Six years ago, a little-known U.K. film called Awaydays took a nostalgic walk back to the Thatcher-era world of "the casuals," a pack of working-class English adolescents who smoked, drank, screwed and fought for the love of football, all the while escaping the notice of the police by dressing as dandies in Aquascutum jackets, argyle sweaters, Fred Perry polo shirts—and Adidas Sambas.
The blokes who popularized the Samba in the early 1980s weren't alive when the shoe first emerged in the 1950s, just like the kids who wear them today weren't around in the 1980s. That's the thing with a classic piece of apparel: It belongs to everyone and no one. And when it comes to classic sneakers, the Adidas Samba is the archetype.
"Some sneakers transcend time, place and style. They just continually exist in a pure form, and let the trivial matters of trends and hype wash over them, leaving them in a pure unaffected state," says Neal Heard, author of the definitive athletic shoe history, Trainers. "You could think of the Chuck Taylor, Jack Purcell, the Stan Smith in this guise. Yeah sure, sometimes someone wants to play about with them and reflavor them as the mood takes. But it's just a dalliance, a fad, while the classic shoe stays there and runs on its own way. The Adidas Samba is one of those shoes."
It was company founder Adi Dassler ("Adidas" is a mashup of his first and last names) who crafted the first Samba, a high-tech performance shoe when it debuted in 1950. Its soft leather upper afforded comfort, the trio of stripes added lateral support, and the high-traction gum rubber outsole let players kick around on icy turf without snapping their necks. A spike-soled version helped Germany win the World Cup in 1954.
But it was the Samba's inadvertent attribute of style that would grant it immortality. With its low profile and white-on-black contrast, the Samba was cool enough to wear off the pitch. At first, only footballers knew this, but it didn't take long for everyone else to find out.
They haven't forgotten, either. The Samba is the oldest Adidas shoe in continuous production, and, 65 years after its debut, it "still sells like mad," to quote Adidas' website ("mad" equates to 35 million pairs sold, by some estimates). London culture writer Sam Diss has called the Samba "Europe's equivalent of the Air Jordan."
Adidas has played riffs on the original over the years, introducing the Samba JP (with a tapered toe), the Samba 85 (in tan), and the Samba Super (with a longer tongue and toe cap.) But the company is too smart to take any variation too far, even to please the latest crop of stateside celebs spotted in their Sambas, including Rihanna, Kristen Stewart and Justin Timberlake.
"Fads come and go, but some designs just don't need to play those games," is how Heard puts it. "Some people boast about old school while others just genuinely are. The shoe is like your favorite friendly old uncle, held in esteem and respect. It should be."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.