What is the German Army Trainer?
The German Army trainer, also known as the GAT, is a sneaker mired in mystery, scandal and misunderstanding. Start with two brilliant brothers, add in an American Olympian, World War II, the Cold War and a Belgian fashion designer and you have the makings of one of the greatest (shoe) stories ever told. Here we will explore the origins of this now iconic sneaker style, and get to the bottom of what - if any - brand can actually claim ownership to the design.
History of the German Army Trainer
The year is 1936. The place is Berlin, Germany.
The American track and field star Jesse Owens arrives in the city for the Berlin Olympics. There is much anticipation around the world, particularly in the politically charged atmosphere of Berlin. Everyone waits with bated breath to see who will dominate: the African-American athlete or the German competitors.
Enter Rudolf and Adolph Dassler, co-founders of the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) in Herzogenaurach. The innovative brothers see an opportunity to cement their footprint in the world of elite athletes; something they have been working toward (and having great success with) since the late 1920s, all around Germany.
Even though an associate guarantees that the Dassler athletic footwear will be used by German athletes during the games, Adolf Dassler sets his sights higher and his gaze lands on Jesse Owens. The shoemaking engineer finds a way to meet the athlete to whom he presents a pair of special athletic shoes; the distinguishing features being two leather strips on the sides and black spikes.
The American athlete accepts the gift, and wears the shoes when he best Hitler’s favorite, Lutz Long, in the long jump competition, clearing a cool 8.06 meters. Owens also wears the shoes when he scores gold in the track and relay team events.
Owens’ gold medals skyrocket him into stardom, and scores a great victory for the Dasslers. It also helps to save their factory from being destroyed by American troops when they find out it was the brothers who furnished Owens with his victory shoes. So impressed are the troops they place large orders for a variety of athletic footwear and pave the way for the Dassler brothers’ international success.
Fast forward to 1948. Differences of opinion drive a wedge between the brothers Dassler. After a final falling-out they decide to part ways. Adi creates Adidas and Rudolf creates Ruda, later to become Puma. Armed with brilliance, talent, skill, drive and vision the brothers become fierce competitors and lifelong rivals. (Their contentious relationship is intimately recounted in the movie Adidas vs. Puma: The Name of the Game.)
Jump to the 1970s: Adidas and Puma are thriving. Both firms are destined to become two of the most powerful and enduring pillars of athletic gear in the world. Now, to say “the rest is history” would be shortsighted. At this point the West German Army announces it is in need of a new type of training shoe for their force of a half million men and women.
Popular belief is that Adidas was the firm that designed and manufactured the first GATs. This is something the brand itself has claimed ownership of, and its bundeswehr sportschuhe or "Federal Defense Sports Shoe" is evidence of this fact. This shoe was indeed what the Federal German Army troops wore while training during the 1980s.
Contrarily, the Bundeswehr Museum of Military History reportedly has records which indicate that Puma was actually the creator of the German Army Trainer. This, despite the fact that Puma itself has no records of ever having produced such a shoe. Interesting, isn’t it?
Whatever the truth, the GATs served their purpose well yet became obsolete when the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989.
In any case, the original GAT resembled greatly the spiked shoes that Adolf Dassler gifted to Jesse Owens, without the spikes of course. And, to this day, no brand actually “owns” the design.
Defining Features of the German Army Trainer
Even though nowadays there are probably hundreds, if not more, variations of the German Army Trainer, they can all be traced back to the original design. Remember, this iconic style was first created with function - not fashion - in mind. Comfort, support, longevity and economy were paramount considerations.
Therefore, as can be seen from the image of an original GAT above, the shoe was constructed with gum rubber soles, supple leather, two stripes of leather overlaying the upper and grey or off white suede detailing over the toe-box. All combined to create a slender, almost aerodynamic, silhouette well-suited for the soldiers of the German Army. The soles are also distinguished from those found on other trainers, or sneakers, by their unique pattern of circles and grids.
The absence of branding, minimal design and sleek silhouette were ideal to help make the transition of the GAT from functional footwear to fashion icon seamless.
The German Army Trainer Enters the Fashion World
Many items which started life as a functional asset for military use, such as bomber jackets, chukka boots, combat boots, twill chinos and camouflage anything have become must-have wardrobe pieces. The GATs are no different. Except they are, given that they didn’t necessarily follow the same trajectory.
After the end of the Cold War the Western German Army decreased its force significantly. The decommissioned soldiers found themselves in need of fast cash, and one way to get it was to sell-off their now “useless” military gear. Off to the surplus stores they went and thousands of pairs of GATs flooded the market. Military garb has long been a favorite look and sometimes collector’s item for civilians, so it makes sense that the GATs quickly found a loyal, sometimes obsessive, following.
But, it wasn’t until a certain Belgian designer came across a pair of GATs while in Austria in the 1990s. He fell so in love with the silhouette, and being a visionary, bought several dozens of pairs. No, he wasn’t hoarding them, he had a big surprise in store for attendees at his debut Spring/Summer 1999 show: the pristine models strutted the runway wearing secondhand BW Sport shoes. And, yes, the rest was history.
The audience really couldn’t tell they were secondhand, or what they actually were since nothing like the GATs had actually been seen before in haute couture. This is in part due to the designer’s brilliant idea to (in a way) mask the fact that they weren’t actually brand new. He developed a system wherein the trainers would be completely cleaned and repaired or painted if needed, the laces were replaced and his houses iconic numeric branding was embossed on the tongue. This became standard practice and resulted in some of the brands most important contributions to fashion. And, it set-up the GAT to become one of the most iconic styles of sneakers ever created. A collector’s item that some buyers are willing to pay astronomic prices for.
The Belgian brand had to actually stop its practice of passing off refurbished used and surplus BW Sport shoes as their own creation, and selling them for very high prices. In the 2000s they moved on from vintage and created a line of “Replicas” which were exactly that: replicas of the original German Army Trainers.
People who aren’t familiar with the backstory of the GAT immediately associate any variation with this particular brand, sometimes refusing to understand or accept the history.
The fact of the matter is many other brands - including Beckett Simonon - have created their own variations of the GATs such as our Morgen Trainers, over the past decades. Just like other (now) classic styles, the German Army Trainers have become a foundation piece of many people’s wardrobes.
What To Wear GATs With
Figuring out what to wear with German Army Trainers is pretty straightforward. Let’s start with the fact that they are a sneaker. That automatically implies “casual.” So, jeans, relaxed trousers, sweatpants, loungewear and shorts spring to mind.
Let’s switch it up a bit. Do you think it’s possible to wear your GATs with nice, tapered chinos or other dress pants - or even a suit? Absolutely! The clean, sleek silhouette lends itself beautifully to many different looks. Especially nowadays when comfort and convenience is more important than perhaps ever before. Individual spirit and fashion sense is really encouraged, and when there are so many editions of GATs to choose from you have many possibilities.
Even though the history of the German Army Trainer is tangled, you can be sure that whatever variation or edition you choose to sport, you will always be showcasing a style that is immediately recognized.
Dress them up, dress them down, cover an all white GAT with paint or color them with markers. Do whatever you want. That’s part of the fun owning a pair - or several - of this fantastic style.
You can see a cool display of modern GATs by checking out our collection of leather and suede, and all leather variations.
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