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Exclusive: The Cult of Adidas

Adidas's Gary Aspden on acid house parties at the Haçienda, his newly curated Spezial exhibition and Run DMC

‘Sneakerhead’ is the term given to somebody who collects sneakers, and as any one of them I can tell you, Adidas is at the forefront of that culture. In the 1980's the Superstar shoe – which launched in 1969 - was forever canonized into the cultural consciousness when Run DMC committed to an anti-pop, non-conformist policy of dressing on stage exactly as they did on the street, sporting their Adidas Superstars and even dedicating their loyalty in the song "My Adidas." Whether it's a trickle up effect from subway station break dancers in New York or a trickle down effect from the hip-hop stages of the world, Adidas has made an undeniable contribution to the style codes of outsider subcultures, giving shoes worn by their leaders a power like that of holy relics. Today, Adidas is regarded with an almost cult-like reverence.

Spezial is a new exhibition from Adidas opening tonight in London, bringing together over 600 pairs of cult designs. Curated by Gary Aspden, a long-time fan and collector who ended up working for Adidas as a consultant, the show also includes never before seen exclusives and signed samples from notable hip-hop stars like Run DMC, Nas, Eminem, Public Enemy and more. Here, Aspden gives us an exclusive preview of the exhibition.

Dazed Digital: It really feels like an exhibition by the fans for the fans…

Gary Aspden: Exactly. When we used to do the acid house parties at the Haçienda we would say, “they were parties by the people for the people,” and we kind of took that as the mantra for this. It was by the fans for the fans. I grew up wearing Adidas and even though I’m consultant to the company, I still have the mindset of one of Adidas’s most dedicated fans.

When we were breaking into warehouses and doing acid house parties in the late 80s, we were all wearing the Adidas ZX Torsion range. You know, our shoes were really important to us. They were signifiers. 

DD: I was speaking to Peter Saville last week and we spoke a lot about the obsessive branding culture that has come to be associated with sportswear. What I find so interesting, is that Adidas has such a rich history. These shoes were born out of function, yet they have been adapted – there is this youth culture and these codes attached to it. The evolution is very interesting. 

Gary Aspden: Not so long ago, Peter and I were disagreeing about this. I think it’s a generational thing, because I was talking about Adidas in relation to culture and he was basically saying it’s not culture, it’s just things that people wear when they’re doing cultural things. The thing is, I believe it’s intrinsic to culture. When we were breaking into warehouses and doing acid house parties in the late 80s, we were all wearing the Adidas ZX Torsion range. You know, our shoes were really important to us. They were signifiers. It’s a very subtle form of communication in a way. So I was basically saying that it’s intrinsic to culture and part of culture.

Don’t get me wrong, not all brands are intrinsic to culture. What Adidas has, no amount of marketing could buy, because you know its connection to culture goes back decades. When I was buying into Adidas as a youth in the northwest of England, we were buying our trainers from shops that sold tennis rackets and cricket bats and air riffles. We were actually taking something, adopting it and changing the context of it. When I got into brands or certainly got into designer clothes, there was a very punk attitude about the way we were wearing designer clothes. When we were wearing Armani we weren’t trying to look like we owned a yacht on the French Riviera.

The main thing that I love about sportswear is that it’s incredibly democratic. On one hand you will see Madonna wearing an Adidas tracksuit – but at the same time you’ll see a guy being released from Strangways prison in Manchester wearing the same thing.  

DD: It’s great to see the Hacienda collection…

Gary Aspden: We actually only produced 300 pairs with Peter Saville and Ben Kelly. He created the box in the same shape as the dancefloor, which is kind of ironic because it looks a bit like a coffin. Actually, the funny thing was when I was at home and I dug this out - they were Haçienda floor plans and all the shoes came wrapped in them. We got all the people that worked on it to sign it. 

DD: Adidas has come to be so associated with music and pop culture. Have there been any defining moments for you?

Gary Aspden: Well, what I wanted to illustrate in the catalogue for the exhibition is that Adidas’s connection to music culture pre-dates hip-hop. You know, hip-hop has become a dominant force in global culture, but Adidas’s association with music and adoption of music culture actually pre-dates that.

You had the reggae artists in the 70s, most famously Bob Marley wearing Adidas, The Clash, Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols and Jim Morrison playing tag football in the 1970s with his Adidas shoes. Even David Bowie. There’s like a wealth of it and for somebody like me who kind of grew up on it I really picked up on those things. In the 70s, there were lots of working class youths in the North of England who were listening to post-punk and they were adopting these things.

Adidas Spezial runs until 27 July at the Hoxton Gallery, London