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Friday, October 27, 2023

Kanye West and Adidas: How Misconduct Broke a Lucrative Partnership - The New York Times

Kanye and Adidas: Money, Misconduct and the Price of Appeasement

A year ago, after producing hundreds of shoe styles and billions of dollars together, Adidas broke with Kanye West as he made antisemitic and other offensive public comments. But Adidas had been tolerating his misconduct behind the scenes for nearly a decade.

The yearslong partnership between Kanye West and Adidas yielded over 250 styles of shoes, including sneakers, slides and boots.

By Megan Twohey

For this article, Megan Twohey traveled to Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles; interviewed current and former employees of Adidas and of Kanye West; and obtained hundreds of previously undisclosed internal records.

The Adidas team was huddled with Kanye West, pitching ideas for the first shoe they would create together. It was 2013, and the rapper and the sportswear brand had just agreed to become partners. The Adidas employees, thrilled to get started, had arrayed sneakers and fabric swatches on a long table near a mood board pinned with images.

But nothing they showed that day at the company’s German headquarters captured the vision Mr. West had shared. To convey how offensive he considered the designs, he grabbed a sketch of a shoe and took a marker to the toe, according to two participants. Then he drew a swastika.

It was shocking, especially to the Germans in the group. Most displays of the symbol are banned in their country. The image was acutely sensitive for a company whose founder belonged to the Nazi Party. And they were meeting just miles from Nuremberg, where leaders of the Third Reich were tried for crimes against humanity.

That encounter was a sign of what was to come during a collaboration that would break the boundaries of celebrity endorsement deals. Sales of the shoes, Yeezys, would surpass $1 billion a year, lifting Adidas’s bottom line and recapturing its cool. Mr. West, who now goes by Ye, would become a billionaire.

When the company ended the relationship last October, it appeared to be the culmination of weeks of Mr. West’s inflammatory public remarks — targeting Jews and disparaging Black Lives Matter — and outside pressure on the brand to cut ties. But it was also the culmination of a decade of Adidas’s tolerance behind the scenes.

Inside their partnership, the artist made antisemitic and sexually offensive comments, displayed erratic behavior, and issued ever escalating demands, a New York Times examination found. Adidas’s leaders, eager for the profits, time and again abided his misconduct.

Kanye West, wearing a white T-shirt and crossing his arms, stands in front of a backdrop that says “Adidas” and “Yeezy.”
The Adidas-Yeezy deal became the second-most-lucrative sneaker partnership ever, after Air Jordans.Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Adidas

When he exploded in bitter outbursts at Adidas managers, the company typically sought not to rein him in but to appease him. In negotiations over the years, Adidas kept sweetening the deal, doubling down on its investment and tethering its fortunes more closely to him.

Even as Mr. West voiced increasingly toxic beliefs, privately and publicly, Adidas stepped up production and released Yeezys more frequently. And executives disregarded employee concerns that his troubling conduct risked tainting the brand’s reputation.

As companies increasingly turn to deals with celebrities, the Yeezy collaboration shows the precarious balance of risk and reward. Adidas entered the partnership in hopes of catching up to Nike, which had long dominated the hypercompetitive global sneaker market. But working with Mr. West, one of the most influential artists in the world — a “master of spectacle,” as one former executive put it — meant being tied to a provocative, polarizing and sometimes unstable personality.

While some other brands have been quick to end deals over offensive or embarrassing behavior, Adidas held on for years.

This article is the fullest accounting yet of their relationship. While some details have been reported earlier, The Times interviewed current and former employees of Adidas and of Mr. West, and obtained hundreds of previously undisclosed internal records — contracts, text messages, memos and financial documents — that reveal episodes throughout a partnership that was fraught from the start.

Just weeks before the 2013 swastika incident, The Times found, Mr. West made Adidas executives watch pornography during a meeting at his Manhattan apartment, ostensibly to spark creativity. In February 2015, preparing to show the first Yeezy collection at New York Fashion Week, staff members complained that he had upset them with angry, sexually crude comments.

Sales of Yeezy shoes surpassed $1 billion a year.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

He later advised a Jewish Adidas manager to kiss a picture of Hitler every day, and he told a member of the company’s executive board that he had paid a seven-figure settlement to one of his own senior employees who accused him of repeatedly praising the architect of the Holocaust.

Again and again, Mr. West contended that Adidas was exploiting him. “I feel super disrespected in this ‘partnership,’” he said in one text message. “I’ve never felt understood,” he wrote in another. He routinely sought more money and power, even suggesting that he should become Adidas’s chief executive.

