adidas SPEZIAL's Blackburn Exhibition Highlights the Power of Trainer Culture

by Hetty Mahlich on 15 October 2019

The adidas SPEZIAL exhibition in Blackburn comes to a close later this week. Hetty Mahlich spoke to adidas brand consultant and SPEZIAL designer Gary Aspden about curating the ultimate show for sneakerheads.

The adidas SPEZIAL exhibition in Blackburn comes to a close later this week. Hetty Mahlich spoke to adidas brand consultant and SPEZIAL designer Gary Aspden about curating the ultimate show for sneakerheads.

adidas Spezial Exhibition | British Textile Biennial, film by Aaron Dunleavy, courtesy Sparklestreet Projects

On 4 October 2019, the adidas SPEZIAL exhibition at Blackburn's Cotton Exchange opened as the headliner for the British Textile Biennial, which this year spotlights the textile industry as a means of expression. The exhibition includes 1,200 pairs of adidas trainers, a full SPEZIAL archive- with prototypes- and signed pairs worn by the likes of Noel Gallagher and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. It is supported by a series of music events and screenings to raise money for the charity Nightsafe which supports homeless youth in Blackburn. The likes of Goldie, Primal Scream and Dynamo have offered their services and are performing alongside local talent.

The SPEZIAL name comes from an adidas trainer silhouette originally released in 1979 for playing indoor handball. It fast became a staple for the casual culture style that originated on the football terraces of Northern England in the late 1970s and 1980s. The so-called casuals were the first to wear sportswear as streetwear attire in a style that is commonplace today. Committed collectors begun camping out four days prior to the exhibition's opening to purchase a pair of the 200 limited run of the Blackburn SPZL Nightsafe edition trainer from a pop-up shop inside the Exchange run by Hanon, the Aberdeen based street-wear store renowned for stocking some of the most limited edition trainers. The Blackburn SPZL Nightsafe edition was soon up for re-sale on eBay for over £55,000.

The Blackburn SPZL is a continuation of the adidas Originals European City series and part of the A/W 19 SPEZIAL collection. The European City series features trainers chronicling chosen cities across Europe as characterised by their colour way. The Blackburn SPZL's green and red colour way is drawn from the Lancashire red rose, and sits alongside the SL80 SPZL, Winterhill Adi-Tex SPZL and Hoddlesden SPZL, all named after towns in Lancashire. These explicit northern references underscore the German trainer brand's cultural origins in the North of England in the 1970s and 80s. Meanwhile, the dedication of adidas sneakerheads ensures that adidas SPEZIAL's bright global and cultural status fails to be diminished. I spoke with the exhibition's curator, adidas brand consultant and SPEZIAL designer Gary Aspden, about the mammoth task of bringing the show together and the trainer community's power to regenerate local culture.

adidas SPEZIAL Blackburn exhibition, photograph David Lake, courtesy adidas

Hetty Mahlich: How does the Blackburn SPEZIAL Exhibition compare to past SPEZIAL shows?

Gary Aspden: We have previously done them in London, Manchester, Paris and London so this has been the first time we have put one on in a town rather than a major city, and it has been by far the most successful to date.

HM: Why Blackburn and why Blackburn Nightsafe?

GA: A few have asked that and I say, 'Why not Blackburn?' It is the area where I grew up, and the team I work with on the graphics and photography for SPEZIAL are based there. I went to art college in Blackburn: my roots and the experiences that surround them have always been a source of inspiration when I am designing the adidas SPEZIAL range. Growing up, a lot of youths from Blackburn would travel abroad to pick up rare adidas trainers that weren’t available here. When I was a teenager, a number of my trainers were purchased from these young entrepreneurs, who were a few years older than me and had made trips over to Switzerland and Austria. It appears that the highest concentration of adidas collectors in the world are based in the North of the U.K. It makes sense for a brand like adidas to invest in putting on an event in this part of the world and it’s been especially bold of them to back something outside of a major city.

Blackburn is in the top ten poorest towns in Europe and has the highest child-to-parent rate in the country. There are post-industrial towns like Blackburn all over the U.K. that have been hit really badly by austerity over the past decade, and as a result there has been a huge increase in youth homelessness - we wanted to heighten awareness of that and use the Spezial exhibition to raise some funds for Nightsafe. Nightsafe are a small local charity that are doing great work trying to accommodate homeless young people, however they have been struggling financially, so we saw this as an opportunity to get involved and put something back into the community of Blackburn. We have also built in a program of screenings, parties and live music events that will generate further awareness and funds. We have Goldie, Dynamo, Tez Ilyas and Primal Scream all coming to the town to show their support of the cause. They will all be supported by local talent. We have made these events as accessible as possible with a minimal charity donation to secure admission.

adidas SPEZIAL Blackburn exhibition, photograph Tomas Lindie for Hanon, courtesy adidas

HM: Could you tell me a little about the process of curating the exhibition and whose archives you pulled from?

GA: The exhibition contains over 1,200 pairs of adidas shoes, dating from the 1950s right through to now. I personally own over 2000 pairs, (many of which are vintage), so I could have done this with my shoes alone. However, we wanted this exhibition to have some of the rarest vintage adidas shoes out there to satisfy the most ardent collectors. The collectors who contributed were from all over the U.K: Robert 'Brooksy' Brooks, Carl Dimelow and Mike Chetcuti from London, Bobby McCarten from Merseyside, Digger from Yorkshire, Gary Watson from Darwen and Pete Lawton from Manchester. We had to give a guide to each contributor as to how to dress and send their shoes before we facilitated their transportation of them. We then created a cataloging system that involved shooting the shoes for an easy visual reference when it came to their installation. The preparation of this exhibition was a huge job.

