An interview with Gary Aspden by Sam Waller
I first met adidas designer and all-round nice bloke Gary Aspden on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. This sounds like the start of a joke, but bear with me — it’s not. He was talking to Nigel (one half of the Oi Polloi boss-brigade) about adidas trainers and I was struggling to get a word in edgeways. Subjects like the length of a toe box on an obscure squash trainer from the early seventies were being talked about in the sort of depth you’d imagine a particle physicist would use to discuss protons. It was clear he knew what he was on about.
As the afternoon went on the conversation shifted from trainers of the past to memories of the past. It turned out Gary had been part of a Blackburn-based b-boy crew in the early 80s, and had travelled all around the North West to battle rival gangs that sounded like they were straight out of The Warriors. Before I had a chance to ask any questions I was struck with a bout of seasickness. I spent the rest of the day staring at the horizon.
With my stomach safely back on dry land, and Gary’s labour of love — the adidas SPEZIAL range finally released, I thought it was about time I asked those questions...
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Going right back, you used to breakdance. How did a lad from a market town near Blackburn get into breakdancing?
I remember vividly how I started. One evening I had popped an errand to the corner shop near the local park and I could hear music coming from an adjacent street. I grew up listening to my mum's Motown or my older brother's Led Zep and Sabbath albums but what I heard sounded like music that had come from another planet. I also noticed there were a load of kids stood around in a circle watching something.
I was curious as to what was going on and when I got there everyone was watching a group of lads who were a few years older than me practising breakdancing and body popping on a huge piece of linoleum. The music was coming from a huge portable stereo — I discovered later that it was the Street Sounds Crucial Electro album.
The lads who were dancing were all notorious faces around my home town, they were all known for being well dressed. I remember there was one Italian lad there called 'Beans' who was wearing a Cerruti track top and a pair of grey adidas Trieste. All their trainers were adidas bar a lad called 'Cockney Paul' who wore Nike Legend. These were not only smart lads but some of them were hard lads too who me and my mates looked up to. The whole spectacle had such an impact on me at the time.
We lived in a two bedroom terraced house and whilst we had a nice living room and kitchen my mum and dad never got round to decorating and carpeting the front room so I began using it as a space to practise breakdancing. Around that time three brothers from Hulme were adopted by a local family as their dad had gone back to Nigeria and their mum couldn't cope on her own. We all had newspaper rounds and became mates. They too got into Electro and the B-Boy thing so we had the beginnings of a crew. We seemed to attract a few other misfits and met up to practise pretty much every day.
Our little posse was multi-racial which was really unusual in our area back then. There was a lot of hooliganism and violence going on around us and the fact we were an ethnically mixed bunch later caused us no end of trouble with a contingent of the football gangs from Blackburn and later Bolton.
I remember one day we were dancing in Blackburn shopping precinct and a group of slightly older, scally looking lads we didn't know were watching us. Semi flared cords, adidas Gazelles and Monacos, adidas First and Colorado track tops under Mountain Equipment bubble coats, ski hats (with the dangly string hanging off the top) and sports bags. We knew they were 'out of towners' but couldn't tell for sure if they were football lads or B-Boys. It turned out that they were a crew from Preston called 'Mystic Force' and we quickly realised that they were much better dancers than us. They schooled us that day so we went away and practised even harder. A year later we beat them in a competition to find the best crew in Lancashire in Blackburn's King George's Hall.
We soon became the number one crew in Darwen and Blackburn and as we steadily improved we started 'battling' crews from other Lancashire towns. At first it was Phase One and Mystic Force from Preston, then Andromeda from Chorley, before we started to go further afield to Bolton (Inner City and later the Crash Crew), Farnworth (Fantasy Masters), Bury (Street Level), and eventually Manchester (Street Machine, Supreme Team and Broken Glass).
We used to go to the Satellite Club in Cheetham Hill on a Sunday and then when that stopped it all moved to the Sunday afternoon Apollo Bistro in Ardwick. Most of the clubs we went to back then would play 80s Soul (like Loose Ends) with a 30 minute Electro interlude but these particular clubs in Manchester played solid Electro and were purely about Hip Hop. My crew Furious Force would battle Street Machine for £30 prize money every week. We only won it once and Street Machine wanted to beat us up after, as they relied on winning that prize money every week.