His complaints were often delivered amid mood swings, creating whiplash for the Adidas team working with him. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he at times rejected the assessment and resisted treatment. Tears were common; so was fury.

Meeting with Adidas’s leaders in November 2019 to discuss his demands, he hurled shoes around the room. The month before, an internal text message described him becoming “fully, fully ramped up” and charging, “‘This is slavery’” — an accusation he leveled multiple times during the partnership.

As Adidas grew more reliant on Yeezy sales, so did Mr. West. In addition to royalties and upfront cash, the company eventually agreed to another enticement: $100 million annually, officially for Yeezy marketing but, in practice, a fund that he could spend with little oversight.

At the same time, he scaled his goals, opening an unaccredited Christian school, taking on a disastrous 2020 presidential campaign that reflected his rightward political drift, and promising to create flying cars, build futuristic communities and otherwise solve the world’s problems.

In a statement to The Times, Adidas said it “has no tolerance for hate speech and offensive behavior, which is why the company terminated the Adidas Yeezy partnership.” The brand turned down interview requests and, citing confidentiality rules, declined to comment on financial aspects of the collaboration and Adidas’s relationship with Mr. West.

Mr. West declined interview requests and did not respond to written questions or provide comments.

After the relationship ruptured and Yeezy sales came to a halt, both Adidas and the musician were hit hard. The company projected its first annual loss in decades. Mr. West’s net worth plummeted.

But they had at least one more chance to keep making money together.

The company announced in May that it would begin releasing the remaining $1.3 billion worth of Yeezys from warehouses around the world. As the shoes have reappeared, so has Mr. West. He performed onstage for the first time in over a year. Music from what is rumored to be his comeback album has leaked online.

And he trademarked a new Yeezy creation, a sock shoe, suggesting he intends to keep making footwear — with or without Adidas.

“We welcome to the adidas family one of the most influential cultural icons of this generation, Kanye West.”

November 2013

“We welcome to the adidas family one of the most influential cultural icons of this generation, Kanye West.”

November 2013

Kanye West signed with Adidas in November 2013. It was the most generous deal the company had offered a non-athlete.

Emily Berl for The New York Times

‘The World Changes Now’

The Yeezy debut at New York Fashion Week in 2015 was a display of star power. The front row was packed with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna and a cluster of Kardashians. The event streamed in movie theaters around the world.

It was exactly what Mr. West — and Adidas — had wanted.

The company’s roots stretch back nearly a century, when Adi Dassler began making athletic shoes in the laundry room of his family’s Bavarian home. He pioneered track shoes with custom spikes and outfitted Jesse Owens for his Olympic triumphs.

Like many business owners of his era, Mr. Dassler joined the Nazi Party. After World War II, he founded Adidas, which went on to capture much of the soccer-based market in Europe and made inroads in America as hip-hop stars helped popularize the brand.

But everything changed after Nike signed an endorsement deal in 1984 with an up-and-coming basketball player named Michael Jordan. That partnership would help turn sneakers, cheap to make overseas and sold at a high markup, into cultural currency around the world. And Nike, making billions of dollars a year from Air Jordans, became No. 1.

By 2013, Adidas had just 8 percent of the U.S. athletic footwear market, compared with Nike’s nearly 50 percent, according to industry data, and it was losing hope of catching up.

Mr. West was also feeling stalled.

The star-studded front row of the debut Yeezy show at New York Fashion Week included Sean Combs, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Anna Wintour and Russell Simmons.Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Raised in Chicago by his mother, an English professor, he achieved early success producing music for Jay-Z and other artists before becoming a rap star.

His 2004 debut album, “The College Dropout,” was considered game changing for hip-hop, for its cutting-edge production and for Mr. West’s middle-class viewpoint and preppy-meets-street style.

He was at once extremely boastful (one 2013 track is titled “I Am a God”) and openly self-conscious, grappling with materialism, faith and Black identity in ways that resonated with young fans. Behavior that some considered attention-grabbing and self-aggrandizing — claiming after Hurricane Katrina that then-President George W. Bush didn’t care about Black people; disrupting music industry awards— cast him as something of a counterculture hero.

He “is not just a lightning rod, he’s this incredible force of nature who has colored an entire generation,” said Bobby Kim, author and co-founder of The Hundreds, a men’s streetwear brand.

But Mr. West had struggled to break into fashion, despite his burning ambition to design.

