Exclusive: Jerry Lorenzo on His Long-Awaited Fear of God x Adidas Collaboration

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Jerry Lorenzo thinks his new Adidas sneakers are perfect—almost. “With the first couple of shoes,” he says, “we didn't land all the way there.”

The Fear of God founder is sitting at a long wooden table in his brand’s airy downtown LA office, a sudden late-Autumn rainstorm clattering on the skylight. He grabs a pair of tan basketball shoes with a sleek high-top silhouette and a thick, gummy sole. These are among the first products to be released by Fear of God Athletics, the activewear brand Lorenzo is launching—after a three-year wait—with Adidas.

Fashion designers are rarely so candid about their work. But Lorenzo, who in a decade has built Fear of God into a multi-hundred-million-dollar independent American fashion powerhouse, is uncompromising. Today, he’s sweating the weight of the sneaker’s sole and something about its curvature that’s imperceptible to a layman. I offer that, all things considered, they look pretty cool.

Lorenzo, wearing a luxurious dark wool Fear of God jacket, almost winces. The shoes do look great, and have been rapturously received as photos have dribbled out over the course of the year. But Lorenzo has made plenty of cool shoes before, and with Athletics he’s aiming higher. “We needed a little bit more time for this to be exactly what I had dreamt for it to become,” he says, “which is just a hundred-percent pure performance.”

Lorenzo has already taken a remarkable amount of time to dial in Fear of God Athletics. Adidas and Fear of God announced their deal at the end of 2020, when Lorenzo was also installed as creative director of Adidas Basketball. This is the first time he’s spoken at length about the partnership and the first look at the brand’s debut collection.

Athletics originally began as a pitch to Nike. Lorenzo started talking to the Adidas archrival in 2015, which led to an official collaboration, starting with a fashion-forward basketball shoe—the Nike Air Fear of God 1—in late 2018. Around then, Lorenzo tells me, he and the Swoosh were in talks to launch Athletics, and he was set to fly to Portland to officially present his vision. The day before the trip, according to Lorenzo, a Nike representative called him to cancel.

He was taken aback. “I thought I was paving the way and putting numbers on the board in order for [Athletics] to happen,” he says. He felt he had become stuck in corporate limbo, and he was preoccupied by questions about how Nike perceived him and his work and the collaboration (which Lorenzo characterizes as “obviously successful”). He called the final shoe he designed for Nike “The Question.”

In mid-2020, Nike dropped him. Lorenzo says he still doesn’t know why. “I [was] just in this really bad place,” he recalls. “All the shoes sold out. I thought I performed well.”

Undeterred, Lorenzo called New Balance and Reebok. He had conversations with “some sneaker brands overseas” and had offers on the table. Finally, he reached out to Adidas through contacts at Yeezy, where he’d consulted on early product designs. “They got in contact with me shortly after,” he says, and a deal came together that would launch Athletics and put Lorenzo atop Adidas Basketball.

Soon after, Lorenzo got the Athletics logo tattooed on the nape of his neck: three thick vertical stripes. He calls it a “mark of faith,” a testament to his humbling journey through the $100+ billion sneaker market and to the fulfillment of his years-long dream. The son of former the White Sox and Mets manager Jerry Manuel, he once aspired to a pro baseball career. “My heart has always been in sports, growing up in sports,” he says.

Unlike Adidas lifestyle capsule collections with the likes of Prada, Wales Bonner, and Pharrell, Athletics is all about gear for actual sports. “The ambition is no hype, no collabs, no lifestyle,” he says. “We don't need Adidas to make lifestyle stuff. We wanted to come to Adidas and do something we can't do on our own.”

Late last year, Fear of God announced that Lorenzo was no longer involved with Adidas Basketball. “I really just wanted to clean house and set up a new strategy,” he says of the partnership. “We spent a long time trying to make that work, and it just didn't work.” Though Lorenzo didn’t get into specifics, he hinted that the project was doomed by creative differences. “I'm not going to put out a product,” he says, “that I don't stand behind.”

But he also found a sort of solace in his partnership with Adidas. “When I went to Nike, I had all these emotions from being young and fantasizing over all these old sneakers,” he says. “But then when I went to Adidas, it felt a little more personal. It felt like the brand was closer to who I was. More simple, a less-is-more design approach.” He notes with a chuckle that he likes batting for the underdog team. “My dad managed the White Sox and the Mets, you know what I mean?”

In early 2022, Lorenzo was at the Adidas headquarters in Germany when he ran into none other than David Beckham—kind of like bumping into Michael Jordan in Beaverton, as Lorenzo puts it. The chance meeting was the creative breakthrough he needed. “What was the strongest era within the whole house of Adidas?” Lorenzo asks. Nike has Jordan, Adidas has Becks.

Lorenzo dove into the design language from the brand’s late-nineties and early-aughts football gear. Silhouettes from oversized uniforms and the aggressive stripes lining Beckham’s Predator cleats all went on the moodboard. He was particularly inspired by those cleats, some of the more technologically advanced shoes in the Adidas lineup. “I want soccer innovation, and I want the highest level from Adidas,” he says.