For me (and most people who saw them), Street Machine were the best crew in the UK, so the fact we were the only crew in the north (Broken Glass had virtually disappeared by this point) that could even attempt to go up against them was a measure of how far we had come. Jason Orange (yes, that lad who ended up in Take That) was in Street Machine and was rated by everyone.
As far as I am aware no film footage exists of Street Machine at their peak which is a shame but I guess is pretty standard given that it was the mid 80s. They were good times.
How did the competitions work? Was it fairly casual or was it a strictly judged thing?
It depended on the situation. If it was a 'battle' in the local shopping centre or a disco then it was judged by the reaction of the audience. If it was for prize money (like at the Apollo Bistro on Sunday afternoons) then it would have to be judged. The time we beat Street Machine for the prize money at the Apollo two of our girlfriends happened to be on the judging panel which definitely helped.
What moves were you doing? And what songs were you doing them to?
Me personally? Footwork, one legged swipes, no handed windmills, flares, back spins… as time went on it became more about combinations of moves and having good style.
How did breakdancing in the UK differ with what was going on in New York?
In America it seemed that all the different elements of Hip Hop (B-Boying, graffiti, rapping and DJing) took off pretty much simultaneously whereas over here it was staggered. B-Boying preceded everything else — graffiti didn't kick off over here properly until the mid 80s when Subway Art came out. I remember going to London with my good friend Shine to Freestyle 85 in Covent Garden. We spent the morning photographing the pieces around Ladbroke Grove with his dad's camera. The only UK Hip Hop record I liked prior to that first London Posse single came out of Manchester — it was Style of the Streets by Broken Glass (and Greg Wilson) and it still stands up today. I love that tune.
The other big difference over here I guess was the clothing. Most of the stuff we saw people in New York wearing was not available to us in the north west of England. At that time in the north we had no access to goose down coats and gilets, heavyweight fleece hooded sweats, decent baseball caps, shelltoes, name buckles, fat laces and even that Gothic looking lettering that you saw people like the Rocksteady Crew had heat transferred onto their clothes.
Everyone wanted Kangol hats — especially after the release of Beat Street — but they were impossible to find, so the deerstalker (beloved of football casuals) became an alternative to appropriate the look. I found out years later that Kangol hats were manufactured in the Lake District and were exported by the bucket load to the USA while we were just down the motorway and desperate (but unable) to get our hands on them — oh the irony.
adidas Gazelles were the number one B-Boy trainer in Manchester and due to the closed eyestay it was pointless trying to put our home made fat laces in them. It didn't look at all right. The adidas Century were the closest thing we could get to Superstars but they were way too heavy to dance in. It became all about getting the lightest shoes you could that still had some grip. Street Machine would dance in black martial arts slippers with their track pants tucked in their socks. Even when Burberry and Aquascutum took off you would see Hip Hop kids in it too. There is some great footage on YouTube of a B-boy competition at Manchester's Tropicana club where Benji Reid of Broken Glass is popping in a Burberry jacket, hat, semi flared cords and brown shoes (probably from Graphic in St Ann's Square). [See YouTube clip above]
Sadly, the whole B-Boy scene in the UK imploded and came to an abrupt end for the majority of us in 86. Anyone who says it didn't die probably wasn't there. We would go to clubs and people would say, “Why are you still doing that?” Practising started to feel like a waste of time and we all started to lose interest.
Why did it end in 1986? Did it just peter out?
I’m not sure really, it just did. It was an era where people only really looked forward so I guess the novelty had worn off for many. I lost interest when I realised that it wasn't impressing the girls any more...
Before there was the internet there was a lot of filling in the gaps. Whether it was breakdancing, bike riding or extreme chess playing, it was all quite hard to get into. You’d see a badly printed photograph in a magazine your brother or someone at school had, and you’d try and copy what was going on. I’m not really sure where I’m going here, but do you think a bit of innocence has been lost now that everyone is an instant expert?
