adidas Spezialist: Gary Aspden

Arriving early at the Spezial Exhibition in London we were presented with two surprise treats. First an intimate presentation from Gary Aspden and Robert Brooks introducing us to their own personal backgrounds and the inspiring story behind the event itself (actually Mike Chetcuti was there as well – being an integral part of the project – but he kept pretty quiet, stalking the sneaker displays in the back as Aspden told tales up front). Second, we were given the exciting opportunity to sit down with Gary first-hand and dig through his brain, discussing his life, his work, his undying love of and evolved opinions on the brand, as well as his plans for the future. So, without further ado, please delve in and savor the words from one very highy-regarded adidas Spezialist.

Tell us, what’s a day in the life of Gary Aspden like?

Variable. Depends what I’m working on at that given time. I get up every morning around 7am with my son to give him breakfast and keep him entertained while his mum prepares for the school run. Working for myself gives me a lot of flexibility and the people at adidas (who are my main client) are great in that respect. Myself and Mike Chetcut have a pretty good track record on delivering work of a certain quality so there is a level of trust there that has been developed over many years. During April, May, and June this year I was working much harder than I like to in the run up to the Spezial exhibition. I was also juggling that with other clients I consult and other adidas projects. There were a lot of late nights putting that catalogue together.

We can only imagine! Running around busy as ever, what would you say are your ‘daily essentials’ that always make it out the door with you?

My wallet, my house keys, my Oyster card, and my Blackberry. It’s really not that interesting is it?

[we laugh]

Not at all, actually. But besides what’s in your pockets, you’ve made a name for yourself as ‘Gary at adidas’ decking out celebs and musicians with outfits… can you tell us a bit about this?

I don’t do that stuff nowadays – it hasn’t been part of my job remit with adidas in years. There are other people who look after that for adidas these days (Paola Lucktung and her team in the UK and Jon Wexler globally) and it’s a very different musical landscape than it was in my day. I’m glad I did at the time I did it. Having said that there are a few musicians who I still look after simply because those relationships are not easily transferable.

Hooking up legends is one thing, but building a brand to become one is whole ‘nother… tell us, Gary, what was one of the most stressful work projects you ever did with adidas?

The Stone Roses secret gig as part of the adidas Underground events at the Village Underground. The Stone Roses are great people and are probably the most uncompromising band I know. They would only do it on 100% their own terms – the majority of tickets had to go to them for their fans, no branding on stage, no interviews, no broadcast rights, no pre-event publicity, etc. Had there not been an existing friendship and trust there then there would never have been the remotest possibility of them doing it. In addition, we then had to convince the people from adidas in Germany (a country where the band’s profile is nothing like what it is in the UK) that we should do it. Thankfully the people there trusted us and gave it the green light. It’s really not easy to keep secrets nowadays with the Internet but we remained tight lipped and very few people internally at adidas even knew it was happening. Due to the secrecy we had 24 hours to invite our guests – no one who was available turned us down on that one. Anyone who witnessed it will tell you what an incredible gig that was.

Outside of the UK, what was one of the most memorable work-related trips or travels you had?

There are so many. The first time I went to Fuji Rock festival in ’99. I went there with the Happy Mondays. They really looked out for me when I first started at adidas and I will always be grateful to them for that. I have loads of good memories, particularly of Tokyo. One of my best times was when I went there for a week with Ian Brown for the launch of Kazuki’s ObyO collection at the Opera House in Tokyo – didn’t stop laughing for a week. I toured with Ian a lot back when he was solo – he would take me on tour to play a few records to warm up the audience before his shows. I have so many good memories of those tours.

As a son follows in his father’s footsteps, many folks are asking, will the recent Spezial exhbition travel out of London too?

The honest answer is that I’m not 100% sure at this stage. It’s something I would love to see happen again but if it was to then it would need to be better than the first one. I would never want to do a take down of it as that would feel like too much of a compromise. I personally have had a ton of requests to take it North and also some questions about taking it overseas. Given the response it received you would hope it happens again. Ultimately it comes down to money as putting on an exhibition with high production quality and 24 hour on site security is not cheap to execute. Also, I would need to convince the other contributors to lend again which is no mean feat given that should anything happen to their shoes they are virtually irreplaceable – money wouldn’t be adequate compensation for some of those shoes.

Certainly, we understand that quite well, being collectors ourselves. Now it seems like there’s something special about the North, can you explain that to us?

I personally always wanted it to happen in the North but sadly the idea was rejected by a major Manchester gallery six years ago. I pitched the idea that I wanted to use the exhibition as a vehicle to tell the story of the relationship between the brand and the North but was told they didn’t feel a ‘one brand exhibition was relevant’.

