Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, was one of pop music’s biggest stars in 2013 when he inked his first sneakers deal with Adidas. However, his creative energy and focus shifted toward disrupting the fashion industry. Following an internship at Fendi and a collaboration with Louis Vuitton, Nike briefly hired him to collaborate on two sneaker projects: the Air Yeezy I and II. But it was the star’s partnership with Adidas that would be as lucrative as it was, ultimately, controversial.
The Ye-Adidas marriage seemed like a true win-win. Ye became one of only a handful of Black billionaires worldwide. Adidas was able to compete with Nike for brand supremacy. But as Megan Twohey reveals in her recent New York Times exposé, this dysfunctional relationship, which eroded last year in the wake of Ye’s increasingly antisemitic comments, was rooted in deplorable behavior.
One of Twohey’s major suggestions is that Adidas allegedly “appeased” its star collaborator’s vile behavior for a decade. But another major question posed by Twohey’s article remains. To what extent was consumer behavior responsible for Adidas’ willingness to overlook Ye’s toxic and self-destructive behavior? And to what extent is it still happening? This Cyber Monday and holiday season, shoppers will spend millions on sneakers. While Ye’s Adidas originals are now harder to find, many pairs remain available via third-party sellers. And as Jewish groups warn about a surge in antisemitic hate tied to the Israel-Hamas war, the question of consumer complicity is as salient as ever.
Times reporter Twohey painted a picture of an unprofessional and at times abusive environment where Ye allegedly made antisemitic remarks, berated women, forced workers to watch pornography and demanded excessive perks from executives. Adidas shut the project down in 2022. But commerce arguably outweighed conscience when Adidas started reselling Yeezys in May after a projected annual $700 billion loss. A portion of the sale went to charity, including the Anti-Defamation League, but Ye was entitled to royalties.
While declining to comment specifically on the Times reporting, Adidas said in a statement in October that the company “has no tolerance for hate speech and offensive behavior, which is why the company terminated the Adidas Yeezy partnership.” Ye could not be reached for comment.
Of course, Adidas is not the only brand to profit from problematic celebrity spokespersons. But signs that Kanye was a dangerous loose cannon existed long before he praised Hitler.
This is the guy who sold merchandise with Confederate flag logos during his 2013 Yeezus tour and encouraged white concertgoers to recite the N-word as they sang his lyrics. He boasted that Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam and considered by many to be homophobic and antisemitic, befriended him. During a 2015 interview on The Breakfast Club, he revealed his plans for a forthcoming Farrakhan documentary and his desire to have Farrakhan present him with the BET Honors Visionary Award.
Three things drove Yeezy’s popularity: consumer culture, sneaker culture and celebrity culture. According to historian William Leach, author of "Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture," the roots of consumer culture date back to the turn of the 20th century. This culture intensified after the Great Depression and the advent of television marketing. Psychologist Tim Kasser, author of “The Science of Values in the Culture of Consumption,” says many individuals have “extrinsic” values based on status and praise from others. Studies show that in this social media age, many consumers under 35 base their self-worth on “likes” for their pictures and posts.
So-called sneakerheads exist at the intersection of street-smart style and influencer culture. Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator for Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, and author of "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture," says sneaker culture emerged in the 1980s with the arrival of Nike’s Air Jordans and Adidas’ first alignment with rappers Run-D.M.C. Teens were killing each other for their Jordans in the '90s.
But the rise of social media supercharged the consumer base. The Kardashians, with their combined billions in net worth and loyal followers, “helped target a whole new demographic ... to experience sneaker culture. It was a blending of high and low fashion,” claims sneaker strategist Jazerai Allen-Lord. This combination of sneaker fanatics, online sneaker vloggers hungry for clout, and a billion-dollar resale market helped popularize the Yeezy phenomenon. A pair of Yeezys resold for $1.8 million in 2022.
When I discussed my book “Wake Up, Mr. West: Kanye West and the Double Consciousness of Black Celebrity” at a Washington, D.C. venue two weeks after Adidas dropped Ye, I asked if people should stop wearing Yeezys or listening to his music. By my rough estimation, only about 20% of them said yes. While this was an unscientific sample, it illustrates the tremendous sway celebrity culture continues to have over consumers.
Echoing other elements of “cancel culture,” many consumers are more than happy to keep buying products made by or endorsed by problematic celebrities. This in turn sends a very confusing message to the celebrities themselves. If consumers really want to send a message to Adidas and Ye, they must stop buying Yeezys. Our words have power, but our wallets arguably have even more. Think about that the next time you lovingly covet a stranger’s Yeezy Slides and Foam Runners.