He had interned with Fendi, and briefly collaborated with A.P.C. on apparel and with Louis Vuitton on a line of shoes. He had also worked with Nike on two popular sneakers, the Air Yeezy 1 and 2. But Nike would not give him a cut of the sales or share creative control. The best he could hope for, he kept hearing, was putting his name on other people’s products.

Mr. West accepting the Shoe of the Year prize for the Yeezy Boost 350 at the 2015 Footwear News Achievement Awards.Patrick MacLeod/WWD/Penske Media, via Getty Images

In a phone call in the summer of 2013, Mr. West told Jon Wexler, then Adidas’s global director of entertainment and influencer marketing, that he was determined to become a genuine partner in designing shoes.

Mr. Wexler, who had lined up hip-hop acts in college and helped bring other musicians into the brand, was persuaded. So was Hermann Deininger, a top Adidas executive with a reputation for pushing boundaries. At their urging, Adidas took a big swing, offering the rapper a contract through 2017 with the most generous terms it had ever extended to a non-athlete.

It went far beyond typical celebrity licensing deals. Mr. West, then 36, would become a co-creator of shoe and clothing lines, collecting a 15 percent royalty on net sales with at least $3 million a year guaranteed, according to a copy of the document reviewed by The Times.

“The world changes now!!!” he texted Mr. Wexler after signing the deal in November, a message that the Adidas manager later posted online.

Two weeks later in New York, the rapper told executives they would “redefine the limits of Adidas,” according to meeting notes. He and his fiancée, Kim Kardashian, the queen of reality television and soon social media too, would serve as muses for apparel. And he would overhaul what he saw as Adidas’s unsexy sneakers. His, he said, would have swagger.

Adidas employees quickly discovered that Mr. West was brimming with ideas. They also learned that he operated unlike anyone else they had encountered.

He could be enthusiastic to the point of creating chaos. Early on, he showed up unexpectedly at Adidas’s New York office with Ms. Kardashian and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of sewing machines. It was so disruptive that he was sent to a studio across town. Once immersed in the design work, he so obsessed over every detail that it was hard to finish anything.

And he was quick to anger when frustrated. Running up against the deadline for the first Yeezy fashion show in February 2015, he lashed out, using sexually explicit language, at Rachel Muscat — the rare female manager in a male-dominated industry — and other Adidas employees. Some complained about the verbal abuse to Adidas higher-ups, according to several members of the team. (Like some other current and former employees of Adidas and of Mr. West interviewed for this article, they spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they are bound by nondisclosure agreements.)

Attention quickly shifted to the show, however, where the shoes drew raves. Performing that night, Mr. West, Travis Scott and other rappers wore the new Yeezys, a preview of the promotion the artist and the high-profile people around him could generate for Adidas.

Released in limited runs over the next few months, the shoes sold out in hours, crashing servers and sending prices soaring on resale sites. They hooked sneakerheads, fashionistas and even athletes who had endorsement deals with Adidas rivals.

First came a suede high-top, followed by the Yeezy Boost 350 — a sleek sneaker inspired by Nike’s Roshe Run and nicknamed “the Roshe killer” inside Adidas. It had a flat front, not the standard rolled toe that Mr. West disdained. It put a Yeezy spin on Adidas innovations: Boost foam, a new cushioning technology, in the sole, and a patterned knit fabric on top. The shoe wasn’t suited for running or sports, but complemented the athleisure apparel that was coming into fashion.

“He challenges everything but he puts full energy into how he challenges it, and you see the results,” Nic Galway, a top Adidas designer, said in a 2015 interview.

The 350 won top honors that year at the industry’s annual awards ceremony, considered the “shoe Oscars.”

Taking the stage with Mr. Wexler, Ms. Muscat and Arthur Hoeld, a top Adidas executive, Mr. West acknowledged that he could be a difficult partner. “It’s cool to be up here with the three people that I’ve screamed at the most in the past year,” he said, beaming.

His tone shifting, he later added, “Jon basically saved my life.”

“Lesson learned — do not tell him what is good for him. ‘Do you know how many people told me Kim was bad for me? Now look.’”

Adidas internal document
March 2016

“Lesson learned — do not tell him what is good for him. ‘Do you know how many people told me Kim was bad for me? Now look.’”

Adidas internal document
March 2016

The next contract, in 2016, would further reward Mr. West for Yeezy’s success. Adidas wanted something more, too.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

A Morals Clause

Eager to build on their success, Adidas and Mr. West were hammering out a new contract in 2016.

