Creative Soccer Culture

Gary Aspden Reflects On 10 Years Of adidas Spezial & Spotlights The Label’s DECADE Event

As adidas Spezial celebrates its 10-year anniversary in style with the DECADE event, curator and creator, Gary Aspden talks about what the journey has been like, diving deep into the ideology behind the label.

The brainchild of Gary Aspden, adidas Spezial is the premium, archive-inspired offshoot of the Three Stripes brand that has its roots firmly in football heritage, mainly due to the influential impact of adidas in the sport through the 70s, 80s and 90s. Now, it’s celebrating 10 years of existence, and it's doing so in style, with a special (Spezial?) DECADE event hosted over a week (Friday 17 – Sunday 26 May) in Aspden’s home town of Darwen in Lancashire. Featuring the complete adidas SPZL footwear archive and highlights from the 10 years of apparel collections in an extensive exhibition, and accompanied by the unveiling of the luxurious coffee table collector’s piece that is the retrospective adidas SPZL DECADE book, it’s a fitting tribute to the milestone anniversary.

Spezial started out in 2014 as a passion project for Aspden that breathed new life into influential silhouette’s from the adidas backcatalogue, and for this reason he’s always referred to himself as curator rather than designer. But as the years rolled by and the collections continued coming, it evolved to became more than just a sub-label, garnering a premium reputation amongst fans and an almost cult-like following thanks to the “if-you-know-you-know” presence of the Modernist Trefoil logo. Its allure was at once a throwback to Terrace Culture of old and to the Casuals movement, but it also became more than that, perfectly combining the thirst for all things nostalgic with a sense of modernism. It epitomised Aspden’s formative “we glance at the past without staring at it” mantra that’s at the heart of the Spezial ideology.

“Spezial has to be modern and have appeal for those who have little or no nostalgic attachment to adidas,” Aspden previously explained to us when we spoke with him around the Pre-Spring ’22 collection. “One of the biggest misconceptions about Spezial is that it's mainly worn by older guys. Maybe that was true in the first few seasons but there are tons of younger people who are getting into Spezial now.” A point exemplified by the presence of the likes of Scott Wharton, Harry Leonard and Ryan Hedges from Aspden’s beloved Blackburn Rovers at the DECADE event.

Embracing the community feel that the label brings to its fans 10 years deep, what started as a concept years ago has now become a staple for many. With the DECADE event in full swing, and the luxurious coffee table collector’s piece that is the adidas SPZL DECADE book complete, it felt like the perfect time to touch base with Aspden once again, to reflect on what has been and what is to come.

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10 years of adidas Spezial – what are your overriding memories and emotions when you look back on that time?

It's been a trip – it started out as a two season deal so the fact we are here 10 years later is a testament to the dedicated support it has received from the customers. I worked behind the scenes with adidas for 15 years before the SPZL range launched and I always wanted to work directly with product so you could say that this fulfils an ambition for me.

It’s well known that Spezial draws from the adidas archives, but where do you personally get your inspiration from? 

Growing up I guess I was in the right places at the right times so I guess those personal experiences contributed to my style and taste so that inevitably informs what we do.

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Heading into the Decade event, what pieces stand out as your favourites from the last 10 years and why? 

The Lacombe SPZL from the Summer ’16 collection is my favourite summer shoe (we are about to do a tenth anniversary version) and the Winterhill SPZL from the AW17 collection is my favourite winter shoe – for me it's the perfect shoe for going to football as it's sturdy, waterproof and not too clumpy. I love the second Beckenbauer tracksuit in navy piquet (it was a very expensive suit due to the fabrication but has stood the test of time), and am very proud of the Haslingden Camo jacket that we did with C.P. Company a couple of years back. That process of collaboration was a great experience. I am still in contact with Lorenzo Osti and Paul Harvey so we may do something again at some point.

The DECADE book looks amazing – how did that come about, and how nice is it to have something tangible to tell the story like that?

Thanks for saying so. We wanted to create an object that has permanence – an artefact to cement the collectibility of what we have built. It felt like the best medium for the stills photography of the footwear. It could have been a much bigger book had we gone to the same level of depth and detail on the apparel and accessories. Maybe we do that in the future as some pieces of the apparel appear to be becoming increasingly collectible.

We’ve seen SPZL events in Blackburn, Newcastle, Manchester – what have you taken from these when planning DECADE?

