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How Korn and adidas are still reshaping the face of alternative fashion

When Korn frontman Jonathan Davis first stepped onstage in his battered adidas tracksuit, little could he have known how he would irreversibly change the look and sound of alternative music. Decades later, the Bakersfield legends’ long-overdue collaboration with the iconic German sportswear brand is proof that they’re still amongst the most influential players in the game…

How Korn and adidas are still reshaping the face of alternative fashion
Sam Law
Main photo:
Mick Hutson/Redferns via Getty Images

Few who’ve seen it have escaped without its ear-scraping sounds and skin-crawling images being etched into the backs of their minds. Distended guitars. Thumping bass. The twisted metal of a car wreck. The milky, unseeing eyes of one of the most important bands of their generation being zipped into bodybags and carted off to the morgue. At the heart of it all, a frontman – and ex-mortician himself – turning the old schoolyard slogan ‘all day I dream about sex’ inside-out with razorblade threat, his purple-sequinned adidas tracksuit popping against the pallor.

There is an argument that Joseph Kahn’s video for Korn’s 1997 classic A.D.I.D.A.S. is the pinnacle of the scene. Big beats. Off-pitch six and seven-strings. Lyrics dripping in angst and agony. Images to draw the ire of concerned parents’ groups. Fashion that was unlike anything seen in the world of metal before. This wasn’t just about music, they understood, but about what being ‘alternative’ actually meant.

“It was about breaking the mould, man,” the aforementioned frontman Jonathan Davis explained to K! back in 2021. “It was about smashing down walls and embracing all kinds of different music styles and musical cultures. It was about going against everything that metal was supposed to be.”

That Europe’s biggest sportswear manufacturer was at the heart of it all was far from accidental. By the mid-1990s, it felt like the three stripes of adidas were woven into the gnarled fabric of Korn. There were elements of the hip-hop subculture in which their members had come of age thrown in for good measure, and a delicious subversion of one of the world’s most pervasive and recognisable brands. Mostly, though, it was a rejection of the muted monotony of what ‘alternative’ culture had become.

Flash back four years. It’s 1993, we’re in southern California, and heavy music is at a crossroads.

Punk – in its traditional form – is dead. Metallica and Guns N’ Roses have taken hard rock and metal to the mainstream. The absurd excesses of the Sunset Strip have been blown away by grunge, but even that Seattle-born scene is wilting like leaves in the autumn. Something new is rumbling in the underground.

Photo of Jonathan Davis by KMazur/WireImage via Getty Images

After a brief gestation, the fans who catch Korn’s early shows at bunkers like Anaheim’s California Dreams or Huntington Beach’s Club 5902 are confronted by an aesthetic every bit as jarring as their scratchy, thundering sound. Filthy dreadlocks. Mouths taped shut. Furry pimp jackets. The cholo style of LA street gangs. In those early days, Jonathan was yet to get his look nailed down, alternating between outfits as disparate as an army green jumpsuit, looking like “a damn ragdoll” and the striped crop-top/short-shorts combo visible on grainy VHS via YouTube.

The battered tracksuit hanging in his closet kept calling to him, though, and the day the frontman fished it out to scribble the now-iconic ‘KoЯn’ logo – the backwards Я a reference to ‘Toys Я Us’ – opposite adidas’ three stripes was a ‘eureka’ moment, after which everything came into focus.

Photo of Run DMC by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer via Getty Images

My adidas / Walk through concert doors / And roam all over coliseum floors…’ rapped New York legends Run-DMC on 1986 hit My Adidas. This was like a deep, dark mirror-image of that. Coming up as a DJ before he’d ever growled a word in anger, old-school hip-hop had been as influential on Jonathan as anything in rock or metal. A different kind of alternative, DMC’s worship of adidas’ Superstar sneakers (often worn without laces, as per prison regulation) or Beastie Boys’ Kangol bucket hats and KRS-One’s PRO-Keds felt more defiantly vibrant – more inherently punk – than the dull plaid of grunge or Metallica’s all-black everything from around the same time.

Where previous intersections between the worlds of rock and hip-hop – like Run-DMC’s Walk This Way collaboration with Aerosmith – had been built around contrast, too, Korn’s integration of the aesthetic matched their incorporation of elements of the sound: electronic 808 kicks, sample-mimicking scratch-guitars. There mightn’t have been any of their idols’ custom lines or branded helicopters, but Korn were appropriating and subverting adidas to become a band like no other.

“It was about making people think, ‘This isn’t normal!” Jonathan would explain of how it folded into Korn’s layered image, with their patchwork look and the bagpipes he’d taken to wielding onstage. “Like, ‘Rock guys wouldn’t wear this!’ It added to [that aura of], ‘What the fuck is this band?!’”