The company wanted to entice Mr. West into a long-term commitment. But it also wanted to better protect itself. Executives were insisting on a clause that would allow Adidas to end the deal over a range of behaviors that could threaten its reputation.

Representing Mr. West was Scooter Braun, a bulldog of a manager best known then for catapulting Justin Bieber to fame. During negotiations, Mr. Braun argued that only a criminal offense, like shooting someone, would be adequate cause for Adidas to walk away from his client, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

But the terms Adidas wanted were standard. They were also something of a catalog of risks Mr. West could pose to the partnership.

He had been criminally investigated for assault after altercations with a photographer and a man hurling epithets at Ms. Kardashian; he had paid civil settlements to both.

In February 2016, Taylor Swift, whom Mr. West had offended years earlier by jumping onstage to protest her winning an MTV award, accused him of misogyny for releasing a song with the lyrics: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.”

Adidas’s C.E.O., Kasper Rorsted. In 2018, he said of Mr. West’s inflammatory public comments, “We’re not signing up to his statements; we’re signing up to what he brings to the brand.”Daniel Karmann/DPA, via Associated Press

Days later, leaked audio revealed him erupting backstage at “Saturday Night Live” after a set design change, yelling that he was “50 percent more influential than any other human being.” He also disclosed on Twitter that he was “53 million dollars in personal debt.”

That debt had mounted as he spent with abandon, according to Pete Fox, chief executive of Mr. West’s Yeezy operation at the time.

Adidas had stopped funding Yeezy apparel, so the artist was bankrolling it himself. He ran a handful of small companies for his creative projects and was paying a cast of high-priced consultants.

Ms. Kardashian, by then married to Mr. West, tried to impose restraints. “The message was: You need to stop wasting money like this. Things need to get under control,” Mr. Fox recalled.

But the rapper had often proclaimed that he could never be controlled.

Mr. West continued to show pornography to Adidas employees, and chose porn actresses to appear in Yeezy promotional photos, according to several people who worked with him. They also said they had seen him drinking at work and noticed that he sometimes went days with little or no sleep.

Jon Wexler, left, was an Adidas manager and an early champion of the Yeezy partnership.Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Yeezy Season 4

In interviews years later, Mr. West would reveal addictions to alcohol and pornography. He had already acknowledged his deep depression after his mother’s unexpected death in 2007.

During negotiations on the morals clause, an Adidas lawyer, along with Mr. Wexler and Jim Anfuso, the brand’s general manager for Yeezy, refused to back down.

Their position was that Adidas’s new chief executive, Kasper Rorsted — a “margin magician,” according to a German publication, for his record of boosting profits and slashing costs — had to have clear-cut conditions for pulling the plug on the Yeezy deal.

Violations of morals clauses have led to the dissolution of other high-profile, if less lucrative, deals with celebrities: among them Paula Deen, the celebrity chef, because of racial slurs; Tiger Woods, over a sex scandal; and the boxer Manny Pacquiao, after homophobic comments.

Corporate leaders must serve their bottom line, but they also have to guard the business’s reputation, noted Brad Jakeman, a former PepsiCo top executive who dealt with branding issues. Before his tenure, the company ended a long-running sponsorship deal with Michael Jackson when he canceled his world tour amid allegations of sexual abuse. If a partner’s values don’t align with the company’s, Mr. Jakeman said, it inevitably becomes a problem, particularly if the issues are known or easily discoverable.

“Then you’re left with: At best, the company was sloppy,” he said. “At worst, it was complicit.”

Mr. West eventually conceded on Adidas’s terms for termination: felony conviction, bankruptcy, 30 consecutive days of mental health or substance abuse treatment, or anything that brings “disrepute, contempt, scandal” to him or tarnishes Adidas, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Times.

The agreement was also loaded with financial incentives. The value of the deal would come to surpass that of his music assets, according to a Forbes assessmentof his net worth.

During the negotiations, Adidas projected that net sales of Yeezys would grow from $65 million in 2016 to $1 billion by 2021; Mr. West would continue to get a 15 percent royalty, now with at least $10 million a year guaranteed.

The brand was gaining ground in the United States — it would reach more than 11 percent of the market by the next spring. Adidas was offering Mr. West $15 million upfront, along with millions of dollars in company stock each year. The “biggest issue,” an Adidas document noted, was “putting CASH in Kanye’s pocket to show him we VALUE him and recognize his impact on the brand.”

The company also intended to dedicate 20 employees to a Yeezy unit at its U.S. headquarters in Portland, Ore., up from just a handful. And while most celebrity branding agreements were short-term, this could extend for up to a decade if it met financial targets.

