Arte et Labore: Adidas consultant and Spezial exhibition curator Gary Aspden on skill, hard work and why Acid House changed football forever.
By Huw Griffiths
Photography Pelle Crépin
Styling Jordan Schneider
This article is taken from Issue 8 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015. Now available to pre-order from our online store.
To suggest that the past few months have been fairly eventful for Gary Aspden would be like saying that Lionel Messi has a half-decent scoring record. Given the enormity of the task he faced in assembling the Spezial exhibition – a collection of more than 650 pairs of rare, vintage and deadstock trainers from the adidas archives and the vaults of longtime collectors – in its first incarnation at Hoxton Gallery, London in 2013, he could have been forgiven for leaving it there.
But for the man who cut his footballing teeth in Blackburn – a former mill town in England’s North West – standing in the rain on the terraces of the Riverside Stand at Ewood Park, taking the easy route was never going to be an option. The past few months have seen the exhibition land in Manchester and Paris, and the launch of a new range of clothing and footwear that sparked the type of lengthy camp-outs usually reserved for LA or Tokyo.
For Aspden, the Spezial project – much like his relationship with adidas itself – has been a long-term labour of love. His primary – and encyclopaedic – knowledge of his employer’s heritage has not been gleaned from trawling the Herzogenaurach archive. It’s more organic than that; a product of lived experience. “In the early Eighties, Samba was the shoe that everyone had. All we did was play football so Sambas were the shoe for every occasion. The Adidas S.T. rain jackets were also staples and they inspired the Climastorm St9 [one of the jackets in the new Spezial range].”
The attention to detail in the Spezial collection illustrates Aspden’s own life- long affinity with, and love for, the brand. It’s also a quality synonymous with Germany’s other proud export; its national football team. Ahead of last year’s World Cup, the German football federation, the DFB, took the unprecedented step of constructing a purpose-built base for the team in Santo Andre in a bold effort to bolster its chances of winning the tournament. A scheme that was considered vainglorious and excessive by many in the football fraternity proved to be as tactically astute as Joachim Löw himself.
“I am so glad that Germany won the World Cup. It felt like karma,” says Aspden. “The Bundesliga is setting the benchmark on so many levels; especially how football clubs should be run and how to treat their fans. Refreshingly, the powers-that-be in German football don’t appear to be looking upon the fans’ tribalism as something that makes them ripe for exploitation.”
It’s a glowing endorsement that stands in stark contrast to his own recent experiences as a Blackburn Rovers fan. “My dad is eighty years old and has followed Blackburn Rovers since he was a child, but after following them for over seventy years he may never set foot in Ewood Park again unless there is a change of ownership. He loves that club, but is adamant that he will not give Blackburn Rovers another penny until Venky’s are gone.”
Two years have passed since Wigan – and, many would argue, the financial and strategic practices of Venky’s – condemned Rovers to relegation from the Premier League. Aspden himself remains understandably aggrieved by that chapter in his club’s history. “After the dismantling of the club’s respected infrastructure, our fans protested about the way the club was being handled by the new owners. They [the fans] were very publicly criticised – by TV pundits and some prominent faces in the football establishment – for finding their voice. Despite being one of the oldest clubs in the Football League we have a relatively small fan base, which, I guess, made us an easy target for their negative comments. Watching how it all unfolded really disillusioned me, to be honest.”
Aspden’s disillusionment is perhaps inevitable, given the wealth of memories he continues to cherish from his early days at Ewood Park. Safe to say, the ground was a far cry from Germany’s palatial camp in tropical Santo Andre.
He’ll readily admit that he “didn’t especially want to be there, despite [being] in a duffle coat, during the winter months”. Nevertheless, he dutifully attended every game Rovers played during their spell in what was, once upon a time, the English Third Division.
“I was dragged along to Ewood Park by my dad and older brother and I would have to take the washing-up bowl out of the sink and carry it on the bus down to the game. I was so small at the time that the only way I could see the game was to put the washing-up bowl upside down by the wall and tip-toe on it to see over it.”
It is this time-served experience that gives Aspden and his work with adidas Originals an authenticity that blog-studying influencers and tastemakers can only dream of possessing. With more references than a Thomas Pynchon novel, Aspden can draw from all corners of modern culture, having forayed extensively into the worlds of music, sport and fashion. Arguably, it is the broadness of his interests that has allowed him to become the architect of several of the most iconic collaborations in the world of footwear.
