We Speak To Oi Polloi's Nigel Lawson About The Ardwick
Manchester menswear retailer Oi Polloi has become a local institution since opening its doors in the early '00s. It has been the go-to spot in the region for the best in adidas trainers, and alongside the adidas Spezial showcase that happened back in October, they finally had the chance to create their own special adidas sneaker that best represented the Manchester street style. Initially slated to be released when the exhibition was in town, issues with manufacturing led to a delay that generated even more hype for the Oi Polloi x adidas Originals Adwick. Finally, the Adwick will be released this Sunday at 8AM in-store, we got to chat with Oi Polloi shot caller Nigel Lawson in the eve of the release...
Your store has been opened for over ten years now, Tell us about what made you decide to open a clothing store initially?
We opened Oi Polloi in 2002, 12 years ago. My friend Steve mentioned that he wanted to sell trainers in the window of his hairdressers, and I had a dream at this point about this store that sold bikes, toys and the best clothes. So we found a space and I just put a list together of things we’d like to sell in the shop. And that list of maybe twelve items has now grown to over 150 brands!
You are quite new to the trainer-collaboration game, so how was it to work on your first adidas Sneaker?
adidas is my favourite brand, so doing the colab shoe was like when they opened the Arc of The Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark...it was the golden chalice, the Holy Grail. It was a big thing for me, the only thing bigger would be doing another 20 or 30 sneakers with them. I do hope adidas are reading this. When I was a kid everyone used to wear the adidas Kick. I wanted a pair of Leaders which were white leather with green stripes, a bit like the Rom. The Rom was obviously a bigger shoe, but for me the Leader was the one I wanted when I was 10, back in 1978. In 1974 I got a leaf green t-shirt with 3 navy stripes and a navy sticker that I used to wear with my Wrangler jeans and my crap trainers from the market ‘cause I didn’t even know what adidas were. I got bought this t-shirt as a present and I wore it more than any other item of clothing.
Years later I used to go running for the Stockport Harriers and I had a pair of TRX Training. I remember waking up the day after I bought them and checking under the bed to make sure the blue and white box with the little sports stick people on the side was actually there and it wasn’t just part of a dream. Then over the years I started collecting up the original made in West Germany, made in France, made in Yugoslavia and made in Austria adidas trainers. I collect many things, but in the clothing world, nothing tops trainers from adidas. So yeah, the collaboration is a real big deal for me.
Your history with adidas is quite impressive, Nigel. Tell us about your obsession with the three stripes?
It’s hard to say what it is. Variety, quality, originality, the tones, the textures, the gum, the suede, the infinite diversity of these simple shoes. It’s the shape when you wear them. That was the thing as a kid, a nice pair of cord trousers and a pair of suede indoor squash shoes. It was the shape, the toe and the stripes. You’d have a pair of Louis bleached jeans with the little cut up the in-seam, spreading over a pair of pale blue adidas Jeans trainers, a Wrangler shirt and slightly long hair with a certain walk, the way the feet turn out 35 degrees, one hand in the back pocket and the other outstretched. So yeah, it was around me a lot. It was the most important part of the whole outfit.
At Oi Polloi, you sold vintage trainers before you started selling the regular stuff. Where did you get the OG trainers from and how did you go about finding them?
It was a hell of a lot easier than it is now. It was still impossible, but there was the last remnants of old stock in sports shops. In the late '80s and early '90s, you could go into sports shops and find big piles of things. I used to go to Bourne Sports in Stoke and find old Nike, New Balance and adidas running shoes.
By the time we started Oi Polloi it was impossible, but a new tool had turned up called eBay, so we started searching around the world on that. In 2003, I found a shop on eBay in Copenhagen that sold rare bits of vinyl and a had a sneaker store in the back that sold deadstock, boxed shoes for around £70. So I got £3000 in cash and got the next plane over. When I first got there I left my bag at the hostel and walked across the city at about one in the morning. A couple of miles later I found the address, and sure enough the store room light was on and there was a kid in there. So I knocked on the window and the guy said, “What do you want?”
I said, “I want to buy some trainers.”
"Come around the back," and sure enough there were these amazing trainers, some I’d never seen before.
He then said, “We haven’t got that much here, how long are you around for?”
I said, “Three or four days, whatever it takes.”
“Okay, hire a car and come back here tomorrow morning and me and my pal will take you to buy some more."
The next day I hire the car and turn up. The man from the night before went to Christiania to buy a nice block of ‘cheese’ and we set off on this road trip. It was almost like going from Manchester to Scotland, but I didn’t take any notice of where I was going as I couldn’t read any of the signs. They took me to this old hunting shop that was somewhere north of Copenhagen by about four or five hours. They had Fjallraven, they had Norrona, they had swiss army knives, they had camping equipment and they had adidas trainers, it was little bit like Oi Polloi. The guys that took me there said, “Go and wait in the car, we’re not going to introduce you to the guy who owns the store.” So about an hour had gone past by which point I’d gone to sleep in this estate car when they knocked on the door. They had 60 boxed pairs of deadstock made in West Germany, made in Yugoslavia, made in France adidas trainers.
It was a brilliant haul. I got 20 pairs. I gave them 35 quid for each pair and then carefully flatpacked all the boxes down into a holdall. I got back to Manchester a couple of days later, put all the shoes out and sold them all within a week, all for £150 a pair. This money went back into buying Fjallraven coats and was the foundation of Oi Polloi. It was a great haul and my favourite haul.
Now the prices are so high on eBay that it’s not really like collecting, it’s more of an investment. That’s why guys out there are paying a thousand pounds for a pair of adidas Jeans.