Photo of Jonathan Davis by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage via Getty Images

More than that, it was an invitation. For fans put off by the preening weightlessness of glam metal or the OTT machismo of more traditionally heavy bands, this was a look to match the sound of an outfit grounded in reality. It was cool as fuck, yes, but it left room for vulnerability, individuality and colourful self-expression. Beavis and Butt-Head had just proven how depressingly ubiquitous band T-shirts and jeans had become. This was both evolution and rejection of that predictability: adidas’ three bars taking on the energised outsider symbolism of Black Flag’s four for a pre-millennial generation. Plus, casual wear is just more comfortable for hurling bodies in the pit.

As Korn’s legend grew as a band, so too did their synonymity with the brand.

When Jonathan growled the infamous ‘ARE YOU READYYY?!’ in the video for breakthrough single Blind, he did so in a striking red-and-black trackie. When they arrived for their landmark Donington debut in 1996, he was sporting a bejewelled black-and-white number. By the time South Park were ripping the piss with classic 1999 episode Korn’s Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery, all five members were dressed to match – albeit off-brand. Hell, in the video for 2005 banger Twisted Transistor, all Atlanta rap supremo Lil Jon needed to cosplay as, er, big Jon was those three stripes running down his sleeve. Even when Jonathan himself began regularly donning kilts with his bagpipes onstage, he sourced an adidas leather number, with the famous three-leaf logo swinging on its sporran.

Photo of Jonathan Davis at Coca Cola Music Live Festival 2005 by Ernesto Ruscio/FilmMagic via Getty Images

It’s fitting, then, that they mark 30 years as a band with their first-ever Korn x adidas collab. On October 27, we’re getting special edition Campus 00s and Supermodified sneakers, T-shirts featuring the Life Is Peachy artwork and flaming Korn x adidas motifs, plus tracksuits in both the traditional monochrome and signature sequinned purple designs. The collection walks the line between nostalgia and modernity, evoking what Korn were and reminding us what they still are.

Because, even after 30 years and 14 albums, they’re still two steps ahead of the pack.

Alt.metal contemporaries who haven’t flamed out or faded away have either disconnected from the subgenre (Deftones, Incubus) or doubled-down on its absurdity to the point of pastiche (Limp Bizkit, Coal Chamber). The other signature looks of the era – baggy jeans, wallet chains, ’00s skate park chic – have been relegated to nostalgic irony, occasionally dragged out for middle-aged mosher cosplay. But Korn have continued to move and change, ducking and weaving around the trauma and grief that still drives them, adapting to the ever-shifting cutting-edge, with adidas at the centre of an iconic look that's timeless and adaptable enough to never grow tired or simply ‘fit in’.

Photo of three young Slipknot fans by PYMCA/Avalon/ via Getty Images

In 2023, ideas of genre and fashion are as fluid as they have ever been, and a new generation are following suit. In a narrow sense, ’00s scene revivalists Spiritbox, WARGASM and Tetrarch, along with the adjacent likes of Code Orange, Nova Twins and Loathe are connecting the current musical revolution back to the one Korn spearheaded in the ’90s, echoing the sound and style of the initial movement not just in tribute, but because they still represent an alternative to mainline heavy music. Look more broadly, though, and everyone from Turnstile to Poppy are following the trails blazed by Korn, stepping outside the box with their own takes on punk rock, making their fashion a part of that, incorporating streetwear within broad-ranging aesthetics.

As a brand, adidas is built for that same boundary-busting inclusivity. Their use of lowercase only in printed branding – as with so many artists in 2023 – is meant to evoke the sense of accessibility. That traditional ‘trefoil’ logo represents diversity and togetherness. The wedge-shaped ‘mountain’ one, an adrenaline-carved alternative, acknowledges the challenges we must all overcome.

So, if streetwear is for everyone, can it still be a uniform for the outsiders? It’s not a simple answer. In 2023, after 30 years of Korn, in the same way that those old ‘PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT’ stickers aren’t likely to catch the attention of any but the most prudish of parents, turning up at a the heaviest of shows in a tracksuit won’t raise the eyebrows of any but the most bone-headed gatekeepers. Old ideas have gone extinct. Times have changed, for the better.

Photo of Korn at the Sick New World festival (2023) by Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images

Everyone fights their own battles. In the end, it’s about expressing oneself in a way that speaks for you. In doing so, our scene becomes more diverse, more colourful, more welcoming: a real alternative to the closed-minded, depressingly conservative world outside. The chaos and catharsis of heavy music is something we share, but everything beyond that is the business of the individual.

Everyone fights their own battles. In the end, it’s about expressing oneself in a way that speaks for you. Thanks to that mindset, our scene becomes more diverse, more colourful, more welcoming with each new fan across the threshold and each new band blazing their own furious trail: a true alternative to the closed-minded, depressingly conservative world outside.

But the more things change in this realm, the more we should appreciate those that stay the same. The chaos and catharsis of heavy music will always unite us. Splashes of colour will always shine more brightly against the dark. And, even after three decades on the front line, we can count on Korn to deliver both in the sounds they make, the pictures they paint and the clothes they wear.

Truly, a band who’ve earned their stripes.

The Korn x adidas collection is available from October 27

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