Keeping Cool in the
Adidas Beckenbauer

The unlikely story of the tracksuit that revolutionized global fashion. By Robert Klara

Armie Hammer had had enough. When the 31-year-old star of James Ivory’s Call Me by Your Name was thrust onto the road for a pre-Oscars publicity tour, it dragged on for 14 months. Burned out and exhausted, Hammer entered a new phase in his life: He ditched his usually stylish wardrobe to wear nothing but tracksuits—principally, Adidas tracksuits.

“If I’m going to jump through these hoops and continue to talk about this movie that I’ve talked about ad nauseam,” Hammer recounted to Conan O’Brien, “I’m going to be comfortable.”

And there it was. Without quite intending to, Hammer explained why generations of men have pulled on the nylon two-piece from Adidas. But, of course, that’s only one of the reasons. Some others: to be iconoclastic, creative or even aggressive. It’s hard to imagine a single garment that’s as mutable and time-resistant as the Adidas tracksuit.

“It’s a product that has transcended culture, transcended countries,” said Siegel+Gale president Jason Cieslak, “and so many aspects of our society—and it’s been around forever.”

We should be specific. The tracksuit in question has been around for 51 years, and its proper name is the Beckenbauer.

They called him “Der Kaiser.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer was (after Pelé) the most famous man on the pitch. Poised but relentless, the attacking sweeper led Bayern Munich to multiple European championships and, in 1974, to a World Cup victory. Along the way, he revolutionized global fashion.

Well, he helped Adidas do that. Already a famous name in sports (company founder Adi Dassler made his first soccer and track shoes in 1925), Adidas decided that, after four decades, it was time to test out the apparel side of the business. In 1967, it introduced a branded tracksuit, signing Beckenbauer to endorse it.

Warm-up suits were nothing new to athletes, who donned them to keep warm before and after competition. But Adidas added fashion flairs hitherto unseen. Eschewing the baggy woolens of years past, the Beckenbauer suit was made of slim and lightweight synthetics, with a high collar and full zipper in front. It came in vibrant colors. Most memorably, Adidas designers borrowed the brand’s signature triple stripes from the shoes and ran them down the length of the arms and legs.

There was something about the tracksuit’s inimitable combination of comfort, durability and groovy flair—its ability to define, yet be defined by, its wearer—that caused the outfit to go supernova. It effortlessly dashed across the Atlantic and straight into the American jogging craze. It moved into aerobics. And in 1985, when three guys from Hollis Queens donned their triple stripes as Run-DMC, the Adidas tracksuit morphed into the official uniform of hip-hop. Not content with that fame, the outfit went mobster in 1990 when Ray Liotta wore one in Goodfellas, then pivoted to exemplify the angst of child prodigies in The Royal Tenenbaums.

The outfit’s promise that, as Cieslak puts it, “you [can] take on a personality you aren’t in your normal life” will continue to see it pop up in other unexpected places. But according to fashion writer and historian Andy Gilchrist, that shouldn’t include formal occasions. Not yet, anyway. The Beckenbauer tracksuit, he says, “has degrees of appropriateness.” Then again, Gilchrist points out that the white tie originally came from sports, too—“so maybe, in 100 years, the tracksuit will be the most formal clothing.”

In 1967, Adidas tapped soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer to endorse its new tracksuit—and the effort worked all too well.

In 1967, Adidas tapped soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer to endorse its new tracksuit—and the effort worked all too well.

Within a generation, everyone from director Wes Anderson for The Royal Tenenbaums (1) to Run-DMC (2) had appropriated the outfit. The limitless adaptability of the suit has since been embraced by the likes of the Spice Girls’ Sporty Spice (3) and, most recently, 2017’s Stockholm Fashion Week (4), where athleisure got chic.

Nobody in recent years has better illustrated the dominance of athlesiure clothes than Armie Hammer, whose extended tracksuit phase garnered extensive media coverage earlier this year. Hammer said his aim was simply to wear comfortable duds—”and then it turned into a thing,” he told Conan O’Brien. Of course, Adidas noticed the thing and, the film star said, sent him free tracksuits. Alas, too late: Hammer had moved on.