The partnership was now a marriage, as Mr. West put it. He signed the new contract in May 2016.

That fall, during his first tour in three years, his concerts took a turn.

He stunned a crowd in Sacramento with a 17-minute tirade, praising President-elect Donald J. Trump; condemning the media, tech and music industries; bad-mouthing Beyoncé; and insinuating that Jay-Z might send “killers” after him. He cut the show short and, soon after, canceled his remaining performances.

Harley Pasternak, his friend and former trainer, arrived at the musician’s house in Los Angeles that week to find him consumed with paranoid thoughts, including that government agents were out to get him. He was writing Bible verses and drawing spaceships on bedsheets with a Sharpie, while a handful of worried friends and employees lingered nearby. When Mr. Pasternak encouraged him to come to a nearby office he owned, Mr. West emerged with suitcases packed with pots, pans and Tupperware.

Mr. Pasternak, who later provided an account of the incident in a deposition for Mr. West’s touring company as it sought insurance payouts for the canceled shows, took him to the office. A psychiatrist from U.C.L.A. Medical Center and another doctor were among those called to the scene. After observing Mr. West’s behavior escalate — at one point he threw a bottle, breaking a window — the doctor called 911.

“I think he’s definitely going to need to be hospitalized,” he told the operator on a recorded call.

“Kanye has helped us have a great comeback in the U.S.”

Adidas C.E.O., CNBC interview
May 2018

“Kanye has helped us have a great comeback in the U.S.”

Adidas C.E.O., CNBC interview
May 2018

Mr. West’s public and private comments about slavery, Jews and Hitler unsettled some Adidas employees who worked with him.

Ryan Dorgan for The New York Times

‘Not Signing Up to His Statements’

After more than a week in the hospital in 2016, Mr. West began taking medication to treat bipolar disorder and kept a low public profile. But by the spring of 2018, he was off the meds, insisting that they dulled his creativity. While over the years he has talked publicly about having bipolar disorder, even referring to it on an album cover, he has at other times claimed that he was misdiagnosed.

He declared his fervent support for Mr. Trump — “We are both dragon energy,” he tweeted — and embraced the conservative commentator Candace Owens, who has attacked the Black Lives Matter movement and urged Black voters to leave the Democratic Party.

That May, he set off an uproar, saying in a TMZ interview that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice” by generations of Black people.

Mr. Wexler told colleagues he was urging Mr. West to apologize, worried that Yeezy customers were among those angered.

But Mr. Rorsted, Adidas’s chief executive, batted the comment away. “Kanye has helped us have a great comeback in the U.S.,” he said on CNBC. He reiterated that position months later, telling reporters, “We’re not signing up to his statements; we’re signing up to what he brings to the brand and the products he’s bringing out.”

After pushing for the morals clause in Mr. West’s contract, it is not clear whether Adidas even considered invoking it.

The chief executive’s response disturbed some Adidas employees, including in the Yeezy unit. Most were fans of Mr. West. Still, working with him took a toll. The Yeezy team adopted a strategy it likened to firefighting: rotating people on and off the front lines of dealing with the artist. Adidas also assigned a human resources official to the group, gave each new hire a subscription to a meditation app and gathered the staff regularly for something akin to group therapy.

Mr. West in the Oval Office in 2018 with then-President Donald J. Trump, for whom he had declared his support. “We are both dragon energy,” he wrote in one tweet.Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Soon after the TMZ interview, those employees expressed their concerns to Eric Liedtke, Adidas’s global brand manager and an executive board member, according to two people who attended the meeting. In an overwhelmingly white company, Yeezy was the rare racially diverse unit that reflected the customer base.

The team wanted to know: Did Adidas support Mr. West’s comments about slavery? Were the company’s European leaders blind to American race issues? What was the plan to make Adidas more inclusive?

Mr. Liedtke promised that Adidas would work to address its racial diversity issues.

But the company did not waver in its support of Mr. West — not then, and not as he expressed a troubling fixation on Jews and Hitler.

Along with some other rappers who came up in the 1980s and ’90s, Mr. West had been drawn to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and his commitment to Black empowerment. Some of those musicians also adopted the organization’s antisemitic beliefs, such as the claim that Jews control the world.

Mr. West, in a 2005 lawsuit in which he successfully blocked a D.J. from distributing unreleased songs from the 1990s, suggested that the work might have contained anti-Jewish lyrics.

