Why does the adidas Gazelle matter? The brand is now pushing the classic low-top—thanks to a heavy PR campaign and a ton of new iterations of the shoe—as the next retro phenomenon to follow up the Stan Smith. The Gazelle is a shoe that started off in the sports world, has been worn by a handful of influential subcultures, and was favored by celebrities such as the Oasis, Kate Moss, and a young Michael Jackson. And if you were perplexed as to how something that never seemed to go away could become the new thing to be excited about, the answer is convoluted. To really understand, we need to examine its history and legacy, but charting the history of specific Adidas shoes is never easy.
How the Gazelle Became the Shoe We All Know Today
adidas is a brand rooted in Adi and son Horst Dassler’s absolute obsession with performance, and shoes were frequently updated. Due to licensing deals across the world, there’s no single “true” incarnation of the Gazelle.
adidas had training designs that paved the way for the Gazelle. 1960’s Rom was a leather shoe with a ripple sole and suede toe overlay that was timed for the Rome Olympics that year and 1964’s Olympiade was a German team favorite, with then cutting-edge performance details like a pull tab on the back of the shoe. In 1966, that design DNA was upgraded to form the first Gazelle shoe. At the time, the use of a suede material was unique, and it was present on two iterations of the Gazelle.
For Gary Aspden, UK-based consultant for adidas and the man behind the brand’s Spezial line, it’s a shoe that changed the direction of the brand’s training business. “The profile, the ‘T’ toe overlay, and the contrast of the white stripes against brightly colored suede laid the foundations for so many shoes in the years that followed,” he says. “At their time of release, they pushed the envelope on color when it came to training shoes. The dyed suede was far more vibrant than colored leather.”
The color of the shoes actually denoted their performance purpose. The Gazelle Blue was made for training, with a kangaroo upper, padded ankle, arch support, foot-form tongue, and micro-grip sole. The Gazelle Red was created with handball in mind, incorporating a completely different transparent, non-slip outsole tread. The former is the inspiration for an iteration of the Gazelle sold by Adidas Originals as the Gazelle Vintage in 2006. By 1968, the Gazelle had lost that shoehorn heeltab, gained a new lined micro-cell sole, and developed a white heel tab to become the source material for the version of the Gazelle reissued by Adidas Originals as the Gazelle O.G.
Around 1971, that micro-cell sole was shared by both colorways and seemed to be switched to the cell pattern that’s echoed on subsequent versions to the present day. The Gazelle had a brush with controversy during the summer of 1972, when swimming legend Mark Spitz took a staggering seven Olympic gold medals in Munich. Encouraged not to let his loose track pants swallow his shoes by endorsee Horst Dassler, Spitz held his blue Gazelles aloft in triumph to celebrate a 200-meter freestyle win, both before and after the National Anthem. As well as invoking the wrath of the International Olympic Committee for product placement, it would, according to Barbara Smit’s book Pitch Invasion, cause some issues between Horst and Adi, who was about the shoes rather than any dips into swimwear.
The Gazelle then drifted in and out the Adidas catalog between 1972 and 1979. It seemed to be superseded by the Athens training shoe at one point and was replaced in 1973 by a lookalike shoe in red or blue called the Jaguar — named after the apex predator nemesis of the Gazelle — that didn’t seem to hang around for long. By now, the Gazelle seemed to have had its day as a pure performance shoe. Foreshadowing its fashion status, the inaugural edition of Japanese style bible Popeye from summer 1976 incorporated them in an early catalog-style sneaker feature.
Aspden sees other fan favorites from this period as a post-Gazelle development. “Whilst they were built on different tooling, one could argue that the flat, suede silhouettes from the Adidas ‘City’ series were all born out of the Gazelle aesthetic. Other key Adidas shoes like the Handball Spezial were clearly inspired by them, too,” he says.
By 1979, Adidas had implemented its Special concept, where several old performance favorites were given uncompromising upgrades to maintain their relevance. The Gazelle Special debuted, with a transparent sole that used the Adidas Trefoil as its outsole pattern, a new shape and a redesigned forefoot. Originally sold as a handball shoe, it was also sold in the very early 1980s under the standalone Gazelle name. That rethink is the version of the Gazelle reissued as the Gazelle Indoor around 2011. The existence of this premium edition didn’t eliminate the simpler version, which had altered shape and construction by this point.
The Gazelle Becomes a Cultural Mainstay
For legions of young Brits in the early 1980s, Adidas shoes were something of a rite of passage. In the north of England, a version of the original Gazelle was fairly easily attainable and affordable. Like many, Aspden favors the early 1980s incarnation of the shoe. He and his friends in the northern English town of Darwen had local access to several Adidas designs, but only one would do. “We called shoes like Monaco, Madeira, and Samoa the ‘poor man’s Gazelles,’ as they had suede uppers but were a fiver cheaper than the Gazelle. Gazelle was the shoe everyone wanted,” he says.
As hip-hop began to boom in Europe on the back of electro, rap and Malcolm McLaren’s shrewd repackaging of the culture, New York scene staples like Superstars or the Campus might have been sighted on record sleeves but, given basketball’s then niche status in most continents beyond the USA, they were scarce until their 1990s reissue. Gazelles were one of the closest things aesthetically and their reputation was strong. Subsequently, it became the shoe to have for a nascent hip-hop scene overseas. While the soccer-centric casual audience — those terrace types (hooligans to Americans) who were key to building Adidas from the late 1970s to the present day — have always loved the shoe, this imported realm of dance, music, and art was key to driving its popularity.
