Bjørn Gulden, chief executive of Adidas, has lamented the end of the company’s lucrative partnership with Kanye West, saying, “I don’t think he meant what he said,” regarding the rapper’s antisemitic comments in October 2022.
West, who has changed his name to Ye, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that he was “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE … You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda”. On Instagram, he posted a screenshot of a conversation with Diddy, where he wrote: “Ima use you as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me.” Ye had caused further anger earlier that month by including T-shirts with the slogan White Lives Matter in a Yeezy fashion show in Paris.
Later in October, Adidas ended a creative partnership with Ye that had begun in 2015, saying his comments were “unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness”.
In December, Ye caused further outrage after posting an image of a swastika blended with the Star of David to X and praising Adolf Hitler and Nazis in an interview with Infowars host Alex Jones. “I see good things about Hitler,” said Ye. “Every human being has something of value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler … [Nazis] did good things too.” He added: “There’s a lot of things that I love about Hitler.”
Now, speaking on the Norwegian podcast In Good Company, Gulden elaborated on the rapper’s departure, prior to Gulden’s tenure which began in January after he left Puma.
“I think Kanye West is one of the most creative people in the world,” he said. “Both in music and what I call street culture. So he’s extremely creative and has together with Adi created a Yeezy line that was very successful. And then, as creative people, he did some statements, which wasn’t that good. And that caused Adi to break the contract and withdraw the product. Very unfortunate, because I don’t think he meant what he said and I don’t think he’s a bad person – it just came across that way.
“That meant we lost that business. One of the most successful collabs in history – very sad. But again, when you work with third parties, that could happen. It’s part of the game. That can happen with an athlete, it can happen with an entertainer. It’s part of the business.”
With its futurist silhouettes and pop-cultural heft, Yeezy became a successful brand for Adidas, generating £1.3bn in 2021, 7% of Adidas’s overall annual revenue. It was a major source of income for Ye, who took a reported 11% royalty cut.
After cutting ties with Ye, Adidas was lumbered with more than £1bn of unsold Yeezy stock. In May, Gulden announced plans for the stock, saying it would be sold but with a “significant amount” of proceeds handed to groups which combat hate speech, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Philonise & Keeta Floyd Institute for Social Change (run by the family of George Floyd) and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism. At the time, Gulden said: “There is no place in sport or society for hate of any kind and we remain committed to fighting against it.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League who had condemned Ye as a “vicious antisemite” who “put Jews in danger”, welcomed the move as “a thoughtful and caring resolution”.
But the musician will still earn his share of profits, which has caused some consternation. Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Adidas’s donations were “highly commendable … [but] the fact that Kanye West would profit financially from the sale is highly problematic”.
The end of the Yeezy product line contributed to a £350m drop in sales for Adidas in the first quarter of 2023, in a year-on-year comparison with 2022. Announcing those results in May, Gulden said: “2023 will be a bumpy year with disappointing numbers … the loss of Yeezy [is] of course hurting us.”
Ye, who has hinted at a 2024 presidential run to follow his 2020 campaign, has kept a relatively low profile since his antisemitic comments, though has remained a tabloid fixation for his relationship with girlfriend and co-worker Bianca Censori. The couple were pictured together at London fashion week last week.