“My only concern with it would be to make sure that it’s like no anti-Semitist — is that the word?” he asked in a deposition. He implied that his views had changed, saying the songs had “gross lyrics that like might make me cringe now.”

Eric Liedtke, who served on the Adidas executive board, helped oversee the Yeezy partnership.Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for ADIDAS

But years later, he continued to tell friends and associates, including several Adidas employees, that Jews had special powers allowing them to amass money and influence.

He was becoming closer to Mr. Farrakhan. When Mr. West had drawn criticism that he was perpetuating dangerous stereotypes in 2013 by saying “Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people,” the minister quickly came to his defense. The rapper went on to help him with a documentary about the Nation of Islam. His manager, Mr. Braun — the grandson of Holocaust survivors — told others in the industry that Mr. West made him attend a private dinner with the minister.

Mr. West also told some Adidas colleagues that he admired Hitler’s command of propaganda, viewing him as a master marketer.

In 2018, he disclosed to Mr. Liedtke and another manager that he had paid a seven-figure settlement to the outgoing chief executive of his Yeezy operation, who had accused him of commending Hitler and creating a hostile workplace, according to someone familiar with the conversation.

And some of Mr. West’s Adidas handlers knew that year that he was considering naming his next album “Hitler,” according to several former Adidas employees. (It was ultimately titled “Ye.”)

During the TMZ interview in which Mr. West made the slavery comment, he said it was important to love everyone, including Nazis. Before the interview aired, Mr. Braun phoned Harvey Levin, founder of the celebrity news website, to discuss the Nazi reference, according to someone with knowledge of the call. In the end, the remark was cut but was disclosed in 2022 by a former journalist from the site. TMZ declined to comment.

Though it’s unclear whether anyone at Adidas knew back in 2018 about the Nazi remark, Mr. Wexler, who is Jewish, told colleagues about something similar then that had led him to yell at Mr. West: The artist told him to hang a photo of Hitler in his kitchen and kiss it every day to practice unconditional love.

“He feels everyone around him is taking advantage of him financially. He doesn’t understand how his money works and he only trusts adidas.”

Adidas leaders group chat
February 2019

“He feels everyone around him is taking advantage of him financially. He doesn’t understand how his money works and he only trusts adidas.”

Adidas leaders group chat
February 2019

“His expectations continue to increase after we gave him everything he asked for.”

Adidas leaders group chat
October 2019

“His expectations continue to increase after we gave him everything he asked for.”

Adidas leaders group chat
October 2019

In a group chat, Adidas higher-ups vented frustrations, celebrated wins and expressed worries about Mr. West and the deal.

Victor Llorente for The New York Times

The Yzy Hotline

In 2018, a group of Adidas executives and managers started a text message chain, called the “Yzy hotline,” to address problems in the collaboration. It was an ongoing effort to help Mr. West, contain him, or somehow do both.

“He doesn’t understand how his money works and he only trusts adidas,” one manager texted colleagues after a call with the musician in early 2019. The group agreed that it would advise him on his finances, and take control of his Yeezy payroll and his mismanaged Yeezy website, which eventually had to pay nearly $1 million for delayed shoe shipments to consumers.

Other messages registered a sense of alarm — not over Mr. West’s offensive public statements or behavior, which seemed not to have deterred shoe sales, but over his shifting, outsize expectations and his vehemence in their private dealings.

“Kasper just spoke with him,” Mr. Liedtke wrote after a call between the chief executive and Mr. West in 2019. “Started out slowly, but built into a full-blown rant.”

The year before, Mr. West had moved his Yeezy operation to Chicago, promising to create jobs there. When Mr. Rorsted and Mr. Liedtke visited that October, he raised new demands, according to several people familiar with the meeting, including a seat on the company’s supervisory board, the role of Adidas creative director and maybe even chief executive.

A week later, Mr. Rorsted and Mr. Liedtke described some of the proposals to Adidas’s executive board, a session first reported by The Wall Street Journal. They focused on two of Mr. West’s suggestions: spinning off Yeezy into a separate company or buying him out of his contract. The board also considered a third option: keeping the partnership as planned, according to company documents.

Mr. Anfuso, general manager of the Yeezy unit, told the executives that he favored paying Mr. West to make a clean break. He feared Adidas was becoming dangerously dependent on an increasingly unmanageable partnership, he told other colleagues.

