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Adidas’ Gary Aspden talks to Candid about his northern roots, Acid House parties, and staging The Stone Roses’ secret gig at Village Underground

October 1, 2015

Fashion | by Harry Seymour

Brand expert, consultant and designer, Gary Aspden sat down to talk to Candid recently about the influence of his northern working-class roots on shaping his career at Adidas.

Rated twice as one of the top 100 most influential people in fashion by The Face Magazine, Aspden has created significant connections between brands and popular culture. He has initiated landmark projects such as the global launch of Adidas Originals, the European launch of Y3, and collaborative projects with the likes of acclaimed Japanese designer, Kazuki and street wear brand, A Bathing Ape.

Aspden recently launched his Adidas X Spezial AW15 collection.

Photo by Ki Price
Photo by Ki Price

Candid Magazine: Hi Gary, can we start by asking you where you’re from?

Gary Aspden: Darwen, Lancashire. It’s a small town just outside Blackburn.

CM: What was it like growing up there?

GA: It was quite a scenic working class town and it rained a lot. In order to have a working class you have to have work and back then there were a number of local factories and mills that employed local people. The money they earned in turn went into the infrastructure of the town – restaurants, newspaper shops, take aways, pubs, nightclubs. It is nothing like it was then now – there has sadly been a progressive deterioration – it never really recovered from the Thatcher years. Having said that I would still like to retire there as I have an unshakable connection with it.

We lived in a 2 bedroom terraced house with my older brother and my mum and dad and whilst we had a nice living room and kitchen at the back my parents never got round to decorating and carpeting the front room (don’t think they could afford to back then). When I was in my early teenage years I began using that room as a space to practice breakdancing.

There was a lot of racism, tension, tribalism and violence in Blackburn – it wasn’t only confined to football matches. Every area had its own gang. The one thing they all had in common was a hatred of Darweners, It got really ugly at times, I loved the clothes but didn’t like all the trouble – I guess getting into the Hip Hop/B-Boy thing got me away from a lot of that.

Around that time I met three brothers who had moved to Darwen from Hulme (Manchester) who were adopted by a local family as their dad had gone back to Nigeria and their mum couldn’t cope. They had also got into the Electro and the B-Boy thing so we had the beginnings of a crew. We seemed to attract a few other misfits (a couple of whom were BMXers) and met up to practice most days. Our little posse was multi-racial, which was really unusual in our area back then. There was a lot of hooliganism in our area and the fact we were an ethnically mixed bunch later caused us no end of trouble with a contingent of the football gangs from Blackburn and later Bolton.

Most of the older lads who had inspired us to start breaking in the first place gave it up around 84 (sadly a few of them ended up getting involved in football hooliganism). Me and my mates had little interest in much else outside of breaking, clothes and girls at that point. Our lives revolved around breaking and we put that before everything. We were super competitive with each other and as a consequence we became pretty good as a crew and built a bit of a reputation locally.

We soon became best crew in Darwen and Blackburn and as we steadily improved we started ‘battling’ crews from other Lancashire towns. Most of the clubs we went to back then would play 80s Soul (like Loose Ends) with a 30 minute Electro interlude but there were a couple of clubs we’d go to in Manchester would have afternoon Hip Hop sessions and played solid Electro. We all gave up dancing around 1986… Everybody did. At that point we started to go to watch football more regularly.

I grew up in the pre-internet era so we got our style tips from being out and about – football matches, youth clubs, discos, street corners and then as we got older, night clubs and raves. Whilst I was a fan of some aspects of American culture, the way in which we dressed was definitely very British. The fashion would change really quickly when I was a teenager. I guess me and my mates were what people would now describe as ‘casuals’ but there was nothing casual about our attitude to style.

Clothes and trainers were really important to us. The older generation from Blackburn would regularly go abroad on shopping trips to Switzerland, Austria and Germany so their younger brothers (who were our age) were always really well turned out. They had clothes that we couldn’t get hold of and even if we could, we couldn’t have got anywhere close to affording them. There wasn’t a lot of money about in the North-West where we were in the 1980’s. My dad worked in a factory and my mother worked on the market so I had to use my ingenuity to get the money to keep up with the fashion at the time.