DECADE is very different to those – the thread I guess is the metal and glass shoe cabinets used in the staging, but this exhibition is purely about the adidas SPZL range, where as the others have shared the stage with other Originals collections. There are some vintage shoes in there from my personal collection and other adidas collectors that were used as points of inspiration or were references for 1:1 bring backs (although we don't do many of those nowadays). We also have a whole section showing early prototypes that hopefully help to show the design process. There are cases of ephemera that include press imagery and technical drawings as well as the original proposal that I sent to adidas back in 2013. This exhibition is the first time we have introduced an apparel element. It isn't by any means completist but it includes a pretty comprehensive selection (and a few pieces that people won't have ever seen before).

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Spezial has its roots firmly in the North, but do you think you’ll ever see more of a venture down South than what’s happened so far?

We did the first ever exhibition in the Hoxton gallery in 2013 and have done product names that relate to London (eg Wardour jacket) and the south coast (eg the Portslade bag) but it's inevitable that the north is a major influence. Despite having been based in London for many years the north is where I am from so that tends to come through in what I create. I often draw inspiration from the 80s and early 90s as  in my book it was the best time in history for style and fashion. The first era of the adidas Trefoil logo from 72 to 92 is always my go to design-wise.

The story behind the product was important in the early days of Spezial, but that has given way to the product itself in recent years, which speaks volumes through its quality. What is it about a product that makes it standout for you? 

This may sound silly to those who aren't into adidas product but it's about understanding that just putting three stripes and a logo onto a garment or shoe may make it an adidas product but to make it a product that feels truly like adidas it has to go beyond that. In the early seasons of SPZL we were extremely economic with our use of the three stripes - especially on apparel. This forced us to examine what it was in the product that made it feel inherently adidas, if you will, and rather than simply using the brand marks we had to lean on less obvious design cues and try and understand the origins of the product. We try to make products that have a genuine adidas sensibility about them.

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The way football culture has shifted over the last 10 to 15 years has been huge, and Spezial perfectly walks that line between the past and the present. How do you perceive the direction of modern football culture and where SPZL sits in it? 

I actually prefer Championship football to the Premier League – not for the quality of the football played but for the fact it's a bit less 'shiny' if you know what I mean. Football fashion has changed. I believe the idea of being 'in the know' has become less of a consideration with the rise of the internet. There will always be those who are into the one upmanship of seeking out new brands and there will always be regional differences in the styling of football fans. There is no definitive answer to what football culture is. From the uniformity of mobs of Ultras dressed in all black to those who still seek out vintage 80s pieces to the new generation of young heads who continue to embrace that look – it's pretty multi faceted. adidas has always had its place in football culture and I believe that the brand understands football in a way that its rivals don't, and I guess what we have done with SPZL is simply a modern extension of that adidas legacy. SPZL looks to Europe for its inspiration rather than the US which is a major factor in its identity.

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SPZL has undoubtedly become a community over the last decade. How proud are you of that?

I’m very proud of it. I have always tried to let people know that their support is appreciated because it is. When it first started it was only a two season deal but it was the reaction of the customers and the way they embraced it that has enabled it to continue. I guess I front the range so I get held personally responsible for everything which can be frustrating as there are limitations that many on the outside of the company won't understand or appreciate. There are many elements like distribution, volumes, quality control, pricing etc. that I have no control over.

What’s the most rewarding part of releasing a collection for you?

Seeing people wearing it in my day to day life – especially at the football. I love the fact that SPZL has never been about hype and resellers. The experiential value of people engaging with the products has always been key and seeing people wearing it well is the highest compliment.

What does the next 10 years of Spezial hold?

That's a question for adidas…they ultimately are the ones who decide whether to extend the contracts. I guess at some point I will need to retire!

The DECADE – 10 Years of adidas SPZL Exhibition is open in Darwen, Lancashire until 26 May at 14 Market Street, BB3 1AZ.  

About the Author
Dan Jones

The veteran of the team. It's not the years, it's the mileage. Some of his greatest achievements include playing (and scoring) at Anfield, Goodison and Camp Nou, and he'll happily talk you through all three (in great detail) over a nice cuppa. Specialises in boots and kits and will happily talk you through them (in great detail) over a nice cuppa – although you might need something stronger...

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