If you were heavy into the London vintage scene back in the mid-nineties, chances are you bought some of your rarest get-up from the stallholders at Camden Market or Portobello Road. In that case, you probably met Russ. When Russ met Dan, who shared an addictive obsession with the Swoosh, it was the foundation of a fashion career that would turn into the “in-joke” that is the Trainerspotter brand. Flicking through their power portfolio of Nike vintage apparel and footwear, it becomes apparent that the brand is a paean to those carefree days in Camden, when eBay didn’t exist and the only way to score your Tailwind or Bermudas was to be schooled by a spotty spotter who then served up a rare treat in a red box. But there is more to this apparel brand than endless parody of the Beavertonites – we sent Mafia to nail their nuts to a Night Track and find out some more. We windjamming now!
Hey boys, what’s up? Give us the quick lowdown on how Trainerspotter started and how you guys went from your hometown Brighton to blowing up the racks of the world?
We had the initial concept for the brand in 2002 when Dan was running a sneaker store, and I was a fashion lecturer at a University. I ran a stall at Portobello and Camden markets in the ‘90s specialising in rare sneakers and sportswear and I met Dan who’d been collecting for years through a mutual friend. It turned out that we’d hit a lot of the same sports stores looking for stuff years earlier. The brand started life as an in-joke really, we hand-printed some t-shirts with our favourite obscure sneakers on them, references to Jeff Johnson (a TS hero, designer of the Sting, LDV, LD1000, Tailwind) and designs subverting rare ‘70s Nike shirts. A store in Brighton saw them, and wanted to stock them, next thing we know we’re getting calls from Cinch in London, Beams in Tokyo and it took off from there!
It’s obvious your label is heavily inspired by your love of vintage Nike sneakers and apparel…
Yep, Nike plays a big part in what we do, primarily in terms of a business blueprint and the attraction of the legend; their history is so much more interesting than other brands. Our main aim for the brand from the outset was to tell the stories behind sneaker culture that nobody had heard before. We were always most interested in the true roots - sport. Our heroes have always been Steve Prefontaine, Jeff Johnson, Geoff Hollister, McEnroe, Rudi Dassler and so on. Also Phil Knight - love him or loathe him - the man almost single handily revolutionised how we approach sport. All of our t-shirt designs have a specific narrative, an inspirational story behind them, and we always try to make them work on an aesthetic level so it’s not necessary to understand the references to appreciate it. Our handmade windjammers have been in the collection since the beginning and obviously have a direct relation to late ‘70s windjammers in cut and style, hopefully we’re credited with successfully subverted the jacket now to a point where its meaning has changed.
Collectors in the UK are generally more into their Adidas or Puma. Do you have any other brands in the closet?
The UK is most definitely adidas and Puma driven. This is due to the link between these brands as the first sports trainers readily available in England and post-1966 football culture. It was really in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that Football Casuals or Terrace Boys really started to explore sports footwear. Supporters for clubs such as Liverpool, Villa, Forest and Spurs were travelling regularly to European games and would come back with styles not available in the UK. They also bought back and introduced new brands like Diadora and Fila. This was the first time that sneakers were used as a means of communication and looked at in a hierarchical sense, that one style was better and more exclusive than another.
So just how deep is your sneaker collection?
Deep! The Trainerspotter Nike collection at last count runs about 550 pairs, mostly ’72-‘84, with a large amount of apparel, ads, posters and other ephemera. We meet a lot of people through the brand and are always in awe of other people’s collections, particularly our good friend Lindy Darrell.
Tell us about the Nike Clogs. How did you meet Lisa Mckillips?