It's very difficult to compare as the context and backdrop of the times is so different now since the rise of the internet. It feels to me that due to the lengths you had to go to to be part of a scene there was less room for pretenders back then. The forums for that hadn't been invented. We had to put some time and effort in to engage with those subcultures and meet people who were into similar things — be that going to Hip Hop All Dayers or attending away football matches. Going shopping for clothes in the early 80s in the Manchester Arndale and the Underground Market could be a dangerous pastime — it was sometimes like running the gauntlet in those places. Going in there could be risky if you were well turned out as there were always teams of scallies looking to tax your clothes.
It feels to me like there are a lot more spectators and less players nowadays. One of the great things about club culture (especially early Acid House) was that it turned the spectators into players. It required participation. No one was stood there trying to capture the moment for their Instagram followers.
The digital age has definitely seen the rise of the critics and the 'experts' whose actual first hand experiences of these things is probably minimal or purely by proxy. Commodities can never be an ample substitute for experiences.
Another thing that the internet has maybe got rid of is the little differences each area had. Every town would have its own thing going on. What were the inhabitants of Liverpool doing differently to those from Manchester? And what about Scotland? And London?
I think this may be why people are forever bickering about football casual fashion and where it started — there will never be a definitive picture due to regional differences. Things are definitely becoming much more homogenised now. We liked American culture but we put our own spin on it. A lot of fashion was dictated by availability in the locality — what shops were there and what brands they carried. Towns or areas where there were grafters going abroad for clothes tended to be the best dressed.
Despite being bitter rivals, a lot of Burnley's top boys were getting their clothes from lads in Blackburn as there was a massive scene in Blackburn for those shopping trips on the continent. I think a big reason why Champion logo sweatshirts were a big thing in Blackburn in 84/85 was simply because they were not available anywhere in the north, it was the same with Timberland apparel and then later with Iceberg in 87/88.
There was a time in the 80s when Next was seen by many as affordable designer clothing. I actually met a woman a few years ago who worked for Next back then who told me they were buying up European casual wear brands to copy. There was one season when they did brightly coloured summer anoraks that really took off with football lads. One Saturday around 1986 I walked out of Bolton train station into what appeared to be a football riot between Bolton and Cardiff. Cardiff were so distinctive as they were a sea of these multi coloured Next jackets and ZX trainers.
Iceberg was a brand that was unique to Blackburn fans as far as I know, way, way before all that UK Garage stuff in London. Back in 87 they started to bring Iceberg back from Switzerland because it was super expensive. In one corner of the Blackburn end it was a mass of expensive knitwear and leather jackets emblazoned with embroidered images of cartoon characters. They wore it well.
What was Manchester, and I suppose the north west in general, like in the 80s?
Blackburn was rough — there were a lot of gangs until Acid House came along and quashed all the trouble. Every area of the town had its own mob; Blackburn Youth, Mill Hill State 4, Daisyfield Riot Squad, Wimberley Boot Boys, Darwen Night Patrol (then later the Darwen Casuals), I.C.U. (Intensive Care Unit, as they lived by the Infirmary), etc. The list goes on and on.
The first Acid House night in Blackburn (which went on to be the epicentre of northern warehouse parties) took place in early September 1988 in a club called 'C'est La Vie's'. I was there and it felt really, really odd. The reason for this was that all these people from rival gangs who had been at each other's throats for years were all under the same roof having this happy, communal experience. Soon it all moved to upstairs at 'Crackers' and the legendary 'Sett End' club. Acid House came along and all the trouble ended overnight. Literally.
Do you think people like to put on their rose tinted spectacles a bit when they look back at these times? Are there some things that are worth forgetting?
Maybe. We can all be guilty of it. People go on about the best of adidas, Berghaus, Massimo Osti and Armani. You won't hear much about pullover patchwork leathers with laces to fasten them (we called them Montana's) or even worse those antique leather jackets, wet perms (with TCB curl activator), muzzies or high waisted stonewashed jeans (remember those ones with a print on the thigh of a cartoon character carrying a ghetto blaster?). It was what it was but I am glad I grew up at the time I did — it was good to be 18 years old living in Manchester in the late summer of 1988.
