Bootlegger to Shoe Hustler: The History of the Asics Gel-Lyte V
Onitsuka Tiger sports shoe company was founded in Japan in 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka (1918-2007) who got into the making of sneakers during World War 2 reconstruction and after a brief stint selling bootleg beer. By 1977, the Kobe-based company was renamed ASICS – an acronym of the Latin anima sana in corpore sano, which translates as ‘healthy soul in a healthy body,’ an ethos still central to the brand’s philosophy today. At this writing, ASICS is the largest athletic footwear and apparel maker in Japan and the fifth-biggest in the world.
Onitsuka Tiger started their line with basketball shoes, on the assumption that the sport was about to take hold in Japan. The initial attempts were failures but in the summer of 1951, inspiration struck Onitsuka in the form of a cold octopus salad. While chewing on cold octopus, he realized that the rubber soles of his shoes should mimic the suckers of an octopus tentacle, thereby providing a better grip of the basketball court. By 1956, the Japanese Olympic team was all kitted in Onitsuka Tiger as were following generations of gym class students in Japan. It is important to note that the Japanese Olympic team has never won a medal in the sport, but looks sharp nonetheless.
Oddly enough, at the London 2012 Olympics Games, The Netherlands chose the ASICS GT-II as their official shoe to be worn at the opening and closing ceremonies for the whole delegation. The design sported orange suede and nylon uppers, 3m-trim form stripe, the colors of the Dutch flag on the sole and top eyelets, and ‘Nederland’ on the insole.
By the 1977 transformation into ASICS, the brand evolved into a general sporting goods brand with lines for skiing, baseball, swimming and golf, but their most lasting line was high-end trainers and racing shoes. ASICS continued to mine inspiration from unlikely sources and applied the air-cooling methods used in motorcycles to create vents in marathon shoes.
The brand hit a rough patch as Japan’s bubble economy burst- a time in the 80s which was basically the Wolf of Wallstreet minus Jonah Hill and all the drugs. This was an unsustainable time when middle class salary men were popping thousands of dollars of bottles a night, while everyone embraced European high fashion brands.