How the Nike vs Adidas rivalry has found a new battleground – high fashion

An Adidas x Gucci bag. Such collaborations between the two sportswear giants Nike and Adidas and high-fashion houses such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton have become increasingly common.
PHOTO: Adidas

In terms of rivalries, the one between Nike and Adidas is up there with the best of them.

The battle between the top two rival sportswear giants battle has long been waged and shows no sign of slowing down – instead, it is exploding into new arenas such as the metaverse and, most notably, high fashion.

A slew of collaborations have dominated the hype and the headlines in recent months.

Gucci and Adidas have come together for a collection that finally hit stores this month, after it was first shown at the Italian brand's Milan Fashion Week show in February, attended by Rihanna and A$AP Rocky.

The collaboration collection got people talking – not least Chinese internet users, who complained that the Adidas x Gucci sun umbrella was not waterproof.

Adidas x Gucci T-shirt.
PHOTO: Adidas

Reaction to the designs – which reimagine the 1980s and '90s through Adidas sportswear alongside the Gucci motif, as well as add the brand's three stripes to classic Gucci tailoring – has been mixed, but Vogue editor Anna Wintour appears to have given them her seal of approval: the style icon was snapped in a piece in a selfie with Kim Kardashian.

People are also talking about the increased prices, with pink Gucci x Adidas Gazelles hitting the market at US$850 (S$1,191) when they release on July 7.

Photoshoots with football stars Paul Pogba, Jude Bellingham, David Alaba and Serge Gnabry featured in the run-up to the launch of the collection, along with star-studded events in Los Angeles and London.

While hype was building for the Gucci collaboration, Adidas launched another high-fashion tie-in.

The Balenciaga x Adidas collaboration was unveiled at Balenciaga's spring 2023 runway presentation at the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in May.

PHOTO: Balenciaga

The show guaranteed headlines with its models in gimp masks, while the clothes were more traditional – Adidas' iconic trefoil and three stripes sat astride the Balenciaga name.

Critics were quick to get the boot in, not least because the collection was deemed to look very similar to standard Adidas sportswear items, save for Balenciaga's name replacing that of the sportswear giant.

Chief among items targeted were US$210 socks, compared with US$18 for Adidas' standard versions, and a track jacket priced at US$2,350, rather than the usual US$120.

Adidas x Gucci Gazelle sneaker.
PHOTO: Gucci

The Balenciaga x Adidas Stan Smith shoes – officially titled Balenciaga x Adidas Destroyed Stan Smith, according to the Instagram account @myfacewheno_o – drew the most ire once they were spotted for being exactly what their name suggested.

There has been no reported price or confirmed release for the shoes but the rest of the collection had a limited release: from the launch show until May 29 online and in the New York Balenciaga store.

Unsurprisingly, the collection sold out.

The Balenciaga x Adidas Stan Smith shoes.
PHOTO: Instagram/TazerBlack

Such high-fashion collaborations are nothing new for Nike or Adidas. Nike has partnered with Louis Vuitton, Balmain, Dior and Comme des Garçons in the past, while Adidas can count Stella McCartney, Raf Simons and Yohji Yamamoto among its collaborators, as well as up-and-comers such as Grace Wales Bonner and Craig Green.

This year kicked off with the latest in the Pradidas lineage – as the collaboration between Adidas and Prada has come to be known – which saw the unveiling of an Adidas Originals x Prada capsule collection to follow on from the Italian fashion house's take on the Adidas Forum shoe in 2021.

Every month seems to bring another collaboration between one of the sportswear giants and their high-fashion contemporaries. But it is happening so often that questions are starting to be asked.

"Have we reached peak sportswear x luxury collaboration?" asked fashion website Hypebeast in a headline in May on an article about Balenciaga and Adidas.

Louis Vuitton x Nike sneakers.
PHOTO: Louis Vuitton

Nevertheless, the collaboration phenomenon shows no signs of abating as long as there is demand – and demand is clearly there.

Celenie Seidel, senior womenswear editor at trendsetting retailers Farfetch, told Vogue in May that there is "huge customer appetite" for such collaborations, not least as an entry point for fashionistas into the world of sneakers.

For Adidas, collaborations and the non-traditional sportswear category have become arguably more important in recent years – just look at the collaboration with Kanye "Ye" West for the Yeezy collections.

Prada x Adidas sneaker.
PHOTO: Prada

While Adidas has taken the lead, Nike has not let the grass grow under its feet, with its most recent collaboration, with French design house Jacquemus, debuting in June.

These collaborations are not for everyone, not least because of the prices, but the general public has been leaning more into sportswear in recent years.

The athleisure industry is expected to grow to US$662.5 billion by the end of the decade, according to business consultants Grand View Research.

It remains to be seen whether Adidas will be able to reel Nike in at the top. Nike made US$44.5 billion in 2021, while Adidas made US$25.1 billion, with the gap growing from 2020's figures.

A look from the Adidas x Gucci collaboration.
PHOTO: Gucci

In its most recent figures, Forbes valued Nike's market cap at US$159.2 billion and Adidas' at US$41.1 billion.

Nike announced last week that fiscal 2022 sales grew almost 5 per cent to US$46.7 billion, despite a downturn in China.

Both Nike and Adidas have continued to perform well despite recent difficulties, says Marguerite Le Rolland, industry manager of apparel and footwear at Euromonitor International.

Adidas x Gucci sneaker.
PHOTO: Gucci

"With nearly 25 per cent of global consumers stating they prefer to buy 'a strong or well-known brand when purchasing an apparel or footwear product', according to the Euromonitor Lifestyles Survey 2022, both Nike and Adidas have been able to leverage their global brand awareness," Le Rolland says.

"They have also been keeping with the sustainability ethos, streetwear aesthetic and with the help of influencer collaborations, which has enabled the two companies to show resilience and grow despite the turbulence caused by the coronavirus pandemic."

Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force One sneakers.
PHOTO: Louis Vuitton

She adds that Nike has been able to outshine Adidas in recent years thanks to its stronger online presence and its ability to engage with customers by supporting issues like Black Lives Matter in the US.

This is in spite of a backlash in China against its decision to stop using cotton from the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where there have been reports of forced labour.

The on-court rivals are also in-court adversaries: in June, Adidas sued Nike in the US, accusing it of infringing patents on shoe-fitting and mobile-app technology relating to Nike's Run Club, Training Club and SNKRS apps.

The federal lawsuit, filed in East Texas, came six months after Nike filed its own claim against Adidas in an Oregon federal court in December 2021, in which it said its patents had been infringed over its Flyknit shoe tech.

A look from the Balenciaga x Adidas collaboration.
PHOTO: Balenciaga

That wasn't even the first time Nike had taken claims against Adidas to court, with another filing in East Texas back in 2005, as reported by Reuters, which was later dropped in 2007.

ALSO READ: The Adidas x Gucci collection is set to launch on June 7

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.