Steven Smith, a shoe designer who has worked on Yeezys for years, in 2019 with Mr. West and the distinctive Foam Runner style.Brad Barket/Getty Images for Fast Company

In the end, the board decided Adidas would continue pursuing projects to help reduce its reliance on Yeezys, including a collaboration with Beyoncé. And it would provide the Yeezy unit with more support. But it was not prepared to alter the partnership. Weeks earlier, confident in the growing demand, Adidas had cranked up production, releasing an estimated one million pairs of all-white 350 V2s, the biggest Yeezy “drop” ever.

It is not clear if misgivings about the alliance ever reached the ultimate decision makers, Adidas’s supervisory board. A company spokeswoman declined to answer questions about that board’s proceedings. But its publicly released annual reports reflect no discussion of problems in the Yeezy partnership until 2022.

Mr. Rorsted, the chief executive until late last year; his successor; and the chairman of the supervisory board declined to be interviewed or to comment for this article, as did several other current and former executives in leadership roles, including Mr. Liedtke and Mr. Hoeld.

In 2019, Mr. West abruptly moved his Yeezy operation again, this time to remote Cody, Wyo., and demanded that the Adidas team relocate.

“We are in a code red,” Mr. Anfuso wrote to the Yzy hotline in October 2019, adding three flashing-siren emojis. “The first line is completely exhausted and don’t feel supported or comfortable with how this is progressing.”

Mr. West, who had started describing himself as a born-again Christian, was channeling his musical ambitions into Sunday Service performances with a choir and infusing religious language into his other work. He used “terms like ‘believer’ and ‘pilgrimage’” to describe those who would follow him to Cody, Mr. Wexler messaged the Yzy hotline. “Everyone has to believe he is the greatest artist of all time.”

Awaiting a 2019 Yeezy drop in Barcelona ...Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
… And in Taiyuan, China.Imaginechina, via Associated Press

Mr. West had already listed more requirements — a $1 billion advance, a 15 percent profit split of “whatever KW touches,” introductions to the heads of factories. Then he became infuriated when he couldn’t speak immediately with Mr. Rorsted. “I am no longer ‘asking’ for things that are owed and that I am in charge of,” he wrote to Adidas executives. “This relationship dynamic changes now.”

Weeks later, in November 2019, the chief executive, along with Mr. Liedtke, Mr. Wexler and other Adidas officials, hosted him in Portland, eager to work things out.

When Mr. West arrived at the office, he appeared to notice only the shoes lining the floor, awaiting his approval. He began lobbing sneakers around the room. Then he stomped out.

Still, the top executives were committed. They would help him build up a Yeezy campus in Cody and introduce him to factory owners. Most significant, the company would provide Mr. West with additional money each year.

Mr. West, who objected to advertising and other traditional promotion, had insisted that Adidas’s money was better spent on anything that drew public attention to him. So the executives had agreed to replace the Yeezy marketing budget with a $100 million annual fund that Mr. West could spend with less oversight.

“It’s very sad that this is falling apart.”

Adidas C.E.O., earnings call
March 2023

“It’s very sad that this is falling apart.”

Adidas C.E.O., earnings call
March 2023

In the fall of 2022, the partnership took a decisive turn.

Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

‘Adidas Can’t Drop Me’

Last September, Mr. West arrived at Adidas’s Los Angeles office to meet with company executives, a videographer in tow.

Yeezy sales were on track to reach $1.8 billion in 2022, according to Adidas projections. Mr. West’s grievances had also multiplied.

Under their contract, Adidas owned the designs they had created together — including more than 250 Yeezys ranging from boots to sneakers to Foam Runner slip-ons. But as the company released shoes closely resembling Yeezys under other names, Mr. West cried theft and demanded a cut of sales.

By then, some of his closest contacts at Adidas — Mr. Wexler, Mr. Anfuso and Mr. Liedtke — had left, and he appeared to have lost faith in those who remained.

So he went to war: railing on social media about the chief executive and the supervisory board, and persuading high-profile friends, like Diddy and Swizz Beatz, to threaten a boycott. Then, to emphasize his sense of betrayal, he ambushed executives at the Los Angeles office with a pornographic film about a woman wronged by her cheating boyfriend.

“Our army is so prepared,” Mr. West warned them. “This is a different level of nuclear activity that no one will recover from.”

Footage of the encounter was released online weeks later. By then, Mr. West’s behavior had escalated.

At the Yeezy fashion show in Paris in October, he posed with Ms. Owens, the commentator, in shirts that said “White Lives Matter” — a slogan associated with white supremacists. After she posted a photo online, fueling outrage, he berated critics who accused him of being racially insensitive, then engaged in hostile interviews and social media posts. He called Black Lives Matter a scam. He announced he would go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

During an interview on the “Drink Champs” podcast, he spread conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the levers of power and insisted that the police hadn’t killed George Floyd. Then he taunted: “I can say antisemitic things and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what?”