We never actually met Lisa, only spoke to her regarding the clogs! We found the clogs in the States and tracked down Lisa through Nike Archives, and she told us the story. In 1981, Rob Strasser’s first year as a Nike exec in Europe, he purchased blank Dutch wooden clogs and had them sprayed and stencilled at the U.K factory with the Nike logo and matchstick heel company name. He then shipped 30 pairs to Nike headquarters in Oregon to the most important Nike people of the time, Knight, Johnson, Bowerman. The clogs were presented at a meeting in Beaverton, each pair had a specific name and shoe size written in pencil on the soles. The blue and white clogs in the Trainerspotter collection belonged originally to Lisa Mckillips who joined the company in the BRS early days, ten months before Steve Prefontaine's fatal car accident in 1975. Lisa was and still is a 10k runner, and is currently Phil Knights secretary!
Ha! She’s close to the source. If only Nike had thought to make them out of rubber and call them Crocs?
I can just imagine the Air Croc. I’m sure it would sell a few million.
I was so impressed to read on your website that “true collectors are driven not by trends, fashion, re-issues or collaborations, but by an in-depth appreciation of the aesthetic and history of the particular shoe”. Assuming this can also be said for streetwear, how then does Trainerspotter differentiate itself from all the hyped brands and bloggers of today?
We try to stay away from the hype generally, keep our heads down and concentrate on making the brand better. We don’t do any PR or pay any advertising company; everything we do is by word of mouth. We ignore transitory fashion trends in favour of almost doing what everyone else isn’t doing. The windjammers for example, we were making these jackets out of floral fabric, animal prints, leather, and heritage fabrics back in 2003, a long time before other brands latched onto this. It’s difficult because once something becomes mainstream, people forget where it began. The brand’s integrity is something that’s very important to us so we choose what we do careful, and try not get involved with the various cliques that surround sneaker culture.
Are you bummed when everyone jumps on board the thing you've been doing for ages? What do you do then?
I think that’s the nature of fashion, you can’t have everything to yourself, you can only hope that people recognise who did it first. We can’t shout too loudly anyway as most of what we do takes something from the past, mixes it up and reintroduces it for a new generation. We’ve always maintained the ethos that we keep our heads down and if we think something’s cool, we’ll do it. Although, it is nice when people from Nike tell you that the reason certain old Nike t-shirts and products were reissued is because of something you did.
Do you think you'll ever get invited into the COLAB apparel project?
We've got some good friends at Nike in Oregon, but I think what we do is almost too close for comfort sometimes. Some of the people involved in these projects don't appreciate the subversion of the ‘official line’ as much as they should, and some of them just don’t get it.
Nike’s apparel seems to perpetually struggle against adidas - how do you see their modern stuff?
Nike have always had problems with their apparel as far back as 1977 when the line began. It’s the application of sportswear as fashion that some brands can’t work out and also a concept of what works on a street level. The reissue orange swoosh t-shirts were cool but most of the other stuff just doesn't hit the mark. Adidas has always done great reissues first and foremost whereas Nike always wants to mess with it or they'll reissue a shoe or jacket that's absolutely nothing like the original and expect people to buy it. I think the new Vintage Running Collection is the best thing they've done in years, I've got a sample pair of the Bermudas are they are absolutely spot on. Hopefully they'll continue with it and we'll see a Colorado or Caribou some time soon.
There's plenty of brands out there that blatantly mimic Nike... do you see this well ever running out of puff?
I think there's a certain amount of mileage in mimicking other brands but people can only take so much. We've never seen ourselves as mimicking Nike, rather than subverting it's history. Our designs usually have multiple references to a variety of sources and hopefully they work on a number of levels!
What's your opinion of the MIKE brand? Does their level of parody become totally overcooked at some point?
We don't really have an opinion of the MIKE brand except to say that we made a range of t-shirts with the MIKE reference around 2 years before that brand appeared. Obviously the original reference goes back to Nike’s first hand lettered t-shirts given out at the 1972 US Olympic Trials in Eugene. The Nike logo was written in cursive script and everybody who was given one remarked ‘Who's Mike?’. Not long after the block letter logo was introduced.
Are you as enthusiastic about the new wave of Nike product as you are about the vintage stuff you collect?
Not really! We like some of the new stuