adidas’ constellation of collaborations
Adidas X Japan's Creatives:
A Constellation Of Collaborations
My day is just beginning when I speak to Thomas Sailer, but it’s 5pm in Tokyo. The large window behind him overlooks the city, which is gradually lighting up under a dusky, cobalt sky. Thomas is sitting in adidas Japan HQ in the centre of buzzing Roppongi; he points out the looming Tokyo Tower, which seems so close he could lean out and touch it.
Originally from a small town near Stuttgart, Thomas spent 16 years working for adidas in Herzogenaurach before moving to Japan for his current role. When asked what inspires 22 years of faithful service to one brand, he has endless thoughts.
“The emotion with sports is what drives me first and foremost and is the reason I joined adidas. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Germany, so I’m a football guy. And when you’re that age, from Germany and into football, you’re linked to adidas, because that was the only brand that existed back then. All my memories from Germany winning the World Cup in 1990 are with three stripes. Because adidas was strong in football —sponsoring Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham — it was like a dream come through when they hired me.”
‘It becomes about knowing that the work can have a positive impact; it’s not only selling sneakers and making money, it’s also helping the world become a better place through our efforts in sustainability.’
Thomas Sailer, 2020
As time went on, the connection became deeper. “It also becomes about knowing that the work can have a positive impact; it’s not only selling sneakers and making money, it’s also helping the world become a better place through our efforts in sustainability — like how we want to make the oceans cleaner so take ocean plastic and recycle it to make new shoes.” Indeed, adidas’ sustainable innovations are well-known and include the adidas Parley collection and their recyclable running shoe, the Futurecraft Loop (created from upcycled plastic marine waste).
In 2019 the Rugby World Cup took place in Japan, giving adidas a unique opportunity. “The Rugby World Cup was a huge deal and adidas got to work with the All Blacks. We created their uniform, which was designed by Yohji Yamamoto. You saw this merging of Japanese fashion culture with the traditional New Zealand Rugby Māori culture and it was just incredible when we brought it to market. The All Blacks also had a very good synergy with the Japanese people so they were the second favourite team — after the Japanese team of course.”
adidas has a rich history of collaborations, perhaps the most famous being Y-3: its name a nod to the aforementioned Yohji Yamamoto’s initials and adidas’ iconic three stripes. Launched in 2003, Y-3 revolutionised the industry by fusing contemporary sportswear with sartorial aesthetic — thus creating a new category in fashion: athleisure.
“Hermann Deininger, our chief marketing operator at the time, was a visionary who reached out to people like Jeremy Scott and Yohji Yamamoto and said, ‘hey, is this something that we can do where we merge sport with, not only fashion, but haute couture?’ And people were like ‘woah, what are you doing!’ Especially when Jeremy Scott put the bear heads on our sneakers — which maybe went a little far — but that opened up a lot of other avenues.”
‘There’s still a bit of mystery about Japan in the rest of the world. A collaboration with someone in the US, everybody can relate to or understand — but no one seems to fully comprehend what Japan is.’
Thomas Sailer, 2020
For Thomas, Y-3 embodies a sense of freedom. “Say in running, if we bring out a new technology or innovation, it needs to work and you need to test the product and ensure you can run a marathon with it but with Y-3, you have a little more freedom to experiment. And then later, almost like a concept study, you can take what you’ve learned into your sport inline product.”
adidas has created endless hybrids with Japanese streetwear brands — BAPE, Beams and atmos among them — but what do they look for in a partner? “Someone who is authentic, someone who cares deeply about the details of every single aspect of a product. So when we look for a new collaboration, we look for something you only find in Japan; the detailing and storytelling but also the passion for craftsmanship.”
“You have shoemakers here in Japan that are just incredible. If you go to Kobe — the shoe manufacturing centre in Japan — you have so many craftsmen who work on the final detail on which to build a technical running shoe. These shoemakers are like Adi Dassler when he founded adidas, but 50 years later. Now they’re in their 80s but still working on the wooden lasts on which we build running shoes.”
Japan’s ‘otherness’ clearly plays a part in its collaborative potential. “There’s still a bit of mystery about Japan in the rest of the world. A collaboration with someone in the US, everybody can relate to or understand — but no one seems to fully comprehend what Japan is. That obviously adds to the essence of it and makes it a little more interesting.”
As the city gleams in the background, I ask him if he has a nice evening in store. “Sadly I’ll be in meetings until 9pm — not such a nice day.” It seems there’s no clocking off early for the VP and Marketing Director of adidas Japan.