Adidas has had to deny it appointed a former Cambodian union leader as its new co-CEO and launched a Derelicte-style collection of garments pre-worn by factory workers, as a spoof launch event at Berlin fashion week sent confusion around the fashion world.
A spoof press release, written by culture jamming activist duo The Yes Men and sent to fashion bloggers from a fake Adidas email address, announced a “revolutionary plan” for the German sportswear company, designed to “own the reality” of working conditions in the south-east Asian factories where many of its clothes are made.
Cambodian former garment worker and trade union leader Vay Ya Nak Phoan was announced as a future co-CEO alongside Bjørn Gulden, the former Puma executive who took over as head of Adidas at the start of this year.
The new direction for the company was to be underlined by a new “realitywear” product range, supposedly curated by rapper Pharrell Williams, consisting of “carefully distressed” garments “upcycled from clothing worn non-stop for six months by Cambodian workers who are owed wages withheld during the pandemic”.
At a spoof launch event in central Berlin, bruised and bloodied models stumbled across the catwalk in “realitywear” garments in front of an audience that seemed to accept the collection as genuine.
A pair of Adidas slippers with spikes pushing through the soles was presented in a glass cage, as an example of the company’s new ethos.
By midday, Adidas denied it was behind the launch. “This announcement is not by Adidas and not correct”, a spokesperson said.
By then, the press release had been picked up by several fashion news websites and bloggers. “Adidas seems to have learned from past mistakes and seems interested in a serious correction of its course”, wrote news portal FashionUnited, in an article later taken offline.
Another report, picked up by MSN’s news aggregator, presented the new range as Adidas trying to “make amends” after being forced to cancel its collaboration with Kanye West over the rapper’s antisemitic comments.
“Adidas is a company close to my heart,” said Yes Men co-founder Igor Vamos, who operates under the alias Mike Bananno. “They have this history of incredible scandals they have managed to overcome. They are masters of greenwashing.
“Bjørn Gulden has talked a lot about doing the right thing – perhaps today’s stunt will nudge them into actually doing it”, he added.
Vamos and his co-conspirator Jacques Servin have in the past posed as spokespersons for the World Trade Organization, McDonald’s, Dow Chemical, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Last summer there was industrial action at Adidas supplier factories in Cambodia, where unions said there was a rise in targeted sackings of union leaders during the Covid pandemic. Pressure groups claim that over 30,000 workers in eight factories that produce Adidas apparel across Cambodia are owed $11.7m (£9.6m).