It was a culture of working with what you’ve got that gave the shoe a new context. As Aspden recalls, “The stuff we saw the Americans wearing was not always available here, so kids would improvise and appropriate — that appropriation created a whole new hybrid look that took inspiration from the U.S. but was very British.”
A lime pair was added to the classic duo of red and blue, giving fans a choice of three editions as of 1983/84. Aspden heard rumors of an unfounded fourth makeup that he puts down to someone trying to style out some red pairs put through the laundry, “There was a myth about baby pink/white as everyone was obsessed with all things in baby pink back then. I don’t think I saw a pink pair until the 1990s,” he says.
Having examined over 15 versions of the Gazelle for the newest reissue, Originals footwear designer Jean Khalifé has an explanation of that variety. “Adidas has always been about answering the specific demands for athletes and also local markets. When the brand started to become international and export products outside Europe, it changed manufacturers several times through the ages,” he says. “Of course, they started making shoes in West Germany, then France, Austria, Brazil, Argentina, and Canada. They differed because shoes were produced with different materials and different processes from one country to another.
At the start of the 1990s, the Beastie Boys’ experimental return to popularity saw them wearing some of the shoes they’d been wearing back in their earliest Def Jam days. Mike D invested in the Los Angeles-based X-Large store that opened in late 1991, which stocked old suede Adidas and Puma pieces around its launch, with the Gazelle as a notable part of that dusty inventory. A newly underground skate world was becoming a world of intricate flip-tricks, 40mm wheels, and wide pants, and the Gazelle was a popular shoe for skating in for a short while.
The shoe was still a shoe for people in the know in the States, or at least on the East Coast. Adidas connoisseur and New York City resident Operator EMZ, who was chosen by the brand for part of its “Collectors Project” in 2013, says, “My first memory was seeing them on the west coast in the early ‘90s. They were a lot easier to find than a pair of vintage Campus, circa ‘91, and the soccer spots had colors. I remember cutting off the stripes of my black ones and rocking them on one of my trips back to New York, I was like NO ONE is gonna have Gazelles with cut off stripes in NYC.”
Adidas was a brand in a state of flux at the time of this suede shoe renaissance. In addition to pitching the newly launched EQT line that scrapped the Trefoil, former Nike staffers Peter Moore—who designed the Air Jordan 1—and Rob Strasser had pushed to launch a line called Originals (a decade ahead of the official launch of Adidas Originals) that would incorporate old classics and new versions of archive designs in response to this sudden interest in the classics. The Gazelle was present in that line, and a new version of the shoe debuted around 1991 that bulked up its shape a bit.
In the UK, a phenomenon called Britpop, built on music from bands like Oasis and Blur and the appropriately named Suede, penetrated popular culture in 1994 and made the Gazelle a mandatory accessory. Much of the music was forgettable lad-rock and was kitted out in the resurrection of Adidas Firebird tracksuit tops, skinny ringer tees, and pillaging of old sports brands.
Aspden respects the Manchester swagger of Oasis’s look circa 1994, but he also admires some other cultural luminaries’ patronage of the shoe. “I love those images of Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] from the Rolling Stones wearing Gazelles in the early ‘70s. Another good image is Michael Jackson with his Afro and Gazelles in the Jackson 5 days. On a quirkier note, Arnold from the TV show Diff’rent Strokes wore them.” It wasn’t confined to a male audience, either, as he says, “They became standard issue for supermodels in the ‘90s. Kate Moss wore them religiously, and there is that great shot of Helena Christensen nude with nothing but Gazelles on.”
Recreating the Gazelle for 2016
Adidas’ trump card might be its recruitment of some employees who have an emotional attachment to their work. Khalifé was the right man to lead the newest retro. “I guess I am lucky in a sense that my favorite variant of the shoe is the early ‘90s one,” he says. When I joined the brand one year ago and I was told that I would take care of resurrecting the shoe, it was like Christmas for me. I was born in the east of France and Adidas was always pretty popular in that area. I literally grew up with Gazelles on my feet.”
The ‘90s version was chosen as the 2016 retro for its cultural impact during that decade, but Khalifé is aware that tales of past triumphs will only take you so far if you don’t tap into the zeitgeist. “It is not only about nostalgia. We believe that the shape and the features of that version speaks to a modern audience, too,” he says.
The latest reissue of the Gazelle is completely reengineered by Khalifé and the team, “We had to rework it completely from scratch and remake all the blueprints and technical drawings,” he says. “ Luckily, we had amazing resources and I was surrounded by fantastic technicians. Together we made sure to recreate the perfect archive shoe replica, millimeter-by-millimeter and stitch-by-stitch. We had to recreate a new tooling [the sole unit] with a specific foxing tape that has the exact same texture as the vintage Gazelle, too. The tongue is a key feature with all those recessed ribs.”
It’s a reissue that Aspden co-signs and says, “This re-launched version of the Gazelle for me sits in that spot between that pared down vintage look and those inflated and expanded later iterations.”
For one cinematic role model, they’re still good enough to exercise in, as spotted by Aspden. “I was saying how to someone how the Gazelle has overtaken their original purpose and function and how no serious athlete would use a shoe like that to train in, and then I remembered seeing James Bond working out in a pair in one of the recent Daniel Craig films,” he says. “If they are good enough for James Bond to use in the gym, then who am I to argue otherwise?”