivity and coolness, which soon attracted people seeking power and status in a changing society — small criminals and self-proclaimed entrepreneurs of questionable nature. At the same time, a lot of former athletes were recruited as bodyguards for criminal bosses — they would hang around the mean streets wearing their usual sports gear. Soon enough, a black Adidas tracksuit became the uniform of gopniks — suburban dwellers squatting and drinking beer on the estates — and remains at the core of lingering stereotypes of eastern Europeans.

Charged with the troubled dark history of the 90s, sportswear, and Adidas in particular, remains a crucial part of the idea and the aesthetic of “Russianness”. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of the global sportswear and streetwear trend in fashion in Russia coincided with the strive for a new authenticity. Youngsters of the bourgeoning rave scene, alongside the more niche and juvenile nights like Witchout and Skotoboinya, would dance till dawn in their black Adidas garments. The rave crowds worldwide favour sportswear — but this was also a mocking acceptance of the squatting slav cliche.

Ultimately, Russia’s Adidas affection might be an echo of its recent history, its troubled entrance into the world of capitalism — the world of freedom and delights which promised happiness through the simple act of owning things. Russian society stayed enchanted by it up until recently, when the prosperity of the early-Putin era collapsed into economic crisis. And even if it hadn’t, the dream was doomed anyway. Adidas was the only sellable symbol present in Russia throughout the recent historical transitions, its meanings and connotations twisted and distorted numerous times. The Adidas strip of the Russian National football team evokes the 1980s Olympic uniform, full of dreams and ideals, but also the squatting gopnik and the history of the country’s fragile and violent masculinity. Gosha Rubchinskiy’s Adidas collaboration feels a touch nostalgic — for youth, for the times of innocence. Innocence that is not just personal, but historical — a time when we didn’t know that owning a three-striped trainer did not mean ultimate happiness. Well, maybe just for a minute.