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Gary Aspden is a name that might not immediately ring any bells but as a reader of HYPEBEAST you’re bound to be familiar with his work. Working behind the scenes, Aspden has helped shape the sneaker landscape by securing several top-notch collaborators for adidas Originals. A die-hard adidas fan, Aspden was the man behind the recent adidas Spezial exhibition, a celebration of all things adidas with over 600 pairs of collaborations, one-offs and rarities sourced from all over the world. More than just a showcase of shoes, Spezial gave viewers a unique opportunity to catch the personal stories of some of adidas’s biggest fans including Ian Brown, Peter Saville, Jeremy Scott, Kazuki Kuraishi, Yohji Yamamoto and Run-D.M.C. to name but a few. Aspden took the time to share his thoughts on the exhibition, how it came together and what he thinks of today’s sneaker culture.
What made you want to put this exhibition together ?
I had personally lent shoes to a couple of exhibitions about trainers (the V&A’s Sneakers vs Fashion and Tory Turk’s exhibition in Covent Garden last year) and whilst both shows did a good job I felt it was a very difficult topic to cover in any real depth across all brands. Due to the size of the topic and the limitations of gallery space it was only really possible to present a basic overview of trainer culture. I thought that someone should do an trainer exhibition that will excite even the most ardent fanatics but I figured that in order to do that it could only realistically cover one brand or topic. For me as a fan and collector that could only be adidas.
I discussed the idea with my friend and fellow adidas consultant Mike Chetcuti and we started to formulate a plan. We wanted to try and educate people (particularly some of the younger generations) about the depth of adidas’s design history and its long term cultural relevance. We also liked the idea of telling the story from a very UK perspective. Whilst we are both admirers of some aspects of American culture, growing up in the north of England in the 80s we had our own distinct take on street fashion which adidas was intrinsic to. That legacy remains to this day and it is something we wanted to celebrate.
What initially sparked the idea off ?
We wanted to do an exhibition that showcased the diversity of adidas and used deadstock/vintage products to give context to re-issues, collaborations, and the latest performance shoes.
We wanted to call it Spezial because we felt that word summed up our feelings towards adidas. We wanted to use a German word that was relevant to the brand – ‘Spezial’ has been used in the naming of various adidas shoes since the late 60s. We wanted a term that we felt represented the essence of adidas – the best of adidas.
How long did it take to put it all together – talk us through the process.
The process took about 5 months. The work began in February 2013. We contacted Gary Watson (graphic designer) and Lee Stanley (photographer) to tell them the idea – they are old friends of mine from my home town of Darwen in Lancashire. We hired a van and set about gathering together my shoes from the various trusted friends houses where they were stored. We filled a garage with the shoes and set up a makeshift photographic studio next door – I then headed back to London and left them to shoot, inventory and box the collection for storage. At that point I had no idea exactly how many pairs I’d amassed (it turned out to be well over 700). The shoes were then put into a storage unit and Gary Watson went to work on the exhibition mural (it was made up of 8 adjoining artworks that he created).
We didn’t want to ask trainer collectors – we wanted to ask adidas trainer collectors and we did not want to ask the company to borrow stuff from their archive as that would have felt like cheating. The content needed to reflect the passion that people have for adidas.
We then contacted Robert Brooks to ask if he was interested in contributing knowing full well that he never lends his shoes to anyone. It was flattering when he said that because he respected the people that were behind the idea and provided we could give him reassurances about exhibition security that he would unearth a few of his vintage gems. Robert has some great shoes and the Spezial project benefitted massively from his support. We then set about getting his shoes shot by Lee Stanley and Gary Watson down in London.
Next we approached Noel Gallagher. I had done an interview with Noel back in 2000 for a mag called ‘Introducing’ where he discussed his love of adidas so I knew he had some good vintage shoes tucked away. He didn’t hesitate in agreeing but wasn’t sure exactly where all his shoes were – he has 6 lock ups of shoes, jackets, platinum discs, records, etc. After a couple of weeks of waiting he eventually found some of them and sent them across. We took what we could get from him (about 20 pairs) and hand carried them up north to get them shot.
