Kanye West’s messy divorce from adidas does little to dampen appetite for Yeezy sneakers

A model wears a pair of adidas Yeezy 750 Boost shoes designed by Kanye West as part of his Fall/Winter 2015 partnership line with adidas at New York Fashion Week. Picture: Reuters

A model wears a pair of adidas Yeezy 750 Boost shoes designed by Kanye West as part of his Fall/Winter 2015 partnership line with adidas at New York Fashion Week. Picture: Reuters

Published Aug 11, 2023


By Rachel Tashjian

Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, had been on top of the world.

It was October 2022, and the rapper and designer had just modelled in Balenciaga's Spring 2023 show, spun his acrimonious split from Gap as a creative triumph and was about to stage a much-anticipated last-minute show at Paris Fashion Week.

Ye may have been in the midst of a divorce, yet he and Kim Kardashian seemed, at least publicly, to be on amicable terms.

All of that disappeared nearly overnight when he appeared at his Paris show wearing a "White Lives Matter" T-shirt.

He gave disturbing interviews filled with anti-Semitic vitriol. Within the month, his investment bank JPMorgan Chase, his talent agency CAA, and Balenciaga all cut ties with him. He was confident adidas would not do the same.

"I could say anti-Semitic things, and adidas can't drop me," Ye said on the podcast ‘Drink Champs.’ Within a week of that interview, adidas released a new clutch of Yeezys, and they sold out.

But his comments had consequences. The brand announced several days later that it would no longer work with Ye and that it would stop selling and producing Yeezy shoes. Adidas estimated that it would lose nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in profits in 2022.

Adidas was left with a huge inventory of shoes - representing about $1.3-billion worth of revenue. There were conversations about destroying them, giving them away or removing the Yeezy branding.

Instead, adidas did what so many sneakerheads before have done: It put the shoes on ice.

In May, it announced that it would begin selling them again, releasing a selection of bestsellers, several in previously unreleased colourways, on June 1, including the Yeezy 350 and 500 sneakers, as well as the Foam Runner slip-ons and Slides. It promised to donate a portion of the proceeds to charity.

In a Thursday earnings call, adidas CEO Bjorn Gulden, who joined the company in January from Puma, said that drop had raked in more than 400-million euros in sales, 110 million of which were donated to charitable organisations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Philonise and Keeta Floyd Institute for Social Change, founded by family members of George Floyd.

Gulden said the company had also worked with businessman and sports team owner Robert Kraft to find appropriate charitable outlets - including his own, the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism - and emphasised that there was much "uncertainty" around each of the drops, and that it wanted to deploy them "carefully."

In an interview, Gulden said the charitable donation is not calculated by percentage but is based on conversations around what would be an appropriate reparation.

Gulden declined to comment on how much Ye is making from the sale but said adidas is honouring its remaining legal obligations following the end of their contract.

The designer and rapper received a portion of the revenue as a part of his contract. (Forbes estimated in 2020 that his cut might be about 11 percent.)

Another drop of shoes appeared the week of the earnings call: a similar mix of Boosts plus Foam Runners and Slides, sold through adidas's own channels and through wholesale partners such as British streetwear store End and sneaker retailer Extra Butter. Adidas will continue to release the shoes, though Gulden declined to specify how many shoes were left.

Moral absolution has become an essential component of consumerism in 2023 - touting the green qualities of a product, or the race or gender of the object's creator, to comfort a shopper.

Brands that buck this trend are the subject of intense backlash.

Late last year, consumers filmed themselves burning their Balenciaga gear when the brand released a pair of advertisements, one showing children with what appeared to be fetish gear and another with a document referring to a child pornography ruling, which led online conspiracy theorists to infer that it was endorsing child trafficking. Balenciaga is still struggling to bounce back from the scandal.

What makes Yeezy different? Are shoppers just too exhausted to keep up with it all? Or did Ye just make really great shoes?

No one in the sneaker world was surprised that adidas began selling Yeezys again.

The partnership that Ye formed with adidas was revolutionary.

Ten years ago, the artist was at the peak of his rap career, and he was outspoken about his outsize influence on fashion but continued exclusion from its inner sanctum.

The sneakers he produced with adidas, and the accompanying runway shows he staged with artist Vanessa Beecroft, still look in keeping with 2023's aesthetics from a product perspective, with shapewear styled as outerwear under thick jersey pieces and utility vests.

Less advanced, and maybe a hint of Ye's more recent interviews, was his and Beecroft's bizarre decision to arrange and dress their models based on skin tone.

These were early hints, before Virgil Abloh transformed Louis Vuitton and sweatpants became the global uniform, that sneakers and T-shirts could drive the runway conversation.

"They look futuristic," said Mike Sykes, who writes the footwear newsletter ‘The Kicks You Wear.’ "They offer an aesthetic that you don't get with any other sneaker."

And they gave adidas an edge over rival Nike, which had worked with Ye to create the much-coveted Air Yeezy in 2009. (And whose Roshe Run is considered to be a predecessor to Ye's best-selling Boost 350 with adidas.)

Although his influence at other brands he worked with, such as Balenciaga and Gap, was palpable, adidas was proof that Ye, who had been increasingly erratic in his creative output, could have sustained success and influence.

Since adidas ended their relationship, it has struggled to find a replacement for Yeezy, financially or emotionally.

Adidas representatives frequently mention the potential of their partnership with Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo.

Its Samba sneakers have skyrocketed in popularity over the past year, and an ongoing collaboration with British designer Grace Wales Bonner is admired among those for whom Instagram is fashion's front row.