And central to this are his early years at Ewood. Once he’d outgrown the washing-up bowl, of course.
“One of the most enduring images I have of that era would have been around 1986. Gary Watson, who works with me on the graphics for the adidas Originals x Spezial range, and a load of the older Blackburn lads were in the Riverside corner of the Blackburn End. It was a sea of ZX shoes, expensive leather jackets – a few with batwing sleeves! – baggy jeans, Armani knitwear, denim shirts untucked, Ball sweatshirts…”
“There was a lot of crossover between how hip-hop heads and football lads dressed especially when everyone was into expensive European tracksuits.”
Aspden admits that the way they dressed wasn’t solely about football. “I knew some lads who dressed like us who had little interest in going to the game. There was a lot of crossover between how hip-hop heads and football lads dressed – especially when everyone was into expensive European tracksuits.”
Indeed, Aspden’s own growing interest and involvement in the North West’s music scene began slowly to supersede his love of the game. “Once the raves kicked off I paid very little attention to football. Most of us didn’t bother going to games. It was pre-Sky television and we were out partying when Match of the Day was on. Saturdays had become about the night rather than the afternoon. It was a communal experience that dissolved all that tribalism.”
Despite his sense of nostalgia, Aspden can’t be accused of blinkered sentimentality, especially in his reflections on Casual culture. “There is a lot of hindsight romanticism about Casuals; the clothes and haircuts were great and we had some laughs, but in truth there was a lot of nastiness that surrounded football back then. I remember Pink Floyd playing Maine Road on 8/8/88 [8th August, 1988] and it was like half of Liverpool were at the gig. At the end of it, I saw gangs of local lads mobbing up to look for Scousers. After everyone having witnessed this amazing show from a band that were essentially born out of Sixties psychedelia, the idea that people could look for trouble really made no sense whatsoever to me.”
With the advent of Acid House and raves run “for the people, by the people”, however, Aspden notes that “the Casual thing was never really the same after August 1988. That constant evolution of style and game of one-upmanship seemed to be less important once Acid House arrived. In Blackburn the hooliganism, violence and misguided right-wing politicsfrom certain quarterswere finished overnight.”
While football had provided a sense of fraternity and community prior to the mid-Eighties, Aspden had also seen that “[by] its very nature it could be socially divisive”. But 1988 seemed to be a watershed year; this time for the mar- riage of football and music. And where disparate tribes had once gone toe-to-toe outside, and in some cases inside grounds all over the North West, they were now united under the banner of Acid House: “I would see people from Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Stoke, Blackburn, Blackpool and even London freely mixing in the Hacienda in ’88.” Nor is Aspden under any illusion about the personal influence the period had on him: “I guess I became far more open-minded and a lot of the unspoken rules we had grown up with were thrown out the window. I would never have grown my hair long in 1985 and I didn’t really start going to football again until around ’94.”
“I would see people from Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Stoke, Blackburn, Blackpool and even London freely mixing in the Hacienda in ’88.”
It was a period during which the body became a generation’s primary vehicle for self-expression; skin as canvas, the human frame as a walking mannequin to be adorned with identity-affirming clothes, colours and accessories. Derek Ridgers’ much-celebrated pictorial tome, 78-87 London Youth – “a salute to creative youth” – is testament to as much. It’s an idea that Aspden holds dear; that younger generations should play a pivotal role in evolving the cultures that have gone before them. “Things can never be what they were then, nor should they be. But there is definitely now a big movement, especially outside London, of youths who have in their own way adopt- ed the style that was born out of that era, pre-Acid House. It’s great to see. If you lose your faith in youth then you’ve got nothing.”
Just as his own path has taken him from an Ewood-bound bus to distant climes such as Carlos Ruiz’s now infamous shoe shop in Buenos Aires, so his Spezial project has also reached heights he could never have imagined. Shortly after news of the range was released, the Spezial logo was adopted by Liverpool fans and subsequently draped from stadium balconies during this season’s Champions League campaign. “It was a massive compliment to see that. I support Blackburn but have nothing but admiration and respect for Liverpool fans. It’s a city that thrives on football and music; it definitely leans to the Left and the people there don’t suffer fools.”
2015 promises to be another busy year for Gary, and will see the next chapter in the ongoing revival of Spezial. Let’s hope that it also sees the return of Aspden Snr to his rightful place in the Riverside Stand at Ewood Park.