Politicians, Hollywood corporate heads, fellow entertainers and Jewish leaders condemned the comments, saying his behavior emboldened others to embrace bigotry. Ms. Kardashian, whose divorce from Mr. West would soon be final, also spoke out.

On Oct. 25, nine days after Mr. West declared that Adidas wouldn’t end his deal, the company did just that.

“Ye’s recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous,” an Adidas statement said, “and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness.

Even then, Mr. West was unrepentant; in the following months, he went on to explicitly state his fondness for Hitler, deny the Holocaust and tweet an image combining the Star of David with a swastika. At the time, he also talked about a new presidential run, hiring Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist, for a brief stint and the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who now describes himself as head of government and public affairs for Mr. West’s Yeezy operation.

And, behind the scenes, the artist fought back against Adidas.

Yeezys on the streets of New York this summer. Clockwise from top left: Boost 350 v2, Foam Runners, Boost 350 v2, 700 v2.Andrew Seng for The New York Times

As they began arbitration, a requirement under their contract, Adidas accused him of reducing a multibillion-dollar collaboration to “economic rubble” with his offensive comments. Mr. West charged that Adidas had devalued Yeezys, saying that the company’s “greed and opportunism have no bounds,” according to court records. Adidas would not comment on the arbitration, citing confidentiality.

The loss of Yeezy revenue came as Adidas’s performance was declining, partly from the pandemic but also because it had overestimated the demand for other sneakers and the promise of other collaborations. The supervisory board had announced in August 2022 that it would terminate Mr. Rorsted’s contract early.

The break from Mr. West had other consequences: In a class-action lawsuit filed in April, shareholders accused Adidas executives of failing to disclose the risk a toxic partner posed to the company. And in an internal letter earlier reported by Rolling Stone, some employees charged that the leadership had known about Mr. West’s “problematic behavior,” and “turned their moral compass off.”

In a statement to The Times, Adidas denied the claims in the lawsuit and pledged to fight it. The company said that an internal investigation had not substantiated the most serious complaints in the employees’ letter, including antisemitic remarks, discrimination and harassment, and the display of pornographic materials (aside from the incident captured in the 2022 video).

Even as they squared off in arbitration, Adidas and Mr. West came to an agreement that served their common interest. Starting in May, Adidas began releasing the remaining inventory of Yeezys. A portion of the proceeds would go to the Anti-Defamation League, another group battling antisemitism and an organization started by George Floyd’s family.

But most of the revenue would go to Adidas, and Mr. West was entitled to royalties.

The shoes took in about $437 million in sales through June, according to the most recent figures available. Crediting the recent Yeezy drops, along with its other products, Adidas has significantly improved its forecast for the year, revising an earlier projected operating loss of more than $700 million to about $100 million.

The success of the Yeezy releases showed that some customers may no longer closely associate the star with the brand they love, and many do not care about his behavior, said Matt Powell, a sports retailer consultant. “You still have a real loyal Yeezy fan club out there.”

In a podcast interview last month, Adidas’s chief executive, Bjorn Gulden, praised Mr. West’s creativity and lamented how the partnership — “one of the most successful collabs in history” — ended.

“Very unfortunate,” Mr. Gulden said, “because I don’t think he meant what he said.”

Days later, Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, posted online that Mr. Gulden had apologized for those remarks. “Our decision to end our partnership with Ye because of his unacceptable comments and behavior was the right one,” Adidas said in a statement. “Our stance has not changed.”


The grid at the top of this article includes most Adidas Yeezy releases between February 2015 and August 2023. This was assembled by gathering the unique style numbers of the shoes and their respective release dates from StockX, a sneaker reseller. Some releases are omitted: rereleases (e.g. the March 2022 and August 2023 reissues of the Yeezy Boost 700 Wave Runner); kids’ and infants’ sizes; and “friends and family” releases that were not available to the general public (e.g. the Yeezy 500 “Shadow Black”). Pairs that appear to be duplicates are variants of the same shoe with different style numbers (e.g. the Yeezy Boost 380 Onyx and Yeezy Boost 380 Onyx Reflective).

Joe Coscarelli contributed reporting, and Julie Tate contributed research. Produced by Rumsey Taylor."

Kanye West and Adidas: How Misconduct Broke a Lucrative Partnership - The New York Times

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