Catwalk catastrophe dresses down Adidas

BERLIN – January 17, 2023 – A surprise announcement from "adidas" early Monday morning promised to flip the script on power in the garment industry. The revolutionary plans included appointing a Cambodian garment worker to be Co-CEO, signing a new legally-binding agreement on working conditions, establishing a severance guarantee fund, and paying money owed to workers. The news about adidas's altruism was picked up by well-intended general press like Yahoo! Life and industry publications like Fashion United and Just Style. By evening, it exploded into the fashion world with an outrageous Berlin Fashion Week debut of "suffering-forward" REALITYWEAR, at PLATTE Berlin. But what appeared to be adidas finally taking responsibility for decades of labor violations turned out to be an elaborate hoax by Berlin designers Threads and Tits, The Yes Men, and the Clean Clothes Campaign.

"The news of their game-changing ethics programme is sadly fake, but the suffering of adidas workers is all too real," said Jeff Walburn of the Yes Men. “adidas can fix it by paying their garment workers what they are owed, signing the Pay Your Workers agreement, and finally owning the reality of the people who make their profits possible.”

The saga began early Monday morning, when a press release from the domain announced that CEO Bjørn Gulden, who recently took charge of the company, was appointing a Cambodian former garment worker and union leader Vay Ya Nak Phoan (“textile” in Khmer, played by Len Leng) to co-captain the mega brand. The plan was to replace adidas' motto "Own the Game'' with one that proactively addresses injustice in the garment industry: "Own the Reality." 

Moments later, a second adidas announcement came from a different adidas site, this one heralding the new line of “suffering-forward REALITYWEAR” that reflects the plight of adidas workers in production countries. The missive, complete with elaborate photographic evidence, presented a bold new streetwear collection made from “carefully distressed” clothes that Cambodian garment workers “pre-wore for at least six months” before they were remixed for public consumption by celebrity designers, including Bad Bunny, Pharrell Williams, and the Brooklyn-based Philllllthy. The proceeds from sales of the new collection, the announcement said, would pay adidas’ Cambodian supply chain workers €11.2 million that they were shorted during the pandemic—like a tone-deaf GoFundMe campaign. 

But then, another twist! After the debut, the “real” adidas denied the whole campaign, issuing a stern rebuttal, refuting the many assertions in absurdly granular detail. But that announcement was yet another hoax—an opportunity for the pranksters to list adidas' violations and indiscretions, ranging from its Nazi roots and decades-long bankrolling of FIFA corruption to the mass slaughter of wild kangaroos.

The real adidas denied it was behind the launch, but there was no way to stop the live product launch Monday evening at PLATTE, during the kickoff of Berlin Fashion Week. An appreciative crowd, many of whom thought it was a real adidas debut, were left slack-jawed by the tasteless REALITYWEAR runway show—a gruesome spectacle of torn plastic, ripped nylon, and limping catwalk models smeared in filth—designed by the Berlin-based fashion designers Threads and Tits. There were also sandals with a painfully-spiked footbed, designed to simulate the pain of garment workers. There was a ceremonial signing of the Pay Your Workers labour agreement, the real proposal developed by trade unions and labour rights organisations that adidas is under pressure to sign. The show even simulated a sweatshop atmosphere, providing the audience “toilet tickets” timed to allow bathroom access only under inhumane limitations. 

The whole story was covered in the Guardian, here

“The Yes Men have presented an alternative future, one where adidas takes ethical conduct seriously enough to invest in it financially. We call on Bjørn Gulden to make this vision a reality by signing the Pay Your Workers agreement. Words are not enough, workers need real action now,” said Ineke Zeldenrust of Clean Clothes Campaign.

Tell adidas to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement by adding your name to this petition.