Last November I started a series of posts dedicated to the history of the modern sneaker, focusing on the giants of the industry. So far I’ve covered some of the most important sneaker tech over the years and our first brand, ASICS. As many of the other sneaker giants in the industry, Reebok too has a fairly rich history, stretching back further than many would guess.
The Start of it All
It all started back in 1895 when a youngster, Joseph William Foster, at just 14 years old started a small project in his bedroom above his dad’s sweet shop in Bolton, England. Foster, fascinated by the increasing trend of the early sneaker, started experimenting by adding spikes on his running shoes. After a few years of playing around with the concept and his ideas progressed in the community, he founded his own shoe business, J.W. Foster, in 1900, which later evolved into J.W. Foster and Sons. Foster opened a small factory, which he named Olympic Works, with his shoes, known as “running pumps, becoming gradually more famous among athletes. The company grew to better heights as the shoes began distribution to British athletes across the UK, the most famous of which was worn by 100m Olympic Champion, Harold Abrahams, in the 1924 Summer Games in Paris.
After years of successful distribution, Foster’s grandsons, Joe and Jeff Foster, formed a partnership creating a companion company known as Reebok in 1958, which started out making cycling shoes. Interestingly enough, the name is derived from South Africa, from the Afrikaans word rhebok, which translates from rhebuck, a type of African antelope. Even more interesting was that Joe had won the dictionary (American Webster’s), which contained the word, after winning a race during the war at an athletics event. Having earlier failed to register the name Mercury Sports Footwear, the Foster’s took a list of 12 names to an agent, and, out of all the ones given to him, Reebok was the only one that cleared.
The company continued its humble progress in the market but were restricted almost exclusively to the UK market. That was until the company decided to venture out to the U.S. at the Chicago International Sneaker Trade Show where they were noticed by a businessman, Paul Fireman, who negotiated a deal to licence and distribute the Reebok brand in the U.S. for a sporting goods store. The shoes were priced significantly high for its time at $60 a pair, but they were in high demand by the end of the first year and reached $1.5 million in sales by the end of year two.
Shortly following their success in the US market, Reebok caught their competitors off guard by introducing the Reebok Freestyle, a range of sports shoes designed for women. This helped the company skyrocket in sales. By 1984, the women-focused Reebok Lifestyle sneakers and apparel made up more than half of all their sales, increasing the brand’s sales past the $13 million mark. Riding this success, the company expanded into the basketball market, a largely popular shoe market in the U.S. The company signed up a few stars from 1986 in an attempt to improve performance basketball shoes to compete with Nike.
The Downward Slide
In 1990, Reebok introduced the first lightweight athletic shoes with vented side panels, known as the Reebok Ventilator. Unfortunately, things took a bit of a turn moving from the ’80s to the ’90s and times were quite tough for Reebok. Having initially started off extremely well, they ended the decade rather flat. The company made important strides in the basketball market with a series of shoes and sponsorships, having signed Shaq O’Neal and launched the Shaq Attack line of sneakers. Unfortunately, the timing and designs of the line didn’t sit well with prospective buyers, especially amongst teenagers, as the market trend at the time leaned towards black shoes, instead of the all-white Shaq Attack range. It didn’t help that the cost of the sneakers burned a $130 hole in your wallet. The results were significant, with Reebok having suffered a drop of 20% market share as a direct result.
Change of Fortunes
The drop in market share meant the company submitted their top spot in the U.S. to Nike and were now battling to compete for the number two. Reebok terminated their contract with O’Neal and signed Allen Iverson on a $5 million a year deal, which boosted their sales shortly after. The company was in direct competition with adidas and lost their second position to the German company. In August 2005, adidas acquired Reebok as a subsidiary for an estimated $3.8 billion. Despite the merger uniting two of the largest sports companies at the time, the two kept their separate brands. The only big change came in the form of adidas replacing Reebok as the official uniform and apparel supplier for the NBA from 2006 on an 11-year deal.
In 2010, Reebok launched the Zig, which incorporated new advanced footwear technology, the innovative zigzag soles designed for extra traction on the field or on rough terrain.
That same year, Reebok also announced their new partnership with CrossFit, a fitness company, which includes competitive fitness sport, sponsoring the CrossFit Games, a number of CrossFit studios and the introduction of a line of co-branded fitness apparel in 2011. As a direct result of the partnership, Reebok changed their logo to the CrossFit delta symbol on their fitness range. This change was only their second logo change in their 120-year history phasing out the vector variant and also symbolised the return to their fitness and sports range sneakers and apparel they were known for in the ’80s.
The red delta logo represents the three pillars of positive self-change, which includes mental, physical and social elements. As part of the CrossFit partnership, the company launched the first official CrossFit shoe, the Reebok Nano, while also increasing their focus on yoga, dance, aerobics and CrossFit.
In 2014, the company introduced another new footwear technology in the form of the foam technology, following the success of the adidas Boost. The launch included the introduction of a new sneaker, the Reebok ZQuick TR with the Z-series foam. The company continues to grow amongst the fitness community today, in addition to the growing range of Reebok Classic sneakers.
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