When The Streets
Are Cold And Lonely…
The remarkable story of a German sportswear giant, a Blackburn charity and the Lancashire designer who has Stone Roses’ frontman Ian Brown singing his praises. Gary Aspden tells all to David Fearnhead
Berlin 1936 and a clandestine meeting is about to take place. A German shoemaker is about to risk everything by gifting a pair of his bespoke running shoes to an Olympic competitor from a foreign nation. The athlete carefully studies the shoes, and impressed he agrees to wear them. Jesse Owens would go on to win four gold medals wearing those shoes, and in doing so expose the myth of Aryan superiority. The shoemaker, Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler, would go on to found what would come to be known by a contraction of his name – Adidas.
The company would grow to be a modern sportswear giant, and by the 1980s it was at the heart of a youth subculture which began when English football fans started travelling to European away games. Far from exporting hooliganism, they were more likely to be found in sportswear shops buying up stock of rare Adidas trainers that weren’t available in the UK.
Amongst those keen to get their hands on these rare imports was Lancashire-born Gary Aspden, now a designer for Adidas. “I bought trainers and clothing from older lads who had been over to Austria and Switzerland. I often say that my experiences growing up have informed my career as much as my college education did. Getting a degree helped me to validate that knowledge and those experiences into a format that reassures potential employers.”
Four decades on and love for rare Adidas trainers is very much still with us.
The success of the recent Spezial Trainer Exhibition in Blackburn organised by Aspden, proved a stellar success with an estimated 21,000 visitors. One pair of size 5 limited edition ‘Blackburn’ trainers, which Aspden had created especially for the charity Nightsafe, reportedly reached a bid of £56,000 on eBay.
“I was quietly confident that it would work or I wouldn’t have fought to get it off the ground,” says Aspden of the exhibition.
“Having said that no one could have anticipated just how big it became. I think it really captured people’s imaginations for a global mega-brand to invest in a project in a town that has been hit so badly by austerity.”
“I grew up in the recession of the 1980s, but we never saw homeless people on the streets of Blackburn and Darwen like we do now – I wanted to do something about that as it shouldn’t be happening. The exhibition was massive for Nightsafe both in terms of profile and fundraising. Nightsafe have since asked me to be an ambassador for the charity which I am honoured to accept.”
Aspden is not what you’d expect for someone frequently referred to in industry publications as a ‘brand guru’. His native Lancashire accent remains unaffected by two decades of living in London and his designs often bear names familiar to East Lancashire.
“People will often say, ‘you’ve not lost your accent’, to which I respond ‘I’m not trying to’. I have a lot of pride in where I am from and I would hope what I do, in some ways, instils some of that pride in others.”
Despite being pally with the likes of Manchester royalty Noel Gallagher and Stone Roses front man Ian Brown, Aspden maintains his Northern grounding.
“People say, ‘never meet your heroes for they will only disappoint you’. That has not been my experience. I have met and worked with a lot of my musical heroes and they have been great. I could start dropping names here, but nobody likes a show-off.”
The same is true when I ask what were the major influences in his early years?
“The dole office and job centre in Darwen,” he replies. “I didn’t want to set foot in either ever again. I saw a lot of kids I grew up with lose their way and I wanted something different to that.”
Having left school at 16, he took a job as an office junior at Scapa Porritt. Office work wasn’t for him and three months later he was on the dole. With his mum stressing the need to do something with his life, he decided to follow the only subject he enjoyed at school – art. A foundation course in Art and Design at Blackburn College was mostly spent in the Vulcan pub, but when a girl he knew suggested he do a degree in Fashion Design, something clicked.
“I was into clothes and back then not many men applied to do fashion so that put me at an immediate advantage. I went for an interview at Manchester Polytechnic. I splashed out on a new outfit and told them I had been to Paris and Milan,” says Aspden.
In truth, he’d been Inter-railing with a few mates through Europe, but whatever he said worked and he was accepted on the course. It was 1988 and Manchester was booming. Aspden got a part-time job in a clothes shop with two girls who worked at the Haçienda. Life was good, perhaps a little too good.
“Acid House was just kicking off and I was in the right place at the right time,” Aspden recalls. “I spent more time in the Haçienda than I did in college and after six months I was kicked out of the halls of residence and stayed with a mate of mine in a squat in Hulme.”
The partying years came to an end in 1993. He realised that something needed to change. “The early ‘90s were the worst time of my life. I stopped drinking and partying and re-applied to the University of Central Lancashire in Preston to study Fashion Promotion. They offered me a place, but I was on probation for the first semester as they weren’t convinced I could adapt to being back in an educational environment.”
However, this time Aspden stuck at it despite the hardships.
“The third year of my degree was spent in London doing unpaid internships at the age of 27. That was really tough – I lived in a box room and had to work part-time jobs to finance doing work experience. I eventually graduated with First Class Honours and moved back to London where I was signing on again for eight months after graduating, before being offered my first position at Adidas working on Entertainment Promotions.”
His lucky break was almost literally that. While in his last year at university a breakdancer, knowing he was studying fashion, had asked him for help with getting free gear: “I linked him with a woman I had met at Adidas. He was then invited on tour with the Prodigy so I linked them with her too. She told me that if I could link her with famous musicians she would send me free product.”
“It seemed like a good deal to me as I was in my last year at university and I was broke. She ended up getting fired and Adidas called me about some unfulfilled orders she had placed that had my number on as a contact. They thought I was some big shot music mogul until I explained that I was a student in Preston.”
“They told me they were head hunting for a replacement for her and after a few months they eventually offered me a position. I still have the letter which accompanied their offer. I am self-employed nowadays but Adidas are my main client – I have now been with them in various capacities for over two decades.”