Adidas is currently the second largest sportswear company in the world, behind only Nike. Once a more modest operation, it started as a factory founded by brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler in 1924.
Over its 97 years in business, the company originally known as the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory – which started with Adolf making shoes in his mother’s laundry room after he returned from World War I – has reinvented itself several times. But along the way to success, it became part of a terrible chapter in German history, and sparked a feud between the brothers that divided the company, their family, and even the small Bavarian town they came from.
The Dassler brothers hailed from Herzogenaurach, Germany, a town with a population of just over 20,000 and a long tradition of shoemaking. In the early years of their company, electricity in the town was unreliable, so the brothers, known as Adi and Rudi, rigged up a stationary bike to create enough power to run the equipment they used to make their athletic shoes.
From these scrappy roots, they had their first big success at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens agreed to run in their spiked athletic shoe and famously went on to win four gold medals, putting the Dassler brothers’ shoes, then known as Geda, on the map. Altogether, the athletes who competed in Geda shoes at the controversial games captured seven gold medals, five silver medals, and five bronze medals. Suddenly coaches and their athletes were aware of the company, and Adi and Rudi were selling 200,000 pairs of shoes every year in the years leading up to World War II.
Both Adi and Rudi were members of the Nazi party. During World War II, production of the Dassler brothers’ athletic shoes was discontinued so that their factory could be used instead to build an anti-tank weapon called the Panzerchreck (Tank Terror) – a rocket launcher capable of blowing Allied tanks into smithereens. At least nine forced laborers are known to have been working for the company at the time.
The Geda factory was almost destroyed by U.S. troops in 1945, but Adi’s wife managed to convince the soldiers that the only thing the company was manufacturing were athletic shoes. When American troops found out that this was the shoe factory that made the shoes Jesse Owens ran in, they started buying the Dassler brothers’ shoes in droves. This led to their shoes becoming popular amongst American soldiers occupying the area as the factory resumed its original purpose.
But after World War II, the decades-long working partnership between Adi and Rudi disintegrated. Rumors abound about what caused the brothers to go from partners to rivals. One theory holds that Adi and Rudi’s wives did not get along. Another potential cause for the feud was Rudi’s suspicion that his brother gave the Allies occupying Germany information on his whereabouts.
It is known that Rudi abandoned his duties on the front lines of the war and was then arrested and imprisoned by the Allies on his way home and accused of being a member of the SS. A third rumor posits that Adi was jealous of Rudi, a known womanizer, and suspected something had happened between his brother and his wife.
Whatever the real reason is, no one in either Adi or Rudi’s family has ever revealed it. The brothers shut down the Geda factory in 1948. Adi then founded Adidas, while Rudi set up another well-known shoe company, Puma.
The feud between the brothers divided their hometown, where at least one person in nearly every family worked for one of the two rival shoe companies. The Aurach river divided the town. Adidas occupied the area north of the river, while Puma established its business to the south of the river.
Employees of the two companies did not speak to each other. They also went to separate stores, barber shops, bars, and bakeries. Every business in the town was known to be loyal to either Adidas or Puma, but never both. The town of Herzogenaurach even earned the nickname “the town of bent necks,” because of its residents’ habit of looking at each other’s shoes to figure out whether or not they wanted to talk to a person.
The relationship between the brothers never recovered. When Adi and Rudi died in the 1970s, they were buried at opposite ends of the town’s cemetery.
In the meantime, with Adi at the helm, Adidas and its trademark three-striped shoe made massive headway into the athletics market with the introduction of its football boot. The 1954 World Cup was a turning point for Adidas. Adi’s football boots were half the weight of other boots and featured removable screw-in spikes that could be switched out depending on the weather conditions.
As a result of this innovation, the West Germans shocked the world by coming back from a two goal deficit to beat Hungary in the World Cup final. The televised match made Adidas a household name across the globe. Nonetheless, controversy remains over which brother was really responsible for the innovation that helped propel Adidas’ early success.
There is no question though that Adidas, perhaps spurred at times by the brothers’ bitter rivalry, continued to break new ground as time went on. In the 1960s, Adidas hit on an innovation that would become a wardrobe staple for people around the world when the company expanded its product line and introduced the tracksuit. Tracksuits were, of course, available to athletes prior to this. However, in 1967, Adidas brought its tracksuit, with its signature three-stripes down the arms and legs, to the masses. In the 1970s, when jogging became a fitness craze in the United States, Adidas’ tracksuit became a staple in every casual fitness enthusiast’s wardrobe, and it has remained one ever since.
And during the 1970s, Adidas established a relationship with the World Cup that has led to the company providing the soccer balls for every World Cup since then.
In the 1980s, Adidas made a move into the U.S., setting up Adidas USA in 1986. The Adidas shoe and tracksuit transcended joggers to become a part of pop culture when the rap group Run DMC started wearing Adidas as their signature look and wrote the song “My Adidas.” The group’s devotion to the brand was organic – the company didn’t even realize what was happening until an employee attended a Run DMC concert and witnessed it firsthand.
The early 1990s were hard on Adidas, however, and the company came close to bankruptcy until investor Robert Louis-Dreyfus took over in 1994. He realized the company’s products didn’t need to be reinvented, but instead needed better marketing. Adidas went public in 1995, the same year the company debuted its first website.
As a public company, Adidas continued to innovate, partnering with fashion designer Stella McCartney in 2005. In a press release touting the new partnership, McCartney said: "Women take both - their sports and their style - seriously. Why should we have to sacrifice one for the other? Working with Adidas is a lifetime opportunity to give female sports enthusiasts a choice."
The addition of her line opened Adidas up to a world of women who wanted fashionable athleisure, just slightly ahead of the category’s steep rise in popularity. The relationship continues to bear fruit. In early 2021, Adidas and McCartney announced a new partnership for an eco-friendly line of sportswear.
In 2020, Adidas boasted worldwide sales of $22.4 billion. It is the number one athletic shoe and sportswear company in Europe and the second largest in the world. Puma, meanwhile, with $5.9 billion in totals revenue during 2020, continues to nip at its heels as the world’s third largest. Currently, neither company is controlled by descendants of the Dassler family.