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Michael Michalsky, 2005
WITH MARTIEN MULDER
[Adidas Creative Director Michalsky has brought a 21st century global model to the brand, creating three divisions, collaborating with Missy Elliott and Yohji Yamamoto, and reinventing the retro German label for a new era.]

MARTIEN: I'm fascinated by the hugeness of your job as creative director at Adidas.
MICHAEL: I've really grown into it. I started at the company as global head of design for apparel more than ten years ago. Adidas had just emerged from near-bankruptcy, and there were only seven designers on the apparel staff. My first responsibility was to build up a new design team. After five years, I was promoted to creative director. My job is like that of a conductor directing a large orchestra. The conductor knows what notes everybody should be playing and what the arrangement should sound like. Perhaps he doesn't know how to play the violin, so he hires the best violinists and listens to make sure they're playing in tune and in tempo.
MARTIEN: Only three months after you became creative director, you initiated an almost complete overhaul of the structure of the Adidas brand. You segmented it into three divisions — Sport Performance, Heritage Originals, and Sport Style.
MICHAEL: Adidas as a brand was quite dusty. Magazines never featured our products. Some music people were into Adidas, but the top fashion tier wouldn't touch it. When we conducted consumer research, participants would say, "Well, Adidas products are good value, but they're a bit dowdy and boring." The problem was that the design philosophy was aimed at a general market. Why not try to focus them toward more targeted audiences? It was a really exciting time — we felt a bit like pioneers. We started by launching Heritage Originals — reintroducing the old-school designs for which Adidas has always been famous.
MARTIEN: Do you feel powerful in your position?
MICHAEL: It's hard to say. I'm not as powerful as people might think I am. This job requires compromise. We want to offer unique and innovative designs, but we also have to make money. It's like being in a relationship — it's not always about getting what you want.
MARTIEN: You have to create a balance with which everyone can live.
MICHAEL: When you love someone really deeply, you're willing to accept that person for who they are. You understand their strengths and weaknesses, and you know what you're getting yourself into. Some things about this company and this job drive me totally mad, but there are other things that make me realize, "Wow, I could never work anywhere else." I'm absolutely attached to this place. When you think about something or someone all the time, that's real love.
MARTIEN: It's certainly not a nine-to-five job.
MICHAEL: If I'm going to be any good in my position, I have to live and breathe the job. There is no boundary between my private and professional lives. And that's great, because this is the lifestyle I've always wanted, ever since I was a little boy.
MARTIEN: What were you like as a kid?
MICHAEL: Really wild. I looked like a freak. I grew up in a little village in the north of Germany, between Hamburg and L$)A(9beck. I decided at a very early age that I wanted to look different from everybody else. I wanted to express myself, and I didn't care what anybody thought or said. But, as you can imagine, it was hard to be that way growing up in a small village.
MARTIEN: How did your parents react?
MICHAEL: My mum has always been very brave, a rock, and an inspiration to me, but I think my dad was ashamed of me at times. It was difficult for him to understand why I dressed and acted the way I did, while all the other kids in the village played soccer all the time.
MARTIEN: So you've always expressed your creativity through fashion.
MICHAEL: It's not so different from painting or making music. But in fashion, you are the canvas.
MARTIEN: Where do you look for ideas?
MICHAEL: I love music so much. I listen to it at least sixteen hours a day — in the car, at work, at home. If you don't understand music, you don't understand fashion. Subcultures are always initially inspired by music — only afterward do people extend the message through the way they dress. A love of music always comes first, even on the Paris catwalks.
MARTIEN: Run-D.M.C. were the ultimate Adidas fans. They even wrote a song about the shoes.
MICHAEL: And they wore a lot of our products onstage. You mustn't forget — in the early '80s Adidas was a very boring company based in the German countryside that was only interested in equipping Olympic athletes. No one who worked there had any clue whatsoever about modern American youth culture —like hip-hop, rap, or break-dancing — or realized that sneakers had become part of an anti-fashion movement. In 1986, Run-D.M.C. invited Adidas to one of their shows in New York. The company sent someone totally dull, like a typical German office worker —to this day nobody knows who that person was. Halfway through the show, while performing "My Adidas," Run-D.M.C. shouted, "Show us your Adidas!" and everybody in the audience took off their shoes and held them up in the air. The Adidas guy went back to Germany and said, "All these black people in New York are making really good music. Well, it's not really music — they speak rather than sing. We should do something with them.
MARTIEN: And Adidas became the first brand to work with people from the hip-hop community.
