“I was always a Nike guy,” says Joerg Koch, founder and editor-in-chief of 032c, when I ask him about the magazine-slash-apparel brand’s forthcoming collaboration with adidas. It’s an unexpected opening gambit – one he apparently delivered with similar candor to a room of stunned adidas executives when he and Maria Koch, Joerg’s wife and business partner, met with the German sportswear brand for the first time.
“One of the communications directors from Japan was speaking to Maria about her relationship with adidas,” he recalls. “She told them about her past as a graffiti writer and the adidas shoes she was wearing at that time.” With a background in womenswear design, having worked at brands such as Jil Sander and Marios Schwab, Maria has led the creative direction of 032c’s apparel and ready-to-wear lines since they launched in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Growing up in Göttingen, she spent her teenage years taking the train to Berlin to paint with one of the city’s most prolific graffiti crews – and saving up pocket money to buy secondhand pairs of adidas sneakers. This was in the 1990s, when the average European graffiti writer’s uniform was still heavily influenced by the aesthetic of 1980s New York hip hop. “You could see them begin to smile and relax,” Maria says of that initial meeting with adidas, when she told them about her favorite sneakers from that era: the Ewing and the Phantom.
“I thought, done deal,” smiles Joerg. “I hope they don’t ask me.” Inevitably, they did: what was his relationship with adidas? Instead of bluffing, he replied: “There is none.” His formative years, he explained, were not spent tagging trains, but instead going to hardcore punk shows, where kids inspired by the stateside youth crew movement would wear fresh high-top Nikes and Vans. “But,” Joerg told them, “there’s a couple of shoes from adidas I’ve always enjoyed wearing: the Stan Smith and the GSG 9 boot.”
The 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich were supposed to showcase a Germany reborn. Bearing the official slogan The Cheerful Games, they were the first Olympics held in the country since 1936, when the Third Reich used the Berlin games to put nazi ideals on a world stage, shocking the international spectatorship. The Munich Olympics failed to successfully rebrand Germany’s Olympic image. On September 5, 1972 – ten days into the event – eight armed, tracksuit-clad members of the Palestinian group Black September stormed the Olympic Village, taking 11 athletes from the Israeli team hostage. The German police were woefully unprepared: lacking in tactical support, their rescue attempt resulted in the deaths of all 11 hostages, as well as other casualties. As part of its response to the Munich crisis, the federal government established the Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (Border Guard Group 9) – the GSG 9 for short. A highly trained tactical unit reserved for specialized operations requires specialized equipment, ready for deployment in an urban environment. The government mandated that adidas create the GSG 9’s namesake shoe, leveraging the brand’s sportswear know-how to update the traditional tactical boot.
The result resembled something a boxer might wear and featured a black leather upper adorned with three tonal stripes and a thick rubber midsole. In 1979, the design was tweaked to feature a new sole configuration that foreshadowed the design later used on adidas’ LA Trainer, with three cushioning rods protruding from the midsole to provide stability and shock absorption.
The shoe was never intended for public consumption and was mostly sold through police equipment vendors, but over the years it found its way onto civilian feet, acquiring a small yet dedicated following. For decades, the original boot remained largely unchanged, until another major sporting event hosted in Germany – the 2006 soccer World Cup – brought about a second iteration: the GSG 9.2. The original “wasn’t up to par with modern tactical boots,” says Nelson Madlangbayan, a former US soldier who now works in adidas’ specialist sports division. “The outsole wasn’t very tactical. It made a lot of noise on marble floors and it was slippery when wet.”
“I received the brief between 2004 and 2005 for a new boot to be released in 06,” Madlangbayan continues. “The GSG 9.2 was our way of offering something for that big event. Everybody was expected to deliver some sort of World Cup product. The football division was obviously offering its boots and the training division was offering training pieces. But what about the guys keeping things in order?” Madlangbayan and a small team worked closely with a tactical unit based in Eckernförde, a town near the Baltic Sea where Germany’s naval special forces are based. The GSG 9.2 was created specifically for their needs.
There is a stark visual contrast between the GSG 9.2 and its predecessor, which looks almost dainty and sleek in comparison, but the bulbous, uncompromising aesthetic of the updated version is the result of its functional design. There are no superfluous details or flourishes – every curve, element, ridge, and fabric has a reason to be there. Take the thick, rounded, ridged element on the inside upper of each boot: “That’s so they can break when rappelling from a helicopter,” says Madlangbayan. “A hard edge wouldn’t stay connected to the rope.”
The updated GSG 9 discarded the LA Trainer sole in favor of a sticky rubber compound with a lug configuration resembling the underside of an Astroturf soccer cleat. This was not a coincidence. “We take cues and technologies [from other departments at adidas], and integrate them in our products where it makes sense,” says Madlangbayan. He adds, “The ships can often be wet on or below deck, and they often have animals on them, so a lot of times they’re slipping in shit.”
Feces dodging aside, the most important function of the GSG 9.2 isn’t visible from the outside. The boot’s gray lining is not an aesthetic choice but indicates the incorporation of antistatic technology. “For bomb squads, this is extremely important,” says Madlangbayan. “If you can’t ground your shoes, you can basically detonate a bomb or some form of ammunition with a static charge.” The model hasn’t been tampered with since 2006. “It was purpose-built,” says Madlangbayan. “We didn’t really see the need to change.”
First debuted as part of 032c’s ready-to-wear runway show in London – which was titled COSMIC WORKSHOP and took on a heavy rave theme – the GSG 9.2 has followed a path to fashion similar to those of other shoes designed for tactical purposes. The desert boot and the Dr. Marten have roots in functionality but have enjoyed decades of subcultural popularity and continue to be reworked by brands such as Comme des Garçons and Supreme. The 032c collaboration is not the GSG 9.2’s first brush with fashion either: Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3 line for adidas created its own homage, while Kanye West looked to the shoe for inspiration for certain elements of his Yeezy footwear releases. Yet neither nod sparked the interest the shoe and its history might expect.
“It’s kind of like the sneaker equivalent of the Mercedes G-Wagon.”
We’re sitting on the roof terrace outside 032c’s office in Kreuzberg, Berlin, and the sun is splitting the sky. Today is not the kind of day on which one can fully appreciate the brutalist concrete of St. Agnes, the complex that currently houses the workshop. An overcast winter’s day to match the gray structure would have been more fitting: a neat visual comparison to the austere and imposing 032c GSG 9. “It’s really a quintessential German product for me,” says Joerg. “It’s not super colorful – kind of like the sneaker equivalent of the Mercedes G-Wagon.” It’s a synthesis of the city’s sensible, functional postwar architecture and the former bunkers that were transformed into recesses of freedom during the 1990s – spaces in which sweaty ravers put their repurposed combat pants and workwear through their paces. A similarly utilitarian, anti-fashion spirit can be seen in 032c’s GSG 9.2. Save for the odd flash of reflective 3M, it is true to its pragmatic German roots. “We didn’t want it to be too fashionable,” Maria says. “It’s not very sexy or funky – it’s super precise and to the point.”
This is only the beginning of 032c’s collaboration with adidas, which will soon expand to include apparel, accessories, and more footwear.