When Adidas cut ties with Kanye West a year ago, ending their wildly lucrative shoe deal, the breakup appeared to be the culmination of weeks of his inflammatory remarks about Jews and Black Lives Matter. But a New York Times examination found that behind the scenes, the partnership was fraught from the start.
Mr. West, who now goes by Ye, subjected employees to antisemitic and crude sexual comments and routine verbal abuse. As Adidas executives doubled down on a partnership that boosted company profits and made Mr. West a billionaire, they scrambled for ways to cope with the star’s demands and provocations.
Interviews with current and former employees of Adidas and of Mr. West, along with hundreds of previously undisclosed internal records, including contracts, text messages and financial documents, provide the fullest accounting yet of the relationship. Here are seven takeaways.
For almost 10 years, Adidas looked past Mr. West’s misconduct as profits soared.
Mr. West’s first contract with Adidas, in 2013, had the most generous terms it had 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 it to end the partnership if he did anything that led to “disrepute, contempt, scandal,” according to a copy obtained by The Times.
As the partnership earned billions of dollars, Mr. West’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. But it is not clear whether the brand ever considered invoking the morals clause before terminating the deal last year.
Both Adidas and Mr. West declined interview requests and did not comment on The Times’s findings.
Mr. West showed a troubling fixation on Jews and Hitler in the partnership.
Shortly after signing with Adidas, he met with designers at company headquarters in Germany to discuss ideas. He was so offended by their sketches, he drew a swastika on one, shocking employees.
He later told 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 paid a seven-figure settlement to one of his own employees who accused him of repeatedly praising Hitler.
Mr. West told Adidas colleagues that he admired Hitler’s command of propaganda. He also expressed a belief that Jews had special powers allowing them to amass money and influence.
He brought pornography and crude comments into the workplace.
Weeks before the swastika incident in 2013, Mr. West made Adidas executives watch pornography during a meeting at his Manhattan apartment. He continued showing pornography to Adidas employees at work. Last year, he ambushed Adidas executives in Los Angeles with a pornographic film.
Staff members also complained to top executives that he had made angry, sexually offensive comments to them.
Big demands and mood swings weighed on the relationship.
Mr. West contended repeatedly that Adidas was exploiting him. He sought more money and power, even suggesting that he should become chief executive.
His complaints were often delivered amid severe mood swings, creating whiplash for employees. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he at times rejected the assessment and resisted treatment. Tears were common; so was fury.
In 2019, he abruptly moved his Yeezy operation to remote Cody, Wyo., ordering the Adidas team to relocate. He used “terms like ‘believer’ and ‘pilgrimage’” to describe those who would follow him there, an Adidas executive told colleagues in a group text chain. In a meeting with Adidas’s leaders that year to discuss his demands, he hurled shoes around the room.
Adidas adapted to Mr. West’s behavior: ‘We are in a code red.’
Managers and top executives started the group text chain, the “Yzy hotline,” to address issues involving Mr. West.
The Adidas team working on Yeezys adopted a strategy they likened to firefighting, rotating members on and off the front lines of dealing with the artist. “We are in a code red,” the team’s general manager texted colleagues in 2019. “The first line is completely exhausted and don’t feel supported.”
The company assigned a human resources official to the unit and gave new hires a subscription to a meditation app. The staff regularly gathered for something akin to group therapy.
As the brand grew more reliant on Yeezys, it sweetened the deal for Mr. West.
Under the 2016 contract, he received a 15 percent royalty on net sales, with $15 million upfront along with millions of dollars in company stock each year.
The “biggest issue,” an Adidas document from contract negotiations noted, was “putting CASH in Kanye’s pocket to show him we VALUE him.” The partnership would propel him to Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people.
And in 2019, Adidas agreed to another enticement: $100 million annually, officially for Yeezy marketing but, in practice, a fund that Mr. West could spend with little oversight.
He still stands to make money from the Adidas deal.
After the relationship ruptured a year ago and Yeezy sales came to a halt, both Adidas and Mr. West were hit hard. The company projected its first annual loss in decades. Mr. West’s net worth plummeted.
But they had at least one more chance to keep making money together. In May, the company began releasing the remaining $1.3 billion worth of Yeezys. A cut of the proceeds would go to charity. But most of the revenue would go to Adidas, and Mr. West was entitled to royalties.
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