Gary Aspden – a Spezial story!

Published Wednesday 20 March 2024 at 19:47

We’ve all seen the Blackburn SPZL trainer, the pics of Liam Gallagher performing at King George’s Hall and the giant adidas mural in Darwen town centre. But, what about the man behind it all, Darwen designer Gary Aspden?

He has his own fascinating story to tell, and, on the eve on the 10th anniversary of Spezial, he’s shared it with The Shuttle.

      Gary Aspden – possible inset

Tell us about the early days, how did you first get into fashion and design?

I got interested in clothes and brands in my early teens but growing up in Darwen I never even considered working in a job like I do now. I realised that there were jobs in clothing/trainer design but it’s like they were for other people and not for working class kids from East Lancashire.

adidas was the first brand I really remember wearing. In the mid-70s my mum used to get me and my older brother the 3 stripe adidas Europa t-shirts and my first pair of branded trainers were adidas Kick.

Up until my teenage years many of my clothes were hand me downs from my older brother but as a teenager, I guess I was obsessed with style.

My mum and dad didn’t have the money to send us to private school, but they sent me to do the 11+ exam and I was offered a scholarship to the local grammar school in Blackburn.

Whilst I was a bright kid I didn’t much like school. The only subject I really enjoyed and was good at was art. I was often getting up to mischief – nothing malicious – the teachers would say I had problems with my attention span and levels of concentration but, in hindsight, I think it was because I had no interest in a lot of the subjects they were trying to teach us (Latin, anyone?)

My art teacher, Mrs Arkwright was the only person who seemed to believe in my abilities. She was a bit of a lifesaver for me at that time and I reconnected with her at the Blackburn adidas Spezial exhibition a few years back which was fantastic.

At 16 I left at the first opportunity to go and work at Scapa Porritt in Blackburn. That was an eye opener, and I only lasted a few months before I ended up signing on.

After a few months on the dole, I got an ultimatum from my mum so ended up applying to Blackburn College to do a Foundation Course in Art.

I was starting to lose my way at that point and spent much of my time in the Vulcan pub around the corner. I somehow managed to scrape onto a degree course in Fashion in Manchester in the late summer of 1988 – I only applied because I heard that not many men applied to study fashion so I would have a better chance of getting on.

At that time, I also had a Saturday job in a clothes shop with two girls who worked at The Haçienda nightclub, so I began to go there regularly as well as coming back over to Blackburn, where I witnessed the birth (and growth) of Acid House here. I spent more time partying than I did in college and dropped out after a few months.

After the Acid House parties came to a close, things went really downhill for me personally. I had a few very difficult years and eventually hit a place where I needed to make some dramatic changes to the way I was living.

In September 1993, I stopped drinking (which was initially difficult, but it’s something I’ve managed to maintain a day at a time ever since) and reapplied to study at the University of Central Lancashire. They offered me a place on their Fashion Promotion Degree Course but put me on probation for my first semester as they weren’t sure I would be able to adapt to being in an educational environment due to my background.

I applied there as a mature student and after 2 years went down to London to try and find work experience as part of the degree. At the tender age of 27, I managed to find my way into a few unpaid internships – I worked in the press office of Giorgio Armani, DKNY, Diesel Jeans, and for a small independent brand called 6876 – through those internships I made a few contacts in the fashion and music industries.

When I was at Armani, they gave me a project that involved building relationships with musicians to invite to their events on behalf of the brand which laid the foundations for my work at adidas a couple of years later.

I came back to Lancashire a year later for the final year of my degree and graduated with First Class Honours.

Adidas Spezial X CP Company Collaboration~-Exhibition, Darwen (92) – Copy

How did your journey with adidas start?

I’d been into Hip Hop when I was younger and a lad I knew from Urmston (Evo) was the European B-Boy champion. He asked me if I could help him get endorsements from brands and I’d met someone who worked at adidas during my year interning.

Whilst in my final year at university (when I was running out of money), she said she would give me free trainers if I could link her up with musicians I had connections to.

She left the company and adidas contacted me to say that they had a bunch of unfulfilled product orders with my number as the main contact. I think they assumed I was involved in music management and when I explained that I was actually a student up in Lancashire, they asked me to come down to London to see them about applying for the now open position in a role called ‘Entertainment Promotions.’

The job involved building relationships between adidas and the entertainment industry. Eventually they got in touch to say that I got the job. I worked really hard to make the best of the opportunity and, after a year, was promoted out of adidas UK to work for the Global Marketing Team before eventually heading up their Entertainment Team globally – managing a team in London, Los Angeles, Tokyo and the adidas HQ in Germany.

After a decade or so I decided to go self-employed and nowadays adidas retain me as a consultant.

Gary Aspden – possible inset 5

Tell us about Spezial – where the idea came from, how it’s developed and the success it has today…

Oh wow – that’s an interview in itself.

The heads of adidas in the UK asked me what I would do to help adidas get a better presence in independent fashion stores here in the UK like END, Hanon and Oi Polloi.

I put together a proposal for a modern, premium, archive inspired range called adidas Spezial. They liked the idea and took it to the HQ in Germany where the head of adidas Originals signed off on it.

I was initially given a two season, 12-month contract to see what the response would be. It immediately took off and so they asked me to continue doing it – we are now coming to its 10-year anniversary.

I have to give credit for much of its success to having a strong core audience who have loyally supported Spezial.


You brought the incredible adidas exhibition to Blackburn, the Blackburn shoe, the C.P. Company event, Liam Gallagher… why is it so important for you to do things back home?

I have a connection to my hometown that I find difficult to explain or verbalise.

When I’m creating Spezial collections, I often draw on my personal experiences in my youth here as a source of inspiration, so I often find myself thinking about the North West.

Darwen (and Blackburn to some degree as that’s where my mum’s side are from) made me into the person I am.

I like to celebrate the area wherever I can and I’ve used locally relevant names for some of the Spezial products.

A number of local people here have been really supportive of what we do with the Spezial range. We could never have done the Blackburn SPZL trainer without the help of the local council in getting us legal permissions to use the name of the town.

I would hope the projects we have done here show people what can be possible with a bit of investment and imagination.

I have huge respect for the founders of Darwen Live because I believe that festival is at the foundation of transforming Darwen into a great town for a night out – and boosting the nighttime economy in the process.

Culture, whilst not being quantifiable, improves the quality of people’s lives and makes places more attractive to live in. Companies want to invest in that.

Gary Aspden – possible inset 2

You’ve done so many brilliant celeb collaborations over the years, which has been your favourite/s?

I don’t have one. I’ve worked with a number of famous people but it’s only a part of what I do and is not my main motivation.

It pays to remember that there are a lot of good people and colourful characters who aren’t in the public eye.

Gary Aspden – possible inset 6

What’s next – for you and for Spezial?

It’s the tenth anniversary of adidas Spezial this year and I’m looking to commemorate that with an event in May.

I’m hoping we can bring this event to the borough rather to a major city and we are having conversations with adidas to try and find a way to make that happen.

I guess it would be a way of saying thank you.

If we can get something off the ground then we can hopefully get Nightsafe involved again.

Be the first to hear about the plans for the Spezial 10 year anniversary, follow @gary.aspden on Instagram.

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