I’m not sure why the dark side of the 80s doesn't get talked about much — those who were around those scenes know. There were definitely a few hairy moments. Even some of the clubs we went to could be pretty daunting. One Saturday evening in 84 we were catching a train to Bolton to go to a club called the Dance Factory where we would breakdance most Saturdays. As we boarded the train we realised it was packed with Huddersfield fans on their way back from a day out to Ewood Park. When the train pulled out of Darwen some local lads popped up from behind a wall and pelted it with bricks. Next thing we were surrounded by a huge lynch mob of Yorkshire thugs wanting information and names of the attackers, they probably assumed that we were football lads because of our clothes (as I said there wasn't much to differentiate). It was pretty terrifying — I was about 14 at the time. When my mate Victor explained that we weren't involved and that we were going to Bolton to dance they demanded to see him do it. Fortunately for us he was a very good popper and they found it amusing, it definitely got us off the hook with them. When we arrived at our destination I have never felt so relieved to get off a train.
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Right, I suppose we’d better talk about adidas now. How long have you been working with them?
Nearly 16 years.
It’s clearly more than just a job for you. When did the adidas obsession begin?
My mum used to get us adidas t-shirts out of the Grattans catalogue. My first leather trainers were adidas Kick. My first football boots with screw in studs were adidas Beckenbauer Super (with red studs). Me and my brother got an adidas Tango football on holiday in Spain in 78. We had adidas Nottingham Forest kits in 1979 (after they won the European Cup) because even though my dad is a lifelong Blackburn supporter he was a big fan of Brian Clough. The list goes on... it runs deep I guess. I didn't collect adidas products growing up — I just wore them. I knew people who had lots of pairs but no one I knew collected them.
When I joined the company in the late 90s I began keeping shoes that were left over from projects I had worked on (especially as the samples were in my size). Also, for many years my job was to maintain relations between the brand and the entertainment industry. I would travel to source deadstock for some of the artists I worked with and would invariably purchase and keep a few pairs for myself. I have an adidas collection but there are people who I consider to be far more dedicated collectors than me out there, people who scour eBay on a daily basis and spend fortunes securing vintage products. I have tremendous respect for people with that level of dedication.
adidas are one of those brands with a real cult around them, especially in the north west. Why do you reckon this is?
Classic designs? A brand with genuine history that is still relevant? Commitment to innovation? The number one brand in football? Always culturally relevant? There's a ton of reasons when you think about it. There are certain adidas products that are synonymous with a particular era and mind-set in the late 70s and 80s that many in the north have fond memories of (even if it was through their older brothers or nowadays through their dads). What happened back then was street fashion in the truest sense. It had nothing to do with the style media and whilst designer labels played a part in it they were worn in a way that was fairly subversive by an audience that they certainly were not setting out to target.
Most people in the north west don't react well to overt marketing or feeling that people are trying to force something on them or pull the wool over their eyes. The adoption of adidas was something that came from an honest place — its ongoing popularity has never been marketing driven and it seems to have a lasting legacy regardless of new brands and trends.
It's very apparent that a lot of people in the north have an emotional attachment to the adidas brand and have a very strong idea of what that means to them. It's almost like a sense of investment or ownership. Some of the hard-core adidas purists become upset when they feel the specifications of reissue shoes aren't 100% accurate or if adidas makes products that don't fit with their idea of what the brand is. I guess it comes from the fact that they/we have that deep love and attachment to it.
You’ve got a fairly extensive adidas collection. On your last count, how many pairs do you have?
I’m not sure, around 1100 pairs I'd guess.
Where do you think man’s need to collect comes from?
I’ve got no idea. With trainers there is definitely something psychological. Growing up I had pairs that I loved and wore to death. When I went hoping to get a replacement pair they were no longer available. It’s experiences like that which have led me to hoarding extra pairs in the styles I like. I didn't set out to collect, it just kind of happened as the years I worked with the company passed by. When we collated my shoes for the first Spezial exhibition in London I thought I might have 300 pairs. It turned out to be over 800.
