The Onitsuka Tiger Story: Behind The Cult-Classic Sneaker

The globally renowned Onitsuka sportswear was founded in 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka. He worked with a high school basketball coach to design a high-quality shoe for playing indoor basketball. The result was a fantastic line of sportswear shoes. The brand’s reputation grew among the players through word of mouth, and the shoes’ became a symbol of sportsmanship around Japan. From 1956 to 1980, Onitsuka Tiger represented the delegation shoes for the Japanese Olympic teams. Its rank rose globally only after Hollywood A-lister Uma Thurman wore a tiger-striped pair in the classic Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill. Since then, the Japanese sportswear brand has established itself worldwide as luxurious cult-classic sneaker wear. Let us take a look at its success story.

Onitsuka sportswear reached phenomenal popularity in 1956 when one of its models was selected as the official shoe brand for the 56th Olympics in Melbourne. The famous tiger stripes were first incorporated on the ‘LIMBER UP KAWA BK’ Onitsuka shoe during the 1968 Olympic games. The trademark stripes are modeled on all its iconic sneakers.

Onitsuka’s Founding Story

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The Onitsuka Tiger brand had humble beginnings. The first pair of sneakers used by basketball players were of low quality and resembled more like straw sandals. According to L’Officiel USA, the sportswear brand was founded by military officer Kihachiro Onitsuka after World War II in 1949. He wanted the Japanese youth to focus on healthy gaming competitions rather than the destruction faced by the war. It took him two years to develop octopus tentacle-inspired rubber-soled shoes for the Kobe High School basketball team. These indoor gym shoes were excellent alternative sportswear for quick dashes and sudden stops while playing basketball. The Kobe High School basketball team won the year’s championship, and word spread about the superior quality of the Onitsuka shoes.

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Between the years 1956 to 1980, Onitsuka designed delegation shoes for the Japanese Olympic teams. In 1953, the brand modeled a slightly advanced version of long-distance running shoes known as the Marathon Tabi. It featured the traditional split-toe tabi sock commonly used by Japanese runners. The marathon sneakers featured rubber soles and were designed with durable materials. In the same year the MARUP pair was released, the sophisticated version of sneakers was made from vinyl, stronger than traditional cotton, had heel sponges, and prevented sweating. According to Marathon Shoe History, the famed Olympic Gold-winning marathon runner Abebe Bikila admitted that the Onitsuka Tiger Marup shoes gave him enhanced grip and helped him win the Košice Marathon. Thus the once-barefoot marathon runner introduced the Onitsuka brand internationally.

The Journey Towards Being A Sportswear Brand

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The global domination began with a lucrative deal. Onitsuka signed a partnership with Blue Ribbon Sports, the forerunner of Nike, Inc. BRS became the US’s sole distributor of Onitsuka shoes. The brand designed Cortez sports shoes which became incredibly popular among international athletes. Around 1977, it merged with ASICS Corporation, and the iconic tiger stripes were first incorporated as a trademark design. The stripes were part of the functionality since the technical lacing of the shoes was integrated into the vertical stripes to enhance flexibility.

The brand relaunched itself after decades in 2002, and by 2003 the trademark Onitsuka Tigers symbolized high fashion. According to South China Morning Post, martial arts expert and famed actor, Bruce Lee often wore the legendary sports brand. He also wore a pair during the shoot of Game of Death, making the sportswear a class apart. In 2003, Hollywood A-list actress Uma Thurman wore a pair of yellow Onitsuka Tiger in the hit Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill. This marketing genius was a major masterstroke for the brand, and the company soon opened 23 stand-alone boutiques in Japan, Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, London, and Seoul.

The Brand’s Current Value And Global Expansion

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According to Forbes, the Kobe-based athletic footwear company is the fifth-largest fashion sportswear brand in the world, with estimated sales of 194 billion yen ($1.69 billion) in the last fiscal year to March 31st last year. Keeping with the popular youth culture, the brand has undergone a tremendous transformation during the new age. In 2019, Onitsuka Tiger appointed Andrea Pompilio as the creative director and collaborated with luxury brands like Givenchy in 2019 and Valentino in 2020. Willow Smith, daughter of Will Smith, has been appointed as the brand ambassador since 2020. The Autumn/Winter 2020 Campaign was shot, keeping environmental issues and sustainability in mind with the young cultural influencer. The brand plans to add 3-4 offline stores in major cities in the world in the next few years to dominate the sportswear scene. Increasing brand awareness and physical reach among the younger generation is also one of its future steps.

Onitsuka Tiger has emerged as a formidable sportswear fashion brand with a fusion of Japanese heritage and contemporary designs. It has stood the test of time and established itself as a cornerstone for athletic leisure and activewear.

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Sources: L’Officiel USA, Marathon Shoe History, South China Morning Post, Forbes

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