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PT Usha, Uma Thurman, Bruce Lee: The rise of Onitsuka Tiger, and what other brands looking for a image boost can learn

​​The success of the brand illustrates the cyclical nature of fashion, and how disparate events can elevate a regular sports shoe to luxury.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Feb 18, 2020, 01.18 PM IST
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Clockwise from left: PT Usha, Uma Thurman in 'Kill Bill' and Bruce Lee wore all wore shoes by the brand. (Image: BCCL/imdb/InstagramBruceLee)
Sorry Uma Thurman, we saw the shoes on PT Usha first.

Onitsuka Tigers, which come from the same stable as Asics, have been hot commodity for sneakerheads. Among other things, this is a result of Thurman wearing them in 'Kill Bill' and the increasing cool quotient of all things Japanese. Before Thurman, Bruce Lee wore them too.

The success of the brand illustrates the cyclical nature of fashion, and how disparate events can elevate a regular sports shoe to luxury. Tigers can cost between Rs 6,000 to Rs 30,000 a pair. And since last year, they have collaborated with luxury labels Givenchy and Valentino for collections.

Who would have foreseen this in 1982, when Delhi hosted the Asian Games in which many leading athletes wore the brand, then called Asics Tiger? In later events, our very own PT Usha wore the shoe. Her charming rival for continental supremacy, Lydia de Vega of the Philippines, also wore Asics Tiger.

Those days, young Indians coveted American and European sneaker brands like Nike and Adidas. Cricket was always the most popular sport in the country. But tennis had the swag factor then, with football only drawing interest during the World Cups. Also, cricket and football shoes had spikes or studs and could not be worn to school or college. Imagine failing to remember (a+b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2 in class and then being dragged to detention in spikes. In this scenario, Asics registered on fans but did not have the cachet of the western brands.

Today it is a different story.

According to a report, Asics India, whose running shoes are popular, earned revenues of Rs 93.5 crore for the year ending March 2018, growing at a CAGR of 35-40 per cent since 2015. The Onitsuka division entered the Indian market around 2015 with an aim to set up 12 stores in tier-1 cities by this year. On the other hand, there are brands that have as rich a sporting legacy, are as stylish, but are not seen as luxury.

Tiger Shroff at the Onitsuka Tiger store at Select Citywalk, Saket in New Delhi.​
Tiger Shroff at the Onitsuka Tiger store at Select Citywalk, Saket in New Delhi.

Fila, which was made popular globally by the Swedish tennis legend Bjorn Borg, does not command the same premium anymore, although going by their recent campaigns and collections, they seem on course for a revival.

The brand was stagnating till the Korean businessman Yoon Soo Yoon, also called Gene (go figure), acquired it in 2007 for about $400 million. Gene was a former Fila employee, and local media compared the deal to a shrimp swallowing a whale.

Umbro is another example of a company seeped in sports history but without much of a contemporary profile. The brand made the England football shirt for nearly 60 years till being inevitably displaced by a behemoth called Nike. It is baffling, and educative, to see it today in mediocre stores and selling for modest prices.

Likewise with Champion, the American brand which for decades clothed NBA and NFL players. It’s not that these brands are struggling financially. But their image needs a boost. They need to hire the current equivalent of Uma Thurman. Or PT Usha.

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