Fashion

Eye of the (Onitsuka) Tiger

The iconic sneaker brand teams up with Willow Smith for the Autumn/Winter 2020 campaign.
Reading time 3 minutes

Onitsuka Tiger is ever-evolving. Since its founding in 1949 (a time when there were no Japanese companies specializing in athletic shoes), the brand has been working to perfect each of their shoes, improving the design with every iteration. Last year, the iconic brand celebrated its 70th anniversary.

Onitsuka Tiger began at the request of a high school basketball coach who asked Kihachiro Onitsuka to develop a shoe designed for playing basketball in an indoor gym—shoes that were good for quick dashes and sudden stops. Working with the players, Onitsuka designed the ultimate basketball shoe. Through word of mouth, the shoes’ reputation spread around Japan and the brand took off. From 1956 to 1980, Onitsuka Tiger made the delegation shoe for the Japanese Olympic teams.

In 1969, Onitsuka Tiger began a partnership with Blue Ribbon Sports, the forerunner of Nike, Inc. BRS was a distributor of Onitsuka shoes in the US, and Bill Bowerman, a co-founder of BRS and highly-successful track and field coach, asked for Onitsuka’s help in designing a shoe that provided more cushioning to athletes. Onitsuka designed the Cortez shoe, which became incredibly popular (after a legal dispute between the two companies, the shoe was renamed as the Corsair). 40+ years later, the model for the shoes remains classic for both Onitsuka Tiger and Nike.

In 1977, Onitsuka Tiger’s sports shoes merged into the ASICS Corporation (the iconic ASICS stripe was first introduced in 1966 (and was originally known as the Mexico line on the Limber shoe). Around the same time, the Onitsuka Tiger brand was retired.

But in 2002, the Onitsuka Tiger brand relaunched as a sports fashion brand, just as vintage sneakers were coming back into style. The shoes rose to popularity once again, and in2003, Uma Thurman wore a pair—bright yellow sneakers with the unmistakable black lines—inthe hit Quentin Tarantino movie, Kill Bill. Not long after that, Onitsuka Tiger had opened 23 stand-alone stores.

In 2008, Onitsuka Tiger released their Nippon Made series, a premium series of shoes made to highlight their Japanese craftsmanship and pay homage to the brand’s roots (the shoes are made entirely in Japan). Since 2019, Onitsuka Tiger has been under the creative direction of Andrea Pompilio, who first worked with the brand in 2013 on the Onitsuka Tiger x Andrea Pompilio collection for Pitti Uomo. In recent years, Onitsuka Tiger has collaborated with a handful of luxury brands, like Givenchy in 2019, and Valentino in 2020.

Onitsuka Tiger has carved out its space in popular culture, with brand ambassadors like Will's Smith daughter Willow Smith. The Autumn/Winter 2020 Campaign featuring the youngest Smith was shot with a desert backdrop, which, according to Pompilio, is to create awareness around the environment and world in which we live. The campaign features pieces that show the fusion of fashion, sportswear, and pop art, and balances the contemporary design of Onitsuka Tiger with Willow’s own distinct, individual style. In an effort to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, part of the proceeds from the Autumn/Winter 2020 campaign will be donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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