MICHAEL: Run-D.M.C. were known for wearing their sneakers without laces, in a nod to prison culture. They asked if there was a way we could fix the tongue on the Superstars so their shoes wouldn't slip off without laces. Adidas put a little elastic in the tongue and introduced the Ultrastars in 1988.
MARTIEN: Just last year Adidas launched RespectME, a line of shoes and clothing in collaboration with Missy Elliott.
MICHAEL: Missy told me the first pair of sneakers she ever bought were Superstars, because Run-D.M.C. wore them — when she was thirteen she begged her mom to buy her a pair. Before we worked on RespectME, she had worn Adidas products in her videos — six times in a row. I loved what she and her stylist did to the pieces — they took mass-market Adidas clothes and customized them, almost like a DJ remixes a pop record. Missy does not fit the female hip-hop stereotype. She writes her own music, co-directs her videos, and produces great tracks for other artists. She is fully in charge.
MARTIEN: In 2002, you started working with the Japanese avant-garde designer Yohji Yamamoto to create his Y3 line of clothes and shoes.
MICHAEL: Yohji read about us when we worked with American designer Jeremy Scott earlier that year. His assistant phoned my office and said, "We're Yohji Yamamoto. Do you know us?" I said, "Of course!" They'd called headquarters before I started working at the company, but no one had ever called Yohji back. I was very excited at the prospect of collaborating with him. I chose a few of my favorite Adidas shoes and dug out a few designs that had never seen the light of day, and sketched out new versions of each of them for Yohji. I thought he would choose the one he liked the best, but he freaked out and wanted to work on all seven.
MARTIEN: What did the others at headquarters think of the collaboration?
MICHAEL: Some people didn't understand what we were doing. They didn't really have the guts to do something so different. The fashion show was scheduled for a Sunday in October 2002. The Friday before, I got calls from a lot of people in the company who wanted me to stop the project. But I said, "I promised Yohji we'd do this. I'm going to Paris, I'll see you Monday." It was ridiculous! The shoes might be unusual colors and fabrics and have Yohji's signature on them, but they're still top sport performance wear — you can go running in them if you want.
MARTIEN: This year, Adidas won the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen's Design Team of the Year award, internationally recognized as one of Europe's most prestigious design award.
MICHAEL:We won the award because, although we have three distinct divisions, each with its own design direction, whatever we do always turns out trademark Adidas. You can only accomplish that if everyone in the different divisions works together effectively. As a team, we're in sync — my staff still includes many of the people I hired on day one. We've worked closely on so many projects that they understand what I want to do with each product and where I want to go with the brand. But as individuals, everyone is a little different. I know people who work in certain French and Italian fashion houses, and when I visit their offices, everyone looks the same. It makes me think, "Oh my God, these people are being cloned!"
MARTIEN: Where do you find new designers to bring on board?
MICHAEL: I like to hire young people straight out of school. I hardly ever take people from other companies or brands. Every leading position on my design teams is held by someone who has moved up within the company. I want my team members to feel there's a plan for their future growth at Adidas. I want them to think, "In two years' time, I could do this. And maybe in three years' time, I could do that."
MARTIEN: You create a loyal staff that way.
MICHAEL: I really believe in empowering people and giving them the freedom to do their jobs. At the end of the day, it's important that everyone is responsible for what he or she brings to the table. Otherwise I might as well just do it myself.
MARTIEN: Has the managerial side of your job superseded your day-to-day creative involvement?
MICHAEL: If creative means personally drawing every single design, then I guess I'm not creative. But I initiate every new project myself. After a year or two, once the groundwork is in place and it's heading in the direction I want it to take, I hand the project over to a team. I'm not really a designer, and I'm not really a manager — I'm something in between.
MARTIEN: People tell me you're Adidas's best-kept secret. You've done very little press.
MICHAEL: Adidas is not a personality-driven company. Working for a brand gives you parameters within which to work and explore creatively. I find that very challenging and rewarding.
MARTIEN: So you're not interested in fame?
MICHAEL: I love fame! I like the idea of it, and I very consciously work with famous people to promote Adidas. But I'm careful with my own persona. Everyone I work with knows me and knows what I'm like. Outside the company, I'm more cautious about what I say and do. Ultimately, only musicians and athletes can give a brand credibility in the sporting apparel business.
MARTIEN: Do you play any sports?
MICHAEL:I was really crap at sports when I was in school — I'm not a team-sports person. But now I run three to five times a week. I needed to find a way to be more in touch with my body because I don't live a very healthy lifestyle — I'm constantly jet-lagged from travel. But I'm a great spectator. I love being part of the crowd. Everyone forgets about race and prejudices at a soccer game and just enjoys the spectacle.