HM: How have responses to the exhibition been?

GA: Off the scale. The idea of doing an exhibition like this in a town like Blackburn seems to have really captured people’s imaginations. It holds 500 people and for many of the days, particularly weekends, there is a queue outside with a one in/one out policy. Blackburn has been on television programs like Panorama about how it’s a divided place, but this event seems to have brought the entire community together. We have also run a schools and colleges programme during the weekdays, that has been really popular and has attracted design students from all over the UK. Anthony H. Wilson, the record label boss who promoted Manchester's popular culture throughout the 1970s and 80s, often talked about how culture needs hubs. Aside from being a fantastic spectacle, a hub for people to get together is exactly what this exhibition is.

adidas Blackburn SPZL Nightsafe, photograph Tomas Lindie for Hanon, courtesy adidas

HM: You’re from Darwen just outside of Blackburn. Would you say the Blackburn trainer is your most personal design yet?

GA: Everything I create is in some way personal, but using the Blackburn name was a real honour. Anyone that knows anything about the rich history of the town will understand that. The Blackburn SPZL shoe has had such a great response. We made a limited run of adidas Blackburn SPZL shoes in association with Nightsafe, with all proceeds going to them, and we had people queuing three days before they went on sale. They ended up on the national TV and radio news, as well as in all the major newspapers here.

Gary Aspden at the opening of the adidas SPEZIAL Blackburn exhibition, photograph Tomas Lindie for Hanon, courtesy adidas

HM: The exhibition has brought in dedicated collectors from around the world. How have online auction sites affected the trainer collector community?

GA: I try not to have an opinion on that stuff. That’s a whole other part of the industry to what we are doing here. Many adidas collectors are like connoisseurs - their motivation isn’t purely financial. They don’t judge the value of a product purely on its monetary value. They are a sophisticated audience who know the product and are not easily pleased.

HM: What makes the trainer collector community different to any other?

GA: There are a number of different sub-communities within it who are excited by different things and different brands. On the whole, those who take an interest in archival shoes are often a very different audience to those who chase the latest hype products, although there is some crossover.

adidas SPEZIAL Blackburn exhibition, photograph David Lake, courtesy adidas

HM: How aware are you of the adidas fans and collectors as you design?

GA: Very. A number of fans and collectors are good friends of mine, I understand their mentality because I am of that mentality myself.

HM: If you had to save one pair of trainers from the exhibition, which ones and why?

GA: The FAC51-Y3 ‘Hacienda’ crib shoes. They are the only ones in existence. It was a project we did for Y3 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hacienda night club that I frequented as a youth. I worked on the project with Peter Saville and Ben Kelly: two people whose influence on me is immeasurable. My wife ended up going into labour with my son Wilson six weeks early, so I had to work on finalising the project from a maternity unit in Gloucester, which was over and above the call of duty! Three months later, a box arrived with a pair of one-off Hacienda crib shoes, and infants' shoes for my boy. It was a beautiful gesture. A nice touch from adidas.

HM: In Sole Searching In South America, yourself, Brooksy and the team discovered trainers you’d never even seen. Is there a particular trainer out there you’re yet to see in the flesh or another similar treasure trove you want to visit?

GA: I wish! We keep looking though!

adidas SPEZIAL Blackburn exhibition, photograph Tomas Lindie for Hanon, courtesy adidas
adidas SPEZIAL Blackburn exhibition, photograph Tomas Lindie for Hanon, courtesy adidas

HM: Any exciting upcoming collaborations or future projects in the pipeline for Adidas SPEZIAL which you’re excited about?

GA: Yes, but I am not allowed to say anything just yet! We have got a great one coming next year.

HM: Do you see more SPEZIAL exhibitions based outside of London on the horizon?

The success of doing this in Blackburn have raised a few eyebrows so we will have to see. I received a message last week from Jefferson Hack who was saying that what we have done, by taking a brand exhibition like this into a provincial town like Blackburn, is nothing short of visionary. Culture will always drive commerce, and projects like this can only help with the regeneration of places that have been really neglected since the decline of the manufacturing industry. We are very proud of what we have achieved in East Lancashire. I personally have worked with adidas for over twenty years and have worked on some great stuff, but I have to say that this project has been a career highlight for me.

The exhibition is open 4-20 October 2019 at the Cotton Exchange, Blackburn. Entry is free, however donations for Nightsafe Blackburn are welcomed. Full list of events here.



Documentary: Sole Searching in South America

15 October 2014
After a tip-off about a store stacked high with vintage adidas products, Gary Aspden put together a team of fellow adidas fanatics to travel to Buenos Aires whilst photographer Neil Bedford and filmmaker Greg Bond documented the trip.

Interview: Gary Aspden on the North

12 December 2016
Gary Aspden considers the aspirational nature of sportswear and his developing desire for brands as a youth in Blackburn.

Adidas Announces SPEZIAL Blackburn Exhibition

10 September 2019
Adidas announces the launch of the SPEZIAL exhibition at the British Textile Biennial in Blackburn.
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