If you ask a fan what it is that they love about adidas, they might shrug and say they just do, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. As if you’re asking them what they love about the foot inside the shoe. Duh. South African photographer and filmmaker Imraan Christian recently shot the adidas EQT Born Free Originals campaign in Johannesburg. It was a dream come true for the young creative.
MC spoke to Imraan on the phone to chat about EQT and the shoot, and started out talking about memories and the meaning of the brand. “Adidas has always meant a lot for the culture, especially as a young kid growing up. Adidas had this mythical quality when I was a kid, you know,” Imraan says. Then he puts his finger on it. “When you’re wearing adidas you feel like your best self. And, representation is important to me. Even me, who doesn’t come from a very well-off background or anything, even me, I can dream about collaborating with this entity that has this mythical quality.”
South Africans born after 1990 are referred to as ‘born frees’ – they have never experienced formal apartheid, but its long-lasting after effects mean that their freedom is often limited. The children of 1990s South Africa are now in their 20s and confronting what it means to be and create in a post-apartheid context. Imraan and the models in the shoot, all creative practitioners in their own right, are making art, fashion, music, and images that reflect their coming of age in this new world.
Adidas EQT is also a 1990s baby. Equipment was born in 1991 in the city of Berlin, in a time of great turmoil worldwide, and represented a stripping back of the over-the-top aesthetic that dominated the 1980s. EQT became an adidas Original, and this range is its third iteration. It’s a crazy thought that EQT is the same age as the creatives in the shoot, many of whom have, like Imraan, idolised adidas since childhood.
Adidas shoes have come to encapsulate both the top and the bottom of the game – kids on the streets of any city in the world can wear adidas as a way of belonging to a specific street culture, and the shoes are also worn by icons the world over: football star Lionel Messi, Kanye West and supermodel Karlie Kloss all represent the brand. By wearing adidas, it seems like there’s a chance that you might walk that path from the bottom to the top. In a way adidas has come to represent hope, a belief that the person you want to become is attainable.
For Imraan, working with adidas is proof that that path is possible: “It’s important for me to acknowledge that the world has shifted to the point where it’s not out of reach. We are the creators for ourselves, essentially. I’m no longer idealising something that is far outside myself. Now when a young kid from the Cape Flats looks at something like this EQT range and sees the shoot, they can also dream of collaborating with adidas. For me it’s been a long journey to get here, but what it means for the future is that we are connecting worlds. Between those who really idolise the brand, and those who are creating content for it or representing it.”
The conversation turns to why people are so obsessed with adidas, and how the brand has become so iconic. Imraan attributes it to both the high quality of adidas products and the continuation of the brand’s classic feel and aesthetic over time. Particularly, adidas has been adopted by various subcultures. “There are many, many subcultures that in their aesthetics can be related to adidas, and these subcultures have been very influential throughout time and throughout the world,” he explains. “If you look at the grime and rap scenes right now, most of the top artists are fully wearing adidas tracksuits. That’s reminiscent of some sort of punk vibes back in the day, and also of old-school hip-hop, break-dancing and all of those things.” Visual elements from the underground cultures of the 70s and 80s have morphed and reappeared in current rap culture; Imraan has fused that with a South African street style feel in the Born Free Originals shoot.
Run-DMC became the first non-sports adidas ambassadors in 1986. Their song “my adidas” became a hit and caught the brand’s attention, officially cementing the link between adidas and street culture. Since then adidas has partnered with successive waves of creatives that represent distinct subcultures. Imraan cites Pharell, Stormzy, and Kanye West as current examples. “Obviously it’s mainstream now, but what really captures the audience of adidas is its relation to identity, and these subcultures.” The subcultures in turn adopt and reinterpret adidas products; the shoes in particular have become wearable references that refract identity backwards and forwards in time. Adidas as a brand has perfected the art of being in perpetual momentum, of surfing the rolling edge of the wave where subculture breaks into popular culture, recedes back, and rolls in again in a fresh iteration.
The EQT range and the Born Free Originals shoot illustrate this process in motion. “EQT has always been about pushing the envelope in its design, textures, and fabrics used. It’s known as the side of adidas that will really push the boundaries,” says Imraan. That’s why EQT is well suited to working creatives, like the Born Free Originals in the shoot. The creatives featured are designer Ketu Malesa, Photographer Tk Mogotsi, graphic designer Siyabonga Myaka, fashion design students Sophesihle Zondo and Zoliswa Mbadu, blogger and model Mpho Ntlatleng and digital media assistant Nati Kgobe. Imraan said he particularly enjoyed working with real characters who are not professional models, because the process is more organic, and they bring something more relatable to the shoot.
“The best thing about the shoot was connecting with young creatives. The entire group of people, wow, were really incredible, and it was a quick glimpse of what the future might be like, if we were all given a real platform and an opportunity to create. It was really lovely to get the taste of what could come.” The shoot took place in downtown Johannesburg, and it has a distinctly gritty quality to it. Imraan comments, “We wanted to link 1990s Berlin to South Africa to Joburg, and we went for a grey-scale architectural feel.”
EQT was designed in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall and the decline of the eastern bloc; at the same time South Africa was undergoing its transition to democracy. 27 years later, both Berlin and Johannesburg are leading creative cities. Imraan believes that South Africa’s born frees, including those in the shoot, are creating unique work. “By pushing our own art we are creating something new. The intention isn’t overt. It’s evolved to this point where there’s a foundation for young creatives. And what they are doing is incredibly interesting. It’s a lot more innate, more organic, more natural, this new aesthetic, or energy, or vibe, whatever we want to call it.” He says the work is on par with or ready to surpass the Berlins of the world. “I look at my peers and I see what everyone is doing. It’s really fascinating, because there kind of aren’t any limits any more, to what we can create, where we can go. The world is quite open right now, and in a way quite hungry for content coming from here.”
While born free creatives are able to overcome limitations to their lives and careers that are linked to the country’s apartheid history, it remains a struggle to do so, and this can be reflected in the work. Imraan started out in film and fashion, but developed a reputation as a documentary photographer after his iconic coverage of the Fees Must Fall protests in 2015 and 2016. “For me everything you do is political, whether overtly or not. You can’t really separate the political sphere from the social sphere from the fashion sphere. It comes down to representation: who gets to create and represent these things that we idolise, you know, the things that we’d like to become. I guess I come from the underground, and having this big megalithic brand collaborate is really important for my vision of the future, because now it’s possible, it’s not out of reach to a young photographer on the cape flats any more. Representation will always be important to me.”
Imraan’s next project will be a move in a new direction. The self-described “shape shifter” will be working on large public murals on buildings in Langa in Cape Town.
The shoot was styled by Gabrielle Kannemeyer.