Ouch. Seems they might be regretting that decision after that enormous success of the Spezial exhibition. So, after being shut down, how did you proceed to push forward with the event?

I was then approached by Dave and Jay from 80s Casuals about working with them on an exhibition in Liverpool. Some of the shoes used in the Spezial exhibition – like the Tennis Comfort’s – were ones that I had persuaded adidas to specially make up for the Liverpool show. It would have been a multi-brand show about the history of Northern terrace fashion so would only have actually covered one strand of adidas’ cultural relevance (albeit a very important one here in the UK) where the Spezial exhibition ended up tackling the brand from a broader perspective. We had a couple of meetings about it with the Liverpool venue and then someone there pulled the plug on the project. I don’t know the full story of why that happened but after that I forgot about doing anything with my personal collection for a few years. It was only when I saw (and lent shoes to) a couple of multi-brand ‘sneaker’ exhibitions that I started thinking that we should resurrect and re-evaluate the idea of an adidas gallery exhibition. It was good to see kids in the gallery who have never set foot in a gallery environment before off their own back. I thought it was great that the subject matter of the exhibition overcame that and opened their minds to a new experience.

Yes, seriously, it was a fantastic way to merge many cultures together to realize they all shared some similar sneaker stories. Do you have plans or passions to do further adidas exhibitions like this one?

Hope so.

How were you feeling with the outcome of the event?

Super happy and a bit overwhelmed by the response on the whole. We wanted it to appeal to even the most ardent fans of the brand and I feel we achieved that. When guys like Barry Bown and Paul Fox from JD rate what you have done then you know you are doing something right as those guys are not only huge adidas fans but have been in the industry a long time and really do know their onions. There is an invite-only Facebook group of adidas collectors – a group of them met up there on the first weekend and I happened to pop in with my wife and son while they were there. I got chatting with them and my wife (in the nicest possible way) got off and left me there with them answering questions. Over the course of the nine days it was great to meet people first-hand who are really passionate about the brand and its products as I’m not a person who spends a lot of time online. We were also really pleased that we were able to raise a significant amount of money for and help raise awareness of the Teenage Cancer Trust. Noel Gallagher contributed some valuable pieces to the exhibition and is a big supporter of the charity.

Really big congrats from us here at eatmoershoes, we feel incredibly proud to also be supporters and lovers of the brand, especially after such events. That’s the lighter side, though before the doors opened you gave us a speech that got quite heavy, and maybe the ‘toughest’ or ‘heaviest’ thing we heard you say was: “no brand on the planet is as culturally relevant as adidas is”. Gary, do you think you can tell us what adidas did over the years to truly secure this to be true?

It maybe came across like a ‘sound bite’ but I believe it to be fact. The only brand that even come close for me are Levi’s as far as long term relevance goes. There are no sportswear brands that come anywhere near. With adidas you have this enormous and indisputable sporting heritage that includes everyone from Jesse Owens to Muhammad Ali right up to the present day with Lionel Messi but then you have this whole other side to the brand where it has been embraced by a host of subcultures. Global rock stars in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Punk rockers and reggae artists in the mid to late ’70s. British football casuals from the late ’70s to the present day. Hip Hop culture at its very roots in the early ’80s. Rappers in the mid to late ’80s through to present day. Acid House ravers in the late ’80s. Metal bands from the ’80s through to the late ’90s. Britpop in the mid to late ’90s. Grime MCs in the noughties. I’m sure there are others that I have overlooked but that gives you some insight. I believe I have a pretty strong case on this one.

Now, more importantly maybe, what do you think adidas has to continue to do into the future to maintain this same truth?

Keep making good products and hope that exciting subcultures continue to emerge that those products become relevant to.

And lastly, can you please give us a sneak peek or a teaser into what’s up your sleeve for the near future?

The Spezial exhibition was the first part of what will be an ongoing project.

We look forward to seeing what comes next from you (and Mike?), Gary, and especially if that’s in regards to new releases or specialty events. On behalf of everyone who loves the brand (especially that secret, invite-only, online group you mentioned) we want to thank you and everyone involved for putting on such an event – it was truly spezial for us and something we will remember always. Finally, we want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us and open your history book as the pages are certainly of interest to the community, in and outside the UK. Stay in touch and take care.

written by Dylan Cromwell

photography by errol

  • Rory Cooke

    Loved the exhibition and was lucky enough to talk with Gary for a good while that first weekend

  • Stu Mitchell

    Great interview EMS and jolly good read

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