Adidas has had to deny appointing a former Cambodian union leader as its new co-chief executive and launch a collection of Derelicta-style clothing previously worn by factory workers, as a Spanish launch event at Berlin Fashion Week caused an uproar in the fashion world.
The fake press release, written by culture-disruption activist duo The Yes Men and sent to fashion bloggers from a fake Adidas email address, announced a “revolutionary plan” for the German sportswear company, designed to “own the reality” of working conditions in factories in Southeast Asia where many of her clothes are made.
Cambodian former garment worker and union leader Vay Ya Nak Phoan has been announced as the future co-CEO alongside Bjørn Gulden, the former Puma executive who took over at Adidas earlier this year.
The new direction for the company was to be highlighted by a new range of “realitywear” products, reportedly curated by rapper Pharrell Williams, consisting of “carefully cleaned” garments “upcycled from clothing worn by Cambodian workers who are owed six months’ wages non-stop retained during the pandemic”.
At a mock launch event in central Berlin, bruised and bloodied models stumbled down the catwalk in “realitywear” before an audience that seemed to accept the collection as genuine.
A pair of Adidas slippers with spikes poking through the soles is presented in a glass cage, exemplifying the company’s new ethos.
By midday, Adidas had denied being behind the launch. “This announcement is not from Adidas and is not accurate,” the spokesperson said.
By then, the press release had been picked up by several fashion news websites and bloggers. “Adidas seems to have learned from past mistakes and seems interested in seriously correcting its course,” wrote the FashionUnited news portal, in an article that was later taken down.
Another report, picked up by news aggregator MSN, presented the new collection as Adidas trying to “make amends” after being forced to cancel a collaboration with Kanye West due to the rapper’s anti-Semitic comments.
“Adidas is a company close to my heart,” said Yes Men co-founder Igor Vamos, who goes by the alias Mike Bananno. “They have a history of incredible scandals that they have been able to overcome. They are masters of greenwashing.
“Bjørn Gulden talked a lot about doing the right thing – maybe today’s stunt will encourage them to actually do it,” he added.
Vamos and co-conspirator Jacques Servin have in the past posed as spokespeople for the World Trade Organization, McDonald’s, Dow Chemical and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Last summer there was industrial action at Adidas supplier factories in Cambodia, where unions said there had been an increase in targeted sackings of union leaders during the Covid pandemic. Pressure groups claim that more than 30,000 workers at eight factories that make Adidas clothing across Cambodia are owed $11.7m (£9.6m).