Lorenzo began fighting for this lofty standard: “Put your highest product into a basketball shoe.” Part of the delay in bringing Athletics to market, Lorenzo tells me, was that it took time to get the right people on his team who could execute on his ambitions. Beckham, however, was in from the start. Lorenzo sent the retired soccer legend prototypes to test out, and he was fully onboard. “He’s been stoked the whole time,” Lorenzo says.

In the office, racks of upcoming Athletics collections are parked all around the otherwise spotless space. The first drop arrives in December at a series of temporary immersive shopping “experiences” around the world. (Lorenzo hates the term “pop-up.” He wants the spaces, however temporary, to feel “eternal when you walk inside.”) Track pants in Fear of God’s signature languid silhouette hang alongside bike shorts and tights with futuristic bonded seams. Like with the brand’s made-in-Italy mainline collection and casual Essentials brand, the color palette is narrowly tailored, and here oversized short-sleeve hoodies and puffy warm-up jackets are rendered in earthy tones of greige and what you might call wet slate.

Lorenzo pulls out a sculptural poncho made with a soft, techy fabric. It looks like something you’d find at a luxury fashion boutique rather than at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Which is the point. (Athletics will be available through Fear of God, the Adidas Confirmed app, and a selection of Adidas “tier zero” accounts, the boutiques that receive the brand’s most exclusive releases.) “You gotta swag out while you’re waiting to play,” he says, referring to the poncho—it was designed for baseball and basketball players to ride the bench in style. Like with the sneakers, it’s almost perfect. It feels, Lorenzo says, a bit more “lifestyle” than he would have hoped for. Nearby are more shoes, including a sporty low-top runner and an Adidas pool slide made of molded white leather.

Lorenzo, who says “my heart is where the kids are,” is planning to work with high schools and academies to sponsor youth teams. That’s where he thinks Athletics can make a difference in the crowded upscale performance wear business. He’s not only focused on performance, but also thinking about the culture of sport. “Simply, I don't see any kids walking around with basketball shoes unless they're playing in 'em. I don't see any kids walking around with turf baseball shoes unless they're working out.”

He wants to change that. “Most basketball shoes right now, they're just too bulky,” he says. “You put 'em on with a pair of jeans and you look crazy.” Lorenzo grew up drooling over Air Jordans and Agassi pro models, the sneakers he and his friends hooped in then wore to school the next day. “There was a time when these shoes transcended sport, and I still think it's possible, even though innovation has taken these shapes and silhouettes far from that place,” he says. “I think there's a way through design to bring those two languages back together.”

It’s easy to imagine entire NBA and MLB and MLS rosters wanting to play in it, too, considering Fear of God is already one of the most popular brands in pro sports’ increasingly competitive style arena. (At Fear of God’s landmark first runway show at the Hollywood Bowl this spring, you couldn’t swing an Essentials hoodie without hitting an NBA player.) “Sometimes the product informs you where it wants to go,” Lorenzo says of Athletics’ big league prospects, “and so it may end up in the pros, and I’ll be happy if it does.” He says he and Beckham have already talked about potential designs for Miami FC uniforms.

Adidas has a lot riding on Athletics following the collapse last year of Yeezy, a business worth billions. The speculation—or hope—among investors is that Athletics is meant to fill the gap. The arrangement would make sense from a design standpoint, given that Lorenzo had a hand in the promising early era of Yeezy. I note that the basketball sneakers are reminiscent of the high-top Yeezy 750, which came out in 2015 and which Lorenzo is said to have helped design.

“I can't take any credit for any of the shoes that Ye led,” he says. And while one can see why the Athletics sneakers would appeal to a Yeezy customer, Lorenzo balks at the idea that his project is being positioned in any way as the new Yeezy. “I built fear of God with the intention to create something that I knew that only I could create,” he says. “I think what Kanye did with Adidas was something that only he could do. And I have too much respect for him to come in after him and try to fill a hole. So that's the last thing I'm trying to do. I'm hoping to get out of that conversation.”

Though Adidas CEO Bjorn Gulden has acknowledged that “there is no other Yeezy business out there in the market,” in an earnings call in May, he stated that Fear of God Athletics could “commercially be a game-changer for Adidas by 2024.”

As for Adidas itself, Lorenzo now says, “I think with any relationship, it just takes time to learn each other. Do you have the patience to understand each other's perspective? Are you seeing the future the same way? And I think because we both see the future the same way, that's kept us together through some tough times over the past three years.”

And soon enough, Lorenzo says, the product will achieve the perfection he’s been striving for all these years. “I can happily say we're on the right path for it to be exactly what we dreamed for it to be. By the second half of 2024, you'll see full performance shoes that are light, playable and transcend the court. Nothing will be compromised.”

Still, even by his sky-high standards, he’s pretty happy with the sneakers that he can finally show the world. He picks up the tan pair again. “You can play in these, but would I say it’s the best basketball shoe in the market? Probably not. But is it one of the best looking sneakers?” He pauses, smiles, admires his handiwork. “Maybe.”

Jerry Lorenzo
Jerry Lorenzo

Originally Appeared on GQ