From Blackburn To Buenos Aries: Talking Adidas With Gary Aspden

I spoke to the man behind the recent Sole Searching in South America documentary about the trip and its legacy, as well as getting Gary's own thoughts and memories on the iconic brand.
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I spoke to the man behind the recent Sole Searching in South America documentary about the trip and its legacy, as well as getting Gary's own thoughts and memories on the iconic brand.
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Carl: First off, were you pleased with the reaction 'Sole Searching in South America' got?

Gary: Yes. We were confident that people would like it. It's the fantasy of every adidas collector to find a store like that and I believe that's a big reason the films have had such resonance. Some of the so called 'experts' were claiming that the shop didn't exist - that it was fake and had been set up. Mike Chetcuti turned round and said 'could you imagine if we had set this up - to recreate a store like that, with those levels of vintage stock, on the other side of the world, and to have everyone act like it's real - we'd be marketing geniuses!'

The second film certainly silenced a lot of those critics. The whole project was so positive on so many levels. Carlos looked ten years younger when we went back there! He gets visitors every day from all over the world as well as huge respect in his local community. What's not to like?

You designed a beautiful pair of trainers to honour Carlos. How has the documentary changed his life and business?

In truth Carlos doesn't run a business any more, he had no desire to and is pretty reluctant to sell any of his stock, hence the prices. His shop gives him something to fill his days and keeps him in touch with his community. It has now gone beyond that and he is genuinely pleased at all the adidas fanatics from all over the world that have made the trip there since seeing the film.

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I knew after the first trip that adidas should do something for him so I proposed the idea of a shoe bearing his image. We put the wheels in motion but the product creation process takes time so in the meantime we had to let the online cynics (who have never met me or Carlos) pass judgement about us purchasing some of his stock. When we contacted Carlos and shared the idea with him he was super happy. We gave him a brief idea of what we were planning design-wise and how we would give him an agreed quantity of the shoes to sell exclusively before anyone else. He was more than agreeable. When we delivered the stock to his store that was genuinely the first time he had seen the shoes, so for us it was crucial to record his reaction. Spending that time with him made us realise just what a positive impact the film had on his life. I think that second film received such a great reaction because we, and most who saw it, knew deep down that it was the right thing to do.

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To many sneaker fans you have a dream job: designing adidas footwear and apparel but also representing the brand both in the music and sporting worlds. How did you originally get into the industry and the position you hold today at adidas?

I found myself skint in the early '90s after Acid House ended and turned into everything I didn't want it to be. I decided at the age of 24 to take off the short pants, put on the long pants and go to college as a mature student. It was a four year course and I had to eat humble pie and do unpaid internships at the age of 27 and finance myself with part time jobs. I was linking the woman who worked on entertainment promotions for adidas with musicians that I knew when I was a student. In exchange she was sending me free trainers which was a blessing as I was broke in my final year and I don't come from money. She ended up leaving the company around the time I graduated (with first class honours) and she left a bunch of unfulfilled orders for musicians that had been ordered through me. These orders carried my contact number, so when adidas called me to apologise for the delay they assumed I was some big shot music manager. When I explained the arrangement I had with their ex-employee they requested that I come in to see them. After much back and forth and an eight month wait after the original phone call, they offered me a job.

I worked for adidas as an employee for 10 years until about 2008 and after a few years in the company I headed up the teams that look after the relationships with the entertainment industry globally. I am now freelance and work for myself although most of my work is with adidas. I sometimes consult and work with other non competitive brands with their prior blessing. I have a separate contract to curate and design the adidas Spezial range.

What was your own first interaction with adidas? Were you part of the adidas boom years of the '80's terrace culture scene or was it some thing totally different which caught your attention for the brand?

I am of that generation. It started with adidas Kick in the late '70s and I wore it through the '80s like most of my mates. I don't lay claim to being some top Scally but I was certainly in the right place at the right time to witness and to some degree participate in that whole scene.

Blackburners were notorious for making trips to the continent for clothes and trainers and anyone that was around then will testify to that. As a consequence there were lots of well dressed lads and good clothes that we got access to in our area because of the older lads making those trips away. For example, I remember Iceberg became really popular in Blackburn with football lads around 87. I don't recall seeing lads from any other club wearing that brand back then - it was definitely a Blackburn thing.

