When Adidas parted ways with Kanye West a year ago, ending his highly lucrative shoe deal, it appeared that the breakup was the culmination of weeks of his inflammatory comments about Jews and Black Lives Matter. But a New York Times investigation found that behind the scenes, the partnership was rocky from the start.
Mr West, he now says, subjected staff to anti-Semitic and crude sexual comments and regular verbal abuse. As Adidas executives doubled down on the partnership, increasing the company’s profits and making Mr. West a billionaire, they struggled with how to deal with the star’s demands and provocations.
Interviews with current and former employees of Adidas and Mr. West, along with hundreds of previously undisclosed internal records, including contracts, text messages and financial documents, provide the fullest account of the relationship to date. Here are seven takeaways.
For nearly 10 years, Adidas ignored Mr. West’s misconduct as profits soared.
Mr West’s first contract with Adidas, in 2013, was on the most generous terms ever offered to a non-athlete. In the next one, three years later, Mr. West got more money, and Adidas got a morals clause – allowing the partnership to end if it did anything that caused “disgrace, contempt, scandal”, as Several times per copy received.
As the partnership made billions of dollars, Mr. West’s behavior became increasingly erratic. But it’s not clear whether the brand ever considered invoking the ethics clause before ending the deal last year.
Both Adidas and Mr. West declined interview requests and did not comment on The Times’s findings.
Mr. West displayed a disturbing view of Jews and Hitler in the partnership.
Shortly after signing with Adidas, he met with designers at the company headquarters in Germany to discuss ideas. He was so offended by their drawings that he drew a swastika on one of the drawings, shocking the employees.
He later asked a Jewish Adidas manager to kiss a portrait of Hitler every day. He informed a member of the company’s executive board that he had made a seven-figure payment to one of his own employees who had repeatedly accused him of praising Hitler.
Mr. West told Adidas associates that he admired Hitler’s propaganda orders. He also expressed the belief that Jews had special powers that allowed them to amass wealth and exert influence.
He brought vulgarities and lewd comments into the workplace.
A few weeks before the Swastika incident in 2013, Mr. West had asked Adidas executives to look at pornography during a meeting in his Manhattan apartment. He continued to show pornography to Adidas employees in the workplace. Last year, he attacked Adidas executives in Los Angeles by showing them an obscene film.
Staff members also complained to top officials that he had made angry, sexually offensive comments to them.
Big demands and mood swings took a toll on the relationship.
Mr. West repeatedly argued that Adidas was exploiting him. He demanded more money and power, even suggesting that he should become chief executive.
Their complaints were often delivered in a serious mood, causing distress to the staff. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he at times refused evaluation and resisted treatment. Tears were common; So there was anger.
In 2019, he suddenly moved his Yeezy operations to remote Cody, Wyo., ordering the Adidas team to relocate. An Adidas executive told colleagues in a group text series that he used words like “believer’ and ‘pilgrim’ to describe those who would follow him there. Adidas met that year to discuss his demands. At a meeting with leaders he threw shoes around the room.
Adidas adopted Mr West’s attitude: ‘We’re in code red.’
Managers and top executives started a group text chain, the “Yzy Hotline”, to address issues involving Mr. West.
The Adidas team working on the Yeezys adopted a strategy they compared to firefighting, rotating members in and out of the front row to deal with the artists. “We are in Code Red,” the team’s general manager texted colleagues in 2019. “The first line is completely exhausted and does not feel supported.”
The company assigned a human resources officer to the unit and gave new employees a subscription to a meditation app. Employees would get together regularly for something like group therapy.
As the brand became more reliant on Yeezys, it sweetened the deal for Mr. West.
Under the 2016 contract, he received a 15 percent royalty on net sales, including a $15 million advance, as well as millions of dollars in company stock each year.
“The biggest issue,” said an Adidas document of contract negotiations, “was to put cash in Kanye’s pocket to show him we value him.” This partnership will propel him into the Forbes list of the world’s richest people.
And in 2019, Adidas agreed to another inducement: $100 million annually, officially for Yeezy marketing, but in practice, a fund that Mr. West could spend with little oversight.
He’s still set to make money from the Adidas deal.
After the relationship broke down a year ago and Yeezy sales halted, both Adidas and Mr. West suffered huge losses. The company has forecast an annual loss for the first time in decades. Mr. West’s net worth decreased.
But at least they had another chance to keep making money together. In May, the company began releasing the remaining $1.3 billion worth of Yeezys. A portion of the proceeds will go to charity. But most of the revenue would go to Adidas, and Mr. West was entitled to royalties.