The Impact of The German Army Trainer
The German army trainer remains rather unknown despite being the inspiration behind some of the world’s most popular sneakers. Despite this relatively low profile, over the last few decades it has amassed a cult following among sneakerheads, archive fashion collectors, and army surplus enthusiasts. With many of its historical lines blurred, sometimes it’s difficult to unpackage the vast history behind the legendary sneaker.
Originally known as the ‘Bundeswehr Sportschuhe’, directly translating to federal defence sports shoe, the German army trainer goes by a few other names — including the BW trainer, and the GAT. It has also inspired many of the sneakers that we know and love today, acting as a base model for the adidas Samba, Gazelle, Resplit Low, and the PUMA Whirlwind. It has also inspired some high-fashion silhouettes, including Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme B01 and, of course, the Maison Margiela Replica Sneaker. Despite its rather bizarre beginnings, the GAT’s roots run deep within sneaker culture.
Around the 1970s, the Bundeswehr (German Army) were looking for a supplier of standard issue trainers for their troops. Estranged brothers Adolf Dassler, founder of adidas, and Rudolf Dassler, founder of PUMA, both raced to secure the contract. Lines become very blurry as to who actually produced the shoes, however, history does lean more towards adidas. Regardless, the Bundeswehr Sportschuhe was actually based on the pair of track shoes that the Dassler brothers created for Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic Games.
The original shoes that were issued by the Bundeswehr to their troops were mostly white, with grey suede and a gum sole for traction. These shoes had the task of handling the tough training routines of the German Army.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Cold War ended in 1991, the armed forces were significantly downsized. Suddenly there was much less use for the estimated 500,000 GATs that had been produced and issued over the preceding year and, living in a country undergoing economic redevelopment, ex-soldiers began selling their pairs. Many ended up in army surplus, and started being used by regular citizens. Around this time in Austria, a pair was rumoured to fall into the hands of Martin Margiela himself. Apparently it was love at first sight.
The house of Margiela arguably created the most famous iteration of the GAT. Running an extremely closed and private operation, there are many different stories when it comes to how the idea of creating their own GATs came to Margiela. Apparently, the original Margiela iterations weren’t produced by them. Rumours suggest that the design team simply bought a large quantity of pairs, cleaned them, changed the laces, hand painted the sole, added graffiti, and embossed the iconic number logo on the tongue. When the pairs were later sold, they came with a card encouraging customers to add their own graffiti.
Those initial pairs would have been created around 2002 when Margiela was at the helm of his brand (rumours indicate he left around 2004). They have since become a major Grail, and will now cost you an arm and a leg to acquire. By the mid 2000s, around the time Margiela left the house, production commenced on their own iteration of the GAT. Known as the Margiela Replica Sneaker, it is still worn and loved all over the world.
The Bundeswehr Sportschuhe has inspired countless different silhouettes, which are at large today. Their origin as a mass-produced item from decades ago is a truly obscure piece of sneaker history. And with uniformity being such a massive reference point for fashion and sneakers today, the German army trainer isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.