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28 May 2021

Dribble me this: conserving Adidas K. Abdul Jabbar trainers

kareem-abdul-jabbar (1)

Acts of conservation not only allow for the preservation of artefacts but can also give us the opportunity to investigate them closely, and allow them to reveal their stories. This was case during the treatment of a pair of Adidas K. Abdul Jabbar trainers. Arriving in the Leather Conservation Centre from the Design Museum in London, the trainers required intervention to stabilise the lifting labels on the tongues of the trainers, bearing the iconic depiction of famed basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, also known as ‘The Captain’.

K. Abdul Jabbar trainers before conservation treatment. Note the lifting label in the right image.

Abdul-Jabbar ended his career in 1989 as National Basketball Association’s (NBA) all-time leader in 9 categories. In addition to his many athletic accolades, Kareem was also the first basketball player contracted by Adidas. In 1972, while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, Adidas created their first Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trainer, adorned with his face and signature. As to be expected, the shoes were a big hit and Adidas put out further versions of the trainer, with one pair named after his signature move, the ‘Sky Hook’.

(left) 1978 Advertisement for K. Abdul Jabbar high and low cut in Boys’ Life September 1978. (right) Advertisement for 1981 Kareem’s Sky Hook shoes in Boys’ Life October 1981.

The construction of the trainer seemed typical and, as mentioned previously, the main area of concern was the lifting label which had also began to crack and separate, and unfortunately due to the distortion of the textile below meant that the label could not be re-aligned flush when adhered back to the textile substrate.

Condition of the labels prior to conservation treatment.

Investigation with only the naked eye presented a now iconic green label, similar with other contemporary trainers.

(from left to right) 1981 Kareem Abdul Jabbar ( 2021). 1979 K. Abdul-Jabbar ( 2021). 1972 K. Abdul-Jabbar ( 2021).

However, when we looked at the labels under the microscope it became clear that there was more going on…

Images taken of labels under microscope during conservation treatment.

The surface was very similar to the corrosion you typically encounter with archaeological copper artefacts, where the copper interacts with moisture and oxygen to corrode to a distinctive green/blue colour with a bumpy, voluminous texture. This suggests that when fresh from the factory the label would have been golden in colour! Initially this was a bit of a surprise, our green label was not as it seemed… Research into the manufacture of trainers has shown that the use of foil stamping could very well account for the presence of a copper alloy[1] foil, which over the years of use (exposure to salts in sweat and moisture from the environment) has led to the copper corroding, creating this distinctive green label, now synonymous with the early K. Abdul Jabbar trainers. A far cry from the golden labels Kareem himself would have worn. Interestingly, it seems that the deterioration of the foil label has separated these trainers from modern iterations of the classic, acting as a marker of age and use and increasing their value, much in the same way as metal artefacts whose patinas[2] are actively sought after.

Hot stamping or foil stamping is a method of transferring a foil label onto a surface under heat and pressure. Here a piece of metal foil is laid over leather, a heated metal die with ‘Honda’ is impressed onto its surface ( 2021).
(left) Adidas K. Abdul Jabbar 2004 trainers ( 2021). (right) Adidas K. Abdul Jabbar 2005 ( 2021).

Conservation treatment successfully secured the labels, preserving their image and information. It also provided an insight into the changing appearance of the trainers, allowing us to reflect on the ways in which what is deemed valuable about an object can evolve over time, just as the objects themselves change.

[1] A mixture of copper and other metal elements.
[2] A patina usually refers to the stable, dense corrosion layer, which builds up slowly over time.

The Leather Conservation Centre
Grosvenor Chambers
Grosvenor Centre
Union Street

01604 719766