Puma has an interesting history and one worth getting clued up on. I haven’t owned a pair of Puma sneakers for a while now and if I look back, I’ve only owned about four pairs to date. However, Puma is notable to me because I recall nagging my folks for my very first pair way back in the mid-90s. It was during this time that the Disc System was unveiled and promoted by British sprinter, Linford Christie. The Disc was and remains a stunning creation in the world of footwear. You slip your foot into the shoe, and you turn the disc to tighten the lacing system, which in turn wraps the shoe around your foot. To undo it, there’s a button at the centre of the disc which requires that you push down on it while pulling the rest of the disc up. To my mind, this is still one of Puma’s greatest innovations. Puma’s story is older than most other sneaker and/or sportswear brands and its story while interesting, is also controversial.
Puma was formed way back in 1924 when two German brothers, Rudolph and Adolf Dassler founded a shoe factory in their mother’s laundry. At this point the brothers called their company Dassler Brothers Shoe Company – a name that’s rather obscure on the German dialect. Back then the supply of electricity wasn’t consistent and there were times the brothers were reliant on the pedal power of a bicycle to see them through!
Life is full of ironies and during the formative years of Puma, a real hutzpah happened in 1936, the year in which Germany hosted the Olympic Games. The brothers went to the games with a suitcase of spikes and asked that Jesse Owens, an African American athlete, and certainly not who Hitler was rooting for, wear their shoes. Owens creamed it at the Olympics, word got out of the footwear he was wearing and thus the brothers were pushing 200 000 pairs of shoes prior to World War II.
The irony of a German company backing a man of colour during a time in which its leader was a blatant racist was the first incident of the duality of the company; the second came when both brothers joined the Nazi Party. Apparently things were already tense between the two based on conflicting ideas and it only got worse during the war as Rudolph was convinced that his brother was out to get him, a notion personified when Rudolph became convinced that Adolf had informed American soldiers that he was a member of the armed wing of the SS party.
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The Brothers Go Their Separate Ways
Due to constant clashing, the brothers decided to go their separate ways in 1948 with Rudolf moving to other side of the river to start his own footwear company. Adolf, or Adi as he preferred for obvious reasons, decided to start his own company too, using his nickname and the first three letters of his surname. Low and behold, this is how Adidas was born and in the same breath, Puma. Can you believe that? Two of the greatest sportswear companies birthed from the conflict of two brothers. It was a split not only of ideology but one of literal proportions that saw the world get not one but two of its greatest sportswear companies. It’s mythic, it’s legendary and it’s very archetypal, if we’re going to peel back the psychological and folklore layers, but that is a discussion for another day! We might need the likes of an intellectual like Jordan Peterson for that one.
The Ensuing Years
Innovation is one of the key driving forces behind any product and Rudolph, now free to do things his way with Puma, formed in 1948, struck gold in 1952 when he developed the Super Atom, a football boot with screw-in studs. Six years later Puma would get its defining logo, the formstrip and break new ground a further 2 years later in 1960 as the first sport shoe manufacture to use the process of vulcanisation. 1967 saw the minimisation of the feline puma logo; prior it had formed part of a larger logo. The rivalry between the brothers once again reared its head in 1970 through what became known as the Pelé pact, an agreement that dictated that the soccer player could not be approached by Puma or Adidas.
The Puma brand has been a mainstay for years now. It’s status is such that it goes toe to toe with the likes of Nike, Adidas, Reebok and New Balance, and those are just the really well-known ones. Over the years Puma has gone from strength to strength to not just become a brand of quality and functionality, but also a brand of class and status; nothing says this more than the price! Puma is expensive. I’m not going to even try and sugar-coat that fact. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that their shoes are overpriced and that the company has fallen head-over-heels in love with its ego. My reservations aside, one cannot discount the respect that Puma commands.
In the 1980s Boris Becker lent his skills on the court to Puma to help them develop a shoe that would bear his name. That decade also saw another tennis ace, Martina Navratilova, become contracted to the shoe giant from 84’ to 87’ and at the end of 89’ the Trinomic shoe system was unveiled. I can write a novella about the Disc System which was launched in 1991 and saw the Olympic athlete Linford Christie all the way to gold. In 1998 Puma signed another tennis ace, this time Serena Williams and at the start of the 21st century made a massive splash with its fireproof footwear, the result of a partnership with two major car companies – Porsche and Sparco. The apparel giant also pulled off a massive coup by signing perhaps the greatest Olympian of all time – Usain Bolt.
In 2007 Gucci and co. bought a 27% stake in Puma, thus clearing the way for a friendly takeover, a move that Puma welcomed. It all makes sense now; prior to this Puma wasn’t making gold sneakers! 2015 saw pop sensation Rihanna become a global ambassador and creative director at Puma, thus allowing her to weigh in on decisions around customisation, designs and even the creation of new product lines. Puma seems to seek out talent from the limelight and in 2018 after 20 years of not being on the basketball scene, re-entered it with Jay-Z as its creative director.
When your brand is as established as Puma, how can the future not look bright?