There was a corner of the Blackburn End that was awash with very expensive Iceberg knitwear covered in images of cartoon characters. They had chanced upon the brand whilst over in Switzerland and were drawn to it because of the branding and the price. They picked up on it long before it was available here in the UK and I guess a good 6 years before anyone from that UK Garage scene were even aware of it. When the first Iceberg flagship store opened in Knightsbridge in the early 90s, mates of mine went in there wearing 80's Iceberg sheepskins and leathers and before they had even opened their mouths the shop assistant asked if by any chance they were from Blackburn. They had better products on their backs than the Iceberg shop had in the shelves. It became a phenomenon in Blackburn – I'm sure there are other clubs that have similar stories about other brands or micro fashions.

What's your own all time favourite adidas terrace footwear, and why?

I don't have one. That's like asking me to name my all time favourite album. I do love '80s running shoes. Nowadays I rarely wear any of the flat suede stuff that people seem to associate with terrace culture. I personally think indoor shoes: Gazelles, Sambas, Trimm Trabbs, tennis shoes, leisure shoes and runners played as much of a role as any of the city series in the greater scheme of things. Contrary to what a lot of young lads appear to have been led to believe, that scene was most definitely not only about flat, bright, suede adidas with gum soles. Running shoes were arguably as popular amongst me and my mates. I'm sure some might disagree but that's my take on it.

Who do you credit when it comes to bringing the brand to the UK? Was it travelling Liverpool fans as many of them claim, or was it down to adidas' marketing?

It was an organic thing that started at street level. I have spoken to people who worked for adidas back then in the UK (when it was under license) and the company themselves were not marketing the brand to try and target what would now be termed a ‘lifestyle’ audience. I have no doubt that Liverpool was key in the birth of adidas’s popularity in the UK and I have tremendous respect for that city and its people. What they did on the 77th minute at Anfield the other week was beautiful – how many football clubs fans would get something like that together and carry it out nowadays?

As for who started it - I was not about back then so I am in no position to make that call. The older lads from my home town took a lot of their influence from Manchester, in fact a number of Blackburn’s top lads had an allegiance to Manchester United.

Adidas' history of collaborations with sports stars is second to none, but it was Jesse Owens way back at the 1936 German Olympics who was actually the first and original sporting star to put the brand on the world stage. Which of all the adidas wearing greats would you claim as the most important to the brand?

Franz Beckenbauer is my personal fave. Great player, German, friend of Adi Dassler, lifted the World Cup in 74 (my first World Cup) and my first branded football boots carried his name.

What would you say are the Adidas projects, designs and collaborations your most proud of through out your career up to now?

Coming up with the concept and design for the adidas Manchester.

Secretly making up David Beckham's white tracksuit (at his request) for the Commonwealth Games opening in Manchester and seeing it go onto the front page of every newspaper globally.

Setting up the global launch event for the adidas Originals division with 'The Face' magazine, where we had Ian Brown play a set.

Setting up the European launch of Y3 with N.E.R.D. at Sketch in Mayfair.

Being instrumental in the first Bathing Ape collaboration in 2003.

My contribution to the Superstar 35th anniversary - coming up with the concept for Consortium and orchestrating the Music Series.

Working with Peter Saville and Ben Kelly on the FAC51-Y3 shoes.

Introducing Kazuki Kuraishi to adidas.

Introducing adidas to the ‘Grime’ scene back in 2003 before it was even really called ‘Grime'

Pulling together the Stone Roses secret gig during the 2012 Olympics.

I am especially proud of everything we have done with the Spezial range – from the product through to the marketing. The Manchester Spezial exhibition opening was one of the best nights of my life.

The list goes on. I am proud of my achievements.

Lastly Gary - what's next for yourself and adidas in 2016? The last release was the new 'X Spezial' range which caught some great reviews, but what are your plans for the future?

Keep improving. Keep my integrity. Do things right.

Click here to shop the adidas X Spezial range

@GrimUpNorth74