Published Friday 4 October 2019 at 11:25
You’ve heard all about the Blackburn adidas exhibition and the new Blackburn SPEZIAL shoe but how much do you know about the man behind it, Darwen designer Gary Aspden?
In a recent Guardian article he was described as a ‘god’ to trainer spotters.
In this Shuttle Q&A, he offers an insight into his life growing up in the borough, his impressive career with the top sports brand and tells us more about the event which is expected to attract tens of thousands of visitors.
You’ve said that growing up in Blackburn with Darwen has been a key inspiration for your work; can you please tell us more about that?
“I was born in Bull Hill Hospital – my dad is from Darwen and my mum is from Blackburn. I grew up in Darwen and I went to college in Blackburn.
My upbringing and those experiences that surrounded it have always been a source of inspiration when I am designing the adidas Spezial range.
The design team (graphic designer, photographer, etc.) I work with on adidas Spezial are based in Darwen and Blackburn.
Growing up, a lot of youths from Blackburn would travel abroad to find rare adidas trainers. The area is an adidas heartland where there’s a lot of love for the brand.
The highest concentration of adidas collectors in the world are based in the north of the U.K.
I have used lots of locally related names for Spezial products from the Intack SPZL and Settend SPZL trainers to the Shadsworth polo shirt and Pleasington anorak.
I guess it shows my pride in my roots and in some way acknowledging what this area has given me.
Getting the legal clearance to use existing names can be tricky so it was great to get the support of Blackburn with Darwen Council and Blackburn Rovers on getting the ‘Blackburn’ name cleared for the trainers. ”
How did you come to work for adidas?
“I got a good degree in Fashion Promotion from the University of Central Lancashire as a mature student.
As part of that course I went to London and worked unpaid in internships which was a struggle financially, but as a result I made a few contacts in brands – one of them being in adidas.
When I graduated, I moved back to London and signed on for 8 months and then a job came up in adidas called Entertainment Promotions (looking after relationships with the music and film industries) and they got in touch with me.
I joined adidas in the late 90s and went on to head up the Entertainment Team globally.
I’m now self-employed and retained by adidas as a consultant and designer. I have now worked with them in different capacities for over 20 years. ”
What has been the real highlight of your career so far?
“Probably this project. It means the world to me to do something that will be beneficial to those less fortunate in the area where I grew up.
We are expecting to raise a good sum of money and up the profile of Nightsafe who do fantastic work with vulnerable, homeless young people in Blackburn and Darwen. It’s great to see that people from the town and beyond are buzzing about this. ”
You’ve designed the new Blackburn trainer, can you please tell us about what influenced this and the meaning of the colours etc?
“Well the colours are based on the red rose of Lancashire. My first thought as a Rovers supporter was blue and white, but adidas have produced so many shoes in those colours and I wanted the Blackburn SPZL to have a distinct identity of its own.
The first 200 pairs are co-branded with Nightsafe and they will launch exclusively at the exhibition – all proceeds from their sale will go direct to the charity. ”
Do you have your own favourite pair of SPEZIALs?
“That’s like asking me what my favourite album is! It changes from day to day. ”
How did the idea come about for the exhibition in Blackburn?
“We have been wanting to get around to doing another exhibition since the last one we did in Moscow in 2015 as they always get such a positive reaction.
I had some conversations with the Council who were keen for us to do something as part of their attempts to regenerate the town.
They offered their support but couldn’t help financially – money is tight due to the cuts – and the costs of producing the exhibition to a good standard are not insignificant.
We then met with the people behind the British Textile Biennial who got the ball rolling on getting funding and on the back of that we were able to get adidas to put investment in.
When the adidas Blackburn SPZL shoe got the green light I knew that this was would be the optimum opportunity to bring a Spezial exhibition here. We could hardly launch a shoe with that name in London!”
Why do you think it’s so important to hold an event like this in the borough?
“A lot of towns outside the major cities have had an especially rough time over the past decade.
Post-industrial towns and cities need culture more than ever and culture, ideas and creativity is something that this country excels in.
Culture will eventually drive commerce and culture needs hubs to thrive. That’s why events like the British Textile Biennial in a town like Blackburn are so important right now.
I am very grateful that there were others in adidas who shared my vision to make this happen.
Ultimately its appeal extends way beyond Blackburn with Darwen with people coming from all over the U.K. and overseas. I have had messages from people who are travelling from Belgium, Holland, Germany… even Australia!
With this project, we are hosting a hub for what is a much broader audience than the one that exists purely in the town.
It’s an opportunity to showcase the town to people who would be unlikely to travel here otherwise and give local businesses a boost.
I am pleased that the Council are making efforts to ensure that the town centre looks the best it can when this is on.”
What kind of audience is the exhibition aimed at?
“Everyone from ardent adidas collectors and aficionados right through to school children and college kids. It ought to be of interest to anyone with a passing interest in design/sport/history/fashion/culture…
Trainers are something that have a broad appeal and that appeal is not limited by – or specific to – any age, race or gender.
We also have a local schools and national colleges program tied into the exhibition.
Blackburn town centre doesn’t have the passing footfall of a major city so the additional extra-curricular events are to raise awareness and help to drive that. ”
What can people expect from the exhibition and programme of events?
“The events should be a lot of fun and where possible we are marrying up big names with local talents.
Goldie will be playing the Windsor Suite with local sound system Dropjaw Audio.
Dynamo will inevitably draw in huge interest – as will Blackburn comedian Tez Ilyas.
For me personally it’s great to acknowledge one of Blackburn’s major contributions to popular culture by celebrating the acid house years – especially after that scene was so demonised by the establishment at the time.
It wouldn’t have been right to do this in the year of Live the Dream’s 30th anniversary without giving a nod to that in some way.
It’s great to bring Primal Scream to Blackburn for ‘Live the Scream’ and have Tommy Smith of Hardcore Uproar host it.
We plan to have Blackburn band The Illicits and Gabe Gurnsey of Factory Floor supporting and then a bunch of local dance music DJs playing afterwards – alongside Hacienda legend Graeme Park.
We are putting on a trainer exhibition here that has never been done to this standard or scale anywhere on the planet ever before.
Given how popular trainer culture is in 2019 it puts the town on an international stage and as far as I’m concerned that is a big deal.”
What would your advice be to a young designer from the borough who’s just starting out?
“Work hard. Be reliable (that’s a really big one!) and show enthusiasm.
Treat education like an apprenticeship and make as many contacts as you can while you are doing it.
Always remember that it’s nice to be nice.”
Full event details: spezialblackburn.com