Acid House kicked off in the late summer of 1988 that pretty much ended all the football violence overnight. Blackburn became the epicentre of the rave scene in the north of England and I was there right from the very beginning. In the space of 18 months I watched the Blackburn Raves go from 30 of us in a house to 10,000 people in a warehouse.

CM: My next question was what were the main things that informed your youth, but you seem to have answered it in the last one!

GA: Clothes, music, football – Probably in that order.

CM: Are you an art enthusiast?

GA: I wouldn’t say so. I studied on a Foundation in Art at Blackburn College in ‘87 so I am reasonably fluent on that topic. I like some art but from my limited experience of it I find much about the art world questionable. I went to a great ‘urban art’ (I hate that term) exhibition in Waterloo in a disused tunnel around 2007 and I remember thinking that there are far more dissenting voices here than there are in music nowadays. Guy Debord may well have been right all along. I personally am far more interested in music. For me music is the highest form of creativity as it is by far the most accessible.

CM: How about literature?

GA: I read books but not nearly as much as I used to, since I got hooked on social media along with everyone else I know. I read a lot of music biographies. My favourite book is ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell. If only they would put that one in the school curriculum.

CM: What piece of music has inspired you the most?

GA: That’s difficult – it depends which era of my life. Street Sounds Electro compilations were so important as they changed the course of my early teens. As a result of that I travelled beyond my hometown and was exposed to scenes that I might not have otherwise come across that most definitely opened me up to new ideas.

CM: How did you land your job at Adidas?

GA: In hindsight, I can see it was very circumstantial. When I was at college in Preston I was dealing with a woman at Adidas in London who worked on what they called Entertainment Promotions back then. I would connect her with musicians I knew and in exchange she would send me free trainers. After she left the company they were headhunting for a replacement for her and contacted me. Their initial call was because they had some unfulfilled orders from her time there with my contact number on – they had assumed I was a manager or an agent. After a lot of back and forth they offered me a position there. It was my first ‘steady job’. I was 28 years old. I worked as an employee at Adidas for nearly 10 years and now work for myself and am retained by them as a consultant.

CM: How important has your background and cultural interests been in shaping your career?

GA: I believe that what I do is informed by my personal experiences outside of academia than what I studied at University. Having said that, college gave me an opportunity to refine my ideas and approach so I certainly don’t regret studying. I have always been far more interested in culture than fashion. My interest in fashion only really extends to how it connects with the broader culture.

CM: What is it like as a designer?

GA: When it comes to what I do I am cautious and very economic with the term “designer”. I have always described myself as a curator because existing Adidas designs are the starting point in what I do with the Adidas Originals x Spezial range. For me, people like Issey Miyake or Alexander McQueen are/were designers – they would start from scratch and create something completely new. When I think about it my role is essentially about remixing other people’s work to deliver something that feels modern.

CM: Which fashion designer would you regard to be most influential on yourself, if any?

GA: Not sure any fashion designers have been influential on me. I highly rate Ralph Lauren as a brand but my 2 favourite designers would be Adi Dassler and Massimo Osti. I don’t consider either of them to be fashion designers. I am also a fan of those very conservative Italian luxury brands like Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli.

CM: Do you think fashion can be a powerful tool in providing people with identity?

GA: Clothes can help a person to shape their identity. In many ways what we wear can be a form of communication. It’s a way of giving indicators to people who have never met us about the type of person we are.

CM: What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?

GA: That’s very difficult. There have been so many. Putting on the Stone Roses’ secret gig in the Village Underground during the Olympics was pretty mind blowing – everyone came out for that one. Ian Brown has always looked out for me and supported me in what I do and for that I’ll always be grateful.

The Spezial exhibition private view in Manchester was another favourite. A lot of friends that I grew up with showed up. It was like ‘This is Your Life’ for me in there. It felt right to do the global launch of my first Spezial range in the North as it’s an Adidas heartland. It really was a homecoming.

By Ray Kinsella