We also secured various odd pairs of shoes from others we knew – I got a couple of pairs from Barry Bown (CEO of JD Sports) and maybe if there was to be a ‘Spezial’ sequel in the future I might ask him to get a few more out.
We then went to work on the layout exhibition catalogue with our friends Lee Smith and K.B. down in London using a template that Gary Watson created. The catalogue was where the project started to get a lot trickier. We soon realized that it had the potential to be a coffee table book but we had neither the time (we wanted the exhibition on before August), money (we were working to a set budget that adidas generously supported the idea with) or resource (we have little experience in publishing books!) for something like that.
In hindsight the task was much harder than it could have been (I’ll come onto that) but I guess we got lots of learnings from it.
The actual physical presentation of the exhibition involved a cataloging system that was put in place by an experienced gallery curator (in order to help us put the right shoes back in the right boxes – it was our job at the gallery to reduce it by over 300 pairs (some were doubles though) as we had way too many shoes for the space.
What’s been the most difficult part of putting this exhibition all together ?
Without a doubt it was the catalogue. In hindsight I should have took a week up north whilst my shoes were being shot to ensure all the shots were labelled correctly. Gary Watson knows a hell of lot about adidas but purely from a ‘terrace’ perspective (he was one of the older lads who used to travel to Switzerland and Austria to get his adidas in the 80s). He is the first to admit that has no idea when it comes to which Superstars related to which project and also some of the collaborative stuff I have in my collection. The image labelling made putting the catalogue together far more difficult and time consuming than it could have been. It was my mistake – it was something I hadn’t considered – and Lee, KB and Mikey all ended up helping me sort it out. Sorry lads.
To add to that I personally had to copy edit all the shoe images and checked the right names were corresponding with the right images. That was a drag – by the time the catalogue went off to the printers in Italy I did not want to look at it ever again (although I have done since!). It had to be accurate as we know how meticulous the audience reading it would be. It was a very hands on process. I am pleased to say that the response to it has been fantastic and the catalogues have raised a significant amount of money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
For those that couldn’t get hold of the catalogue we reproduced it digitally on www.deadshoescrolls.com. It’s a site my colleague Mike Chetcuti created as a college project in the 90s that inspired a lot of the early trainer websites (Crooked Tongues will attest to that) – we decided to resurrect it and use it as an online resource.
“We wanted to try and educate people (particularly some of the younger generations) about the depth of adidas’s design history and its long term cultural relevance. We also liked the idea of telling the story from a very UK perspective.”
Gary Aspden speaks on what made him want to put the exhibition together
“Without a doubt it was the catalogue. It was a very hands on process. I am pleased to say that the response to it has been fantastic and the catalogues have raised a significant amount of money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.”
Gary Aspden on the most difficult part of setting up the exhibition
How long have you been collecting sneakers and how do you even store your collection?
14 years – I guess it started when I began working with him. I didn’t set out to become a collector – I just kept stuff I liked or shoes from projects I’d had a lot of involvement in. I guess I became a collector by default. In my job I was doing Entertainment Promotion and would travel a lot so was always on the lookout for shoes. I was working with a lot of famous people and many of them weren’t so bothered about getting free shoes but more about getting shoes that no one else had. As they were not being paid to wear our stuff sourcing rare products became very important. I was always on the lookout for adidas countries that were still handled by Licensees – when I joined in 1999 there wasn’t a division of the company dedicated to Originals products like there is now. In the late 90s adidas got the license back in Japan but on my first trip to Tokyo there was still some odd bits and pieces floating around from then if you looked hard enough. I also recall swapping signed memorabilia for shoes with the guys from adidas Argentina as they were still a licensee until a few years ago. I was a fan so would always keep bits and pieces for reference and also sometimes use these products to swap for deadstock. I remember around 2000 going to various independent sports shops and scouring the cellars and back rooms for old adidas product.