Adidas and the Casual culture is strongly connected in the UK all over, we guess it was the same in Manchester? How did you fall in love with the culture?
This is sort of like soapbox time isn’t it really? Casual was a term that I heard around about 1982, in Manchester it was called ‘Perry Boy’. This culture started in the end of the sixties, got bigger in the seventies and by the end of the seventies it was part of a connected look with football. I suppose it was because there wasn’t really much to do in Manchester other then music and fashion and the connection between the two. Star Wars as well, you’ve got Luke with his tight drain-pipe trousers, and his big baggy top and long Perry Boy haircut. Everyone had that haircut.
It’s being from Manchester and wanting to be with the crowd and wanting to outdo the crowd. One-upmanship within the safe ranks of your peers. It was a group thing and everyone wanted to be an individual within this group. And this group seems to have been around this city for quite some time.
Let's talk about this trainer, the California is a very rare model, how did you manage to lay your hands on your original pair?
I was doing one of those eBay searches that you do when you should be working. Everyone would say, “What are you looking for?” and I’d always say the same thing...“I don’t know.” The searches would get deeper and deeper as I’d flick between countries. So I was searching and then, “Oh, what the hell are these shoes?”
They look like Tobacco but they’ve got a black foxing all the way around. They say they’re size 11 and there’s only one picture and it’s black and white. I won them for £27 to put in the shop. I didn’t think too much of it until I was opening up these packages. I open this bag and I was like, “These are my size.” Throughout the whole casual culture with the cord trousers there was always this obsession, which seems to have been lost, with having a really short toe on a shoe. But the toe on these was so short that it almost looked like a rock-climbing shoe. I’d just found the ultimate pair of shoes - the ultimate pair of adidas… and no-one knew what they were.
It wasn’t until a few years later when Gary Aspden came to see us to show us his Spezial range. He showed us a few pictures from old catalogues of the shoes he wanted to produce and I started to get a little excited, and then he flicked this photograph into the centre of the table like a man throwing the ace on top of the three aces that had already been played… he was throwing the ace of spades onto the table, but I had a full house, ‘cause I said I’ve got them. He didn’t have them but he wanted to borrow them to get the shape right, I told him no! These things are more important than the family pet! Eventually he persuaded me to take this original California to Germany to rebuild this shoe for him, but there was an alterior motive there, and that was that he said we could do our own colourway. And that’s where the Ardwick came from.
Why is it called the Ardwick and not the California anymore?
It’s a local place with a large amount of history. Gary wanted to call them Mersey, but then everyone would just say it was Mersey, as in Liverpool (even though the Mersey starts in Stockport). So it couldn’t be called Mersey. We then thought about Ancoats as that’s near Oi Polloi, we couldn’t call it Manchester as there’s already been a Manchester. Manchester GT was a name I was quite into, but these funny little villages around Manchester were what I felt stronger connected to. It sort of took it beyond being a Manchester shoe. Outside of the UK they won’t know what Ardwick is, and outside of Manchester they won’t know what Ardwick is.
My friend John the Duck said, “What the fuck have you called them Ardwick for? That’s a bad vibe, it’s just full of prostitutes and heroin addicts.” And yeah, it’s a hard place. It’s the home of the Apollo theatre. Also, the road that comes from where I’m from in Hazel Grove in Stockport, and the road that comes from where my business partner Steve is from in Ashton, meet here.
I also like the idea of these adidas trainers like the Tahiti Marine that have the name and the colour. Ardwick Green is a park in Ardwick so that within the name of the shoe you’ve got the colour. I’ve always liked green things whether it’s the green stripe on a Burn or a dark green Tobacco. Even the Beastie Boys mentioned green adidas in one of their old magazines. Saying how you could only get these green trainers in Europe.
I wanted them to be the sort of thing and older man could wear. Me at 46, I can’t really wear a really bold sports shoe with confidence, but at the age of 11 I saw the relevance of this type of tonal shoe. I wanted it to be quite simple and to follow the lead of the California (which is now going to be called the Topanga because of legal wranglings with the state).
So yeah, it’s named after Ardwick Green. This has some very big, grand houses around it and back in the industrial revolution it was the Beverley Hills of Manchester. These big houses were all owned by the mills owners. I saw my friend on the street and I said, “Check it out, we’re doing an Oi Polloi adidas called the Ardwick,” and he went, “Oh, you mean like the Manchester Man. The Cottonopolis.” The Manchester Man is a book about the industrial revolution and Ardwick Green was the centre of what was at the time known as Cottonopolis. Cottonopolis is the name of my in-house clothing brand, so it all connected.
It was kind of a fluke, or a bit of magic, it depends how you look at things. And that’s why it’s called the Ardwick.
What do you think about the current state of the sneaker collaboration game?
It’s good for the kids who want to collect it, but would I wear any of it? No. Would Oi Polloi sell any of it? Not very often. Some of the younger kids come in wearing a certain pair of shoes and it looks like the machine in the factory has gone a bit wrong - these shoes are not stylish. They’re a mishmash. Certain shapes and certain shoes get so bastardised by the variety of awful colours that get slapped on. Just look at poor old L.A. Trainer, what a shame. Yeah there’s young guys that want to wear this stuff, that’s why they make them, but to me it’s just like sacrilege.
Hopefully the Ardwick, even with the tongue-in-cheek name, will re-address some of the shapes of the vintage, classic, beautiful adidas shoes that I saw as a kid. That’s why we shrank the Oi Polloi bit down to such a small thing, I didn’t want it to be an Oi Polloi advert.
What will the future bring for Oi Polloi? More colabs?
Daniel Bauer at adidas has got the answers. So if enough people email him saying you must make some Oi Polloi adidas, then maybe there’ll be some more.