You’ve just designed a new range for adidas called SPEZIAL with your mate Mike Chetcuti. It’s very German but also very north western… sort of harking back to the late 70s and early 80s adidas stuff. What is it about this era of adidas that you find so interesting?
It only harks back to the past in its references — I think with the adidas Originals x SPEZIAL apparel in particular we have created a collection that is modern and far more luxurious than the adidas clothing of that era. We have tried to distil what I understand to be the adidas aesthetic to give it an adidas identity without being solely reliant on splashing the three stripes all over the products to give them that. The fits are also a huge departure from the fits of that era.
As I had access to the crown jewels that is adidas's design back catalogue, I didn't want to mess too much with the footwear when much of the design is already there. When I originally proposed the range to the people at adidas in Germany I explained that my role with this was more that of a curator than designer — I felt the title of designer would be stretching it given that the fundamental design work has already been done decades ago by those geniuses in Herzogenaurach.
My priority with the footwear was getting the specifications of the uppers as near as possible to their vintage counterparts. The developers were very tolerant as I was constantly asking for stitch lines on the samples to be adjusted by millimetres but I think people who know their adidas will appreciate this when they see the end products. I think designs like the Topanga SPZL or the Handball Spezial don't really date in the same way that a brogue or a desert boot doesn't. Like all design classics their popularity may ebb and flow but people will always come back to them.
When I began working on the adidas Originals x SPEZIAL range my starting point was identity. It's easy to forget that first and foremost adidas was born out of one German man's obsessive passion for sport. It is a German brand — for me the classic adidas design language definitely has a European sensibility and its aesthetics are often very simple and sophisticated. I tried to think about what it is that I really loved about adidas as a youth growing up in the north west and also about what my other references were at that time in my life. It is inspired by an idea of Europe that perhaps doesn't really exist anymore — a Europe that is based on my memories of Inter-Railing as a teenager. I looked beyond adidas to the many areas of Germanic culture that I am a fan of, from NEU to Joseph Beuys to Christiane F.
In the 70s when Adi Dassler was still alive the apparel often came in boxes with the words 'Sports and Leisure Wear' emblazoned on them. I was interested in taking the spirit of adidas's history in leisure wear and creating a clothing range that could bear relevance to how me and my peers dress. Sportswear in its truest sense in 2014 is scientific; it is developed by industrial engineers in laboratories. adidas Originals x SPEZIAL is essentially leisure wear, products that have the comfort of sportswear but are more sophisticated, subdued and mature in their aesthetic.
What’s your favourite thing in the Spezial range?
The Beckenbauer Suit. I personally believe the tracksuit (or in this case, leisure suit) is a men's wardrobe essential and this one takes some beating. adidas is a brand that have a legitimate history in this area. The tracksuit was a German invention and adidas pioneered it. For me personally I'd say it's best worn as the full suit.
With such a vast, sometimes mysterious back-catalogue, faithfully reissuing trainers must be difficult. Do you think adidas is near to mastering the majestic art of the reissue or is re-making a trainer that only three people own from the late sixties look, feel and smell exactly the same as the original always going to be impossible?
That is such a huge question; it would almost need its own interview. There are so many factors that come into it. I'm super happy with the adidas Originals x SPEZIAL footwear. It took a lot of work to get those upper specifications right.
Ha, fair enough... this is already a pretty extensive interview. Where do you see adidas in 50 years?
If you look at the company's history it has had a number of highs and lows (by all accounts it was nearly bankrupt in the early 90s). The one thing that is indisputable and has been proven over and over again is that it is a brand that people love and in many ways it's that love that has ultimately kept it alive despite the business challenges it has faced. Some of adidas's products are 100% bona fide design classics. When a product with such a strong aesthetic is executed well it will continue to resonate with new audiences regardless of the nostalgia attached to it.
I reckon that’s about it then. Are there any final words you’d like to add?
Do you know any good jokes?