In the 80s everyone I knew under the age of 25 wore adidas trainers but I don’t remember anyone I knew keeping them in their shoe boxes and we’d wear them until they were falling off our feet. I used to discard the box as soon as I got them home. The culture of collecting only really started to take off in the 90s from what I can gather.
Going forward they will all be kept in visually inventoried boxes in a hired storage space in the north of England.
What type of sneakers do you collect? Do you wear most of them on a day to day basis?
My collection is strictly adidas. I occasionally wore other brands growing up but adidas will always be the greatest sports brand in the world for me. I wear my a lot of my trainers – there are a good number I have preserved unworn although many of those are ones I worked on that aren’t necessarily my personal style. Also if I find a style I like I tend to get a few pairs as I don’t chop and change too much. I have never been keeping them to re-sell them on so I don’t lose sleep over that stuff. I am sample size so many of the shoes I accrued during my years as an adidas employee were sales samples (some of which were dropped colourways) so they came unboxed. I understand the mentality that wants the authentic tissue paper in the correct shoebox but that’s all a bit too trainspotter and money minded for me.
I took my 6 year old son to see ‘Spezial’ today and told him that these are dad’s shoes and one day these will be yours (hope he grows up to have UK8.5 feet!). He’s 6, he doesn’t care.
Do you have a favorite pair of all time?
Not an easy question. It’s like asking a music fan for their favourite album. I am of the opinion that the Stan Smith is the greatest trainer of all time by ANY brand. I think its the most versatile shoe ever and it’s design has been copied by loads of fashion brands – and other sportswear brands for that matter.
What’s the one holy grail for you that you don’t have in your collection?
I’d love to own a few pairs of ZX802. I’d need a few pairs as I would have to wear them.
“14 years – I guess it started when I began working with him. I didn’t set out to become a collector – I just kept stuff I liked or shoes from projects I’d had a lot of involvement in. I guess I became a collector by default.”
Gary Aspden speaks on how long he’s been collecting sneakers
What do you think of the sneaker culture now?
Hmmmm . . . I only wish there were more people who had the confidence to wear non hyped shoes. From time to time I might find a JD exclusive shoe that is not limited edition but just happens to be a style I like in a solid colour way. If I ever do like a hyped shoe then I tend to put it away until all the competitiveness and excitement has settled down before I wear them out. I have been fortunate enough to be in a position where I can get easier access than many other fans so I don’t want to come across like I’m being critical of people’s enthusiasm because I’m not but there come’s a point where you have to question whether you genuinely like the look of the shoe or whether you are chasing it down because of a lot of forum chatter.
It’s not exclusive to ‘sneaker culture’ (as a Brit I prefer to call them trainers) but popular culture as a whole seems to be becoming more globalised and homogenised – I personally still like the idea of localised subcultures and here in the UK we have always loved the 3 stripes.
I guess I come from a different era – we bought our trainers in sports shops that sold tennis rackets, cricket bats and fishing tackle. I guess looking back we were adopting trainers for a purpose beyond their original design. We liked trainers for their aesthetic value – for example even though the 3 pegs in the LA Trainer were for function we bought them because we liked the way they looked (and they were very comfortable).
What’s in your current rotation?
Boston OG, 84 Lab ZXZ’s in grey/yellow (by my friend Kazuki), Oregon Ultra Tech.
What’s been the most important sneaker in the past 5 years ?
Stan Smith. The amount of people who are desperate to get hold of them since adidas withdrew them from the market two years ago is getting ridiculous. adidas need to set up a helpline!
“I only wish there were more people who had the confidence to wear non hyped shoes. If I ever do like a hyped shoe then I tend to put it away until all the competitiveness and excitement has settled down before I wear them out.”
Gary Aspden speaks on the sneaker culture now