What Happened to My Canvas Shoes?

S Upendran
Those of us who went to school in the 1970s and 80s were usually required to buy two pairs of shoes at the beginning of every academic year: one was the standard black leather shoe, and the other was the ubiquitous ‘canvas’ shoe. The canvas shoes were our sports shoes, and we would invariably slip into the sorry looking specimens on days we had PT. Unlike the footwear of today, they did not have fancy names like, ‘Air Max’, ‘Zoom Air’, ‘Blazer’ or ‘Terminator’. They were condemned to be called ‘canvas shoes’ and all well-known shoe companies manufactured them. When you went shopping for a pair, you merely said ‘canvas shoes’, and waited for the shop assistant to bring out a couple of horrible looking brown boxes (or an apology for one) in which each pair was squished together. There were no brands; as kids growing up, we didn’t say, “I want the ‘Bata Blue Fox’ or the ‘Corona Green Hornet’.”

How things have changed in a matter of 30 years! Buying a pair of ‘sports shoes’, as they are called now, is very often a mind boggling and a cash blowing experience. There are several things that you have to factor in before you zero in on the pair of your choice: the brand, the type of sole, the material used for the uppers, the weight of the shoe, etc. Makes the buying of a pair of shoes seem more like rocket science, doesn’t it? People no longer ask you if you’ve bought yourself a pair of sport shoes: the question that is usually asked is, ‘Did you buy Adidas/Nike/Reeebok/Puma?’ Ever wonder why these products are called what they are? In today’s column, I’ll tell you the stories behind three well-known brand names.

Adidas
There was a time when people believed that ‘Adidas’ was an acronym for ‘All Day I Dream About Sports’. Of course, some people thought that the ‘s’ stood for something else: sex! Neither story is true. The founder of Adidas was a German named Adolf Dassler; nicknamed ‘Adi’ by his friends. After the First World War, Dassler started his little shoe company in his mother’s wash kitchen. He took his younger brother, Rudolph, as his partner, and the startup company was called, ‘Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory). The company did roaring business for a number of years, but as it always happens in such circumstances, strained relationship between the brothers led to the parting of ways in 1948. It was only after this breakup that Adolf decided to give the company a new name. He achieved this by combining his nickname ‘Adi’ with the fi rst half of his surname ‘Dassler’ and got ‘Adidas’!

There was a time when people believed that ‘Adidas’ was an acronym for ‘All Day I Dream About Sports’. Of course, some people thought that the ‘s’ stood for something else: sex! Neither story is true. The founder of Adidas was a German named Adolf Dassler; nicknamed ‘Adi’ by his friends. After the First World War, Dassler started his little shoe company in his mother’s wash kitchen. He took his younger brother, Rudolph, as his partner, and the startup company was called, ‘Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory). The company did roaring business for a number of years, but as it always happens in such circumstances, strained relationship between the brothers led to the parting of ways in 1948. It was only after this breakup that Adolf decided to give the company a new name. He achieved this by combining his nickname ‘Adi’ with the fi rst half of his surname ‘Dassler’ and got ‘Adidas’!

Adidas
The company was formally registered as ‘adidas AG’ (with lower case lettering) on August 18, 1949. Not to be outdone, the younger brother, Rudolph, built his own empire: he founded the Puma shoe company.

Nike
While the brand name ‘Adidas’ is derived from the name of a person, we get the name ‘Nike’ from that of a goddess: in Greek mythology, the goddess of victory was called Nike. When Phil Knight, the Chairman of Nike, began business in 1964, he called his company ‘Blue Ribbon Sports’. At that time, the company wasn’t into the business of manufacturing shoes; it was functioning as a distributor of the Tiger sports shoes that were being made in Japan! When the company started making their own line of products, the term Nike began to be used to refer to the new line of shoes. By naming the shoes after the goddess of victory, what Knight was suggesting was that any athlete who wore his brand was assured of a place on the victor’s podium. It was only in 1978 that Blue Ribbon Sports officially changed its name to Nike.

Nike
In the case of Nike, both its name and logo are universally recognised. In 1971, when Knight decided to launch his own line of products, he approached Carolyn Davidson, a student of Portland State University specialising in graphic design to come up with a logo for his new product. In June 1971, she presented Knight and his project leaders a number of designs: one of them was the ‘Swoosh’, which is famous all over the world today. Although Knight wasn’t enamored of the ‘Swoosh’, he did predict that it might begin ‘to grow on him’. The logo which represents the wings of the goddess Nike, not only grew on him, but also on others, and helped earn the company millions of dollars. Any idea how much Carolyn Davidson was paid for coming up with the logo? If you are thinking in terms hundreds of thousands of dollars, forget it. She charged Knight a whopping $35! Years later, when Nike became a household name, the company CEO, in order to show his appreciation, gave Carolyn a diamond ring shaped like the Swoosh along with a huge envelope stuffed with Nike stocks. Goes to show that even businessmen have a heart!

Reebok
The name of the third company does not come from the world of humans or gods. It comes from the world of animals. A ‘Rhebok’, which in Afrikaans is spelt ‘Reebok’ is a type of antelope or gazelle known for its amazing speed. The company, initially called ‘J.W. Foster & Sons’, was started in Bolton, England in 1895 and its owner was Joseph William Foster. The Englishman did some pioneering work in the field of sports shoes: his footwear was hand crafted, and he was the first person to introduce the concept of spikes in running shoes.ReebokAll the British stars who took part in the track and field events in the 1924 Olympics wore shoes made by Foster. For the movie buff among you, the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ with its hypnotic music was based on the 1924 Olympics. In 1958, Foster’s grandsons renamed the company ‘Reebok’. It became a big player in the world of shoes when it started manufacturing different varieties of sports shoes for women: it was the fi rst company to do so.

S Upendran teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at “[email protected]”.

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