Kanye West is coming closer and closer to chopping off the last leg he had to stand on. Following a string of anti-Semitic public remarks and lies about the death of George Floyd, brands and former collaborators are disavowing Ye at a rapid pace. Creative Artists Agency dropped him as a client, Balenciaga ended its deal with the rapper-turned-designer last week, the entertainment studio MRC announced on Monday that it was shelving a planned documentary, and an educational consultant for Ye’s unaccredited school, Donda Academy, resigned from her post. All this, and Floyd’s family has hit him with a $25 million defamation suit. (Ye’s lawyer, who also recently represented Johnny Depp, decided the rapper was too much for her on Monday.) Finally, on Tuesday, the German footwear juggernaut Adidas severed its ties with West, having spent a week “reviewing” its long-running, lucrative, still-in-contract relationship with the artist and his Yeezy brand. After six years of abiding his behavior, it appears Kanye’s most consequential partners have really had enough.
It certainly took a while for Adidas to get there. Earlier this month, Page Six reported that West had harassed and insulted the company’s employees during a recent business meeting, showing them porn on his phone, demanding that one of his team members be made CEO of the company, and claiming Adidas executives had “cheated” him. Over the summer, Ye repeatedly attacked the apparel conglomerate, accusing it of selling unauthorized Yeezy-style shoes and of making decisions related to Yeezy without his input. In September, after prematurely terminating Yeezy’s 10-year contract with the Gap, Ye threatened to pull his brand’s deal with Adidas next. When the company announced that its partnership with Ye was “under review” in response to his recent “White Lives Matter” stunt, it felt like only a matter of time. But even after the artist went on to spout anti-Semitism across multiple platforms, Adidas was one of the last West collaborators to remain mum. Ye seemed to directly challenge the brand directly during a podcast appearance: “The thing about it being Adidas is like, I can literally say anti-Semitic shit and they can’t drop me.” After a pause, a slower reemphasis: “I can say anti-Semitic things and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what?”
One might think that, in light of Adidas’ early ties to Nazism, the brand might be a bit quicker to respond to violent rhetoric against Jewish people. Or that it would act to protect its stocks’ value as the public noticed its silence. Or even make a perfunctory statement about how hate speech is bad. Yet even when Adidas announced its review of its terms with Yeezy, it mentioned nothing of his actual behavior; instead, it took care to note that “the adidas Yeezy partnership is one of the most successful collaborations in our industry’s history” and it was “proud” of the “collaboration with Ye and the iconic products that were born from it.” (Ye responded in a predictable manner, writing in an Instagram post, “FUUUUUUCK ADIDAS I AM ADIDAS ADIDAS RAPED AND STOLE MY DESIGNS.”)
This kept coming up in the scrutiny of Adidas—that it had quite the cash machine in Yeezy. CEO Kasper Rorsted told CNBC in August that West has “had a tremendous impact globally for us” and “is our most important partner worldwide.” The Swiss bank UBS valued Adidas-Yeezy somewhere between $3.2 billion and $4.7 billion, as reported by Bloomberg. Morningstar analyst David Swartz told the Washington Post that “Yeezy generates an estimated $2 billion a year, close to 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue.” Thanks to Yeezy’s revenue share, West enjoyed a big royalty from this. Forbes estimates that without the Adidas deal, Kanye is no longer a billionaire, his net worth now reduced to $400 million.
This is a hell of a way for the longtime Ye-Adidas journey to end. Longtime West followers will recall the significance of when the sneakerhead rapper officially entered the game in 2009: His Air Yeezys were Nike’s first nonathlete celebrity collaboration and a huge success for the brand, quickly selling out their limited-edition run and trading for luxury prices on the resale market. By this point, the Boston-based rap writer Dart Adams told me in an email, West was “opening up a new lane for creative collaborations with sneaker companies,” building off Jay-Z and 50 Cent’s prior successes with Reebok. But in 2013, shortly after releasing the Air Yeezy 2, Ye ditched Nike for Adidas, claiming the former wasn’t paying him enough and calling out its CEO during a concert. Later, in the 2016 Life of Pablo track “Facts,” West would controversially rap, “Nike treat employees just like slaves.”
Moving to Adidas was a canny move both for West and his new benefactor. As Adams explained, “Adidas had gone on a hot streak just as Kanye got on board,” thanks to its business deals with Pharrell. West was able to negotiate a solid royalties deal that significantly boosted his net worth, and Adidas literally capitalized off the clout Yeezy had already built with Nike, as well as the fanaticism of Ye enthusiasts with new interest in the sneaker market. As Complex wrote back in 2014, West changed the sneaker biz in important ways: He helped popularize shoe brands and designs outside of Nike and its Jordans, he introduced numerous fans to sneaker culture, and he single-handedly changed how fashion brands advertised and announced new design drops. As with his music, Ye’s dalliance in sneaker culture signaled an entire cultural shift, and it brought sneakerheads a new level of attention and investment opportunities.
Naturally, Adidas execs are thankful West made their company a name in sneakers. And they’re evermore dependent on his business as the rest of their brand flags. As Yahoo Finance reported, Adidas sales were sluggish last quarter, and its profit projections are falling far below previous expectations; some of this may be a result of how it closed numerous stores and factories during the COVID recession. In addition, it will soon be on the hunt for a new CEO, one who’ll have to weather the harms of the company’s slowing sales in its most profitable market, China, as well as “lower consumer demand in major Western markets,” perhaps in part due to interest upticks. As Morningstar’s David Swartz told the Washington Post, “This Kanye controversy is coming at the worst time.”
Still, it’s not like anyone thinks Adidas is the real victim here. One prominent progressive rabbi tweeted that “this is not ‘Adidas doing the right thing’ ” but rather “a business decision. Not one made out of care and concern for those harmed.” Others are also questioning why companies did not drop West years back, when he blurted out that “slavery was a choice” and made other demeaning remarks about Black Americans. Longtime sneakers and rap writer Russ Bengtson said that he has “no plans to buy or wear adidas anytime soon.” As for Ye: When I asked Dart Adams where West might go from here, the writer responded, “Hell. Rock bottom.”