Here’s How Adidas Collaborates With Partners Like Alexander Wang and Stan Smith

Inside the brand's process at Cannes

The sports-gear marketer lets its creatives turn it upside down.

CANNES, France—There aren’t too many brands that would allow a designer to flip its logo upside down, but Adidas Originals believes in giving its creative partners room to show the shoemaker in a different context. After the brand’s session on the Lumiere stage at the Palais, creative leaders and brand partners—including designer Alexander Wang and tennis star Stan Smith—spoke with Adweek about how in giving partners creative freedom they’ve been able to keep the brand relevant.

“We don’t want to be perfect and polished,” explained Paul Gaudio, Adidas’ global creative director. “We don’t want to be staged and properly lit and makeup. We like the accidental capture. We like the sweat. We like the dirt. We like the reality. That really plays into the idea of a work in progress. We’re never finished. We’re never perfect.”

Gaudio continued: “In fact, when I see things that are too polished I react negatively. It looks like you’ve got it all figured out and you haven’t left any room in this for anyone else, and that to me is not where we’re going. We love to leave that space for others, whether they’re our consumers or partners or people inside the brand to add to it.” 

For Wang, who has a second season of his collaboration with Adidas slated to be released sometime later this year, Adidas Originals—Germany-based Adidas’ brand for casual sports clothing—has been, “the most accepting of ideas and that has been truly exceptional especially for how big of a brand they are,” said Wang. “You rarely get that.” 

Wang’s collaboration with Adidas came about from a casual conversation with the company’s Originals team. “I’ve kind of constantly been referencing [Adidas], so they were like, ‘I think he’s been sending us subliminal messages,’” said Wang. “And so we started talking, and it wasn’t like, ‘Okay, let’s do a collaboration.’ It was more like, ‘What are you interested in? What are your values?’”

Initially, Wang wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the brand, and he’d already done a sportswear collection with H&M. “They invited me to go see their operation in Nuremberg,” said Wang. “These things tend to happen to me when I get invited to go and see an archive, I’m immediately inspired.” 

The collaborative partnership between Adidas Originals and Alexander Wang, which had ads and creative made by the brand’s creative shop Johannes Leonardo, won a bronze Lion this week at the Cannes Lions festival. (Johannes Leonardo also won the Grand Prix in the Music category of the Entertainment Lions earlier this week for its “My Way” campaign for Adidas.)

In his quest to find something new to say within sportswear for his Adidas Originals partnership, Wang decided to turn its logo upside down. “[The design] needed to be immediate,” said Wang. “It was a very simple gesture of stripping it down, turning everything inside out, misplacing the stripes. It was really taking the codes of what is iconography and kind of trying to just not treat it so preciously.” 

That’s also something Johannes Leonardo’s Ferdinando Verderi, founding partner and creative director, wanted to do with the launch of the collection. “Alex and Nic Galway have collaborated on an amazing collection that has a very clear story, which is the idea of disrupting Adidas,” said Verderi. “As much as Alex subverted the idea of collaboration by really flipping on its head the expected relationship with Adidas—and he did it in a very clear visual way—so I wanted to do the same for the launch.” 

Instead of teasing the collaboration before the launch, as many brands do to get people excited, Verderi explained that the team thought it would be better to surprise consumers. “We thought how do we subvert the expectations of a traditional launch,” said Verderi. “Alex was a fan and supporter of this idea of just dropping the collection, as people do nowadays in the music industry.”

For Stan Smith, who has had a shoe with the Adidas for 45 years and noted during the panel that, “I do have to tell people I’m more than just a shoe,” collaborating isn’t as hands on.

From the very beginning I always wanted to be connected with Adidas because it was a great, strong brand reputation,” said Smith. New projects between Smith and the brand are slated to come out later this year and next year. “There have been some collaborations with some other folks that are helping with it, so it’s some fun things coming up.” 

Smith also noted that the collaboration isn’t always perfect, but he’s still happy to be working with Adidas.

They design these different shoes and there’s been a few shoes I haven’t liked and after the fact I’ve given comments on them—but there’s hundreds and hundreds of different types of shoes,” said Smith. “There was one that had some reference to marijuana, and that wasn’t something I wanted to be connected with. This shoe didn’t have my face on it. [But it still said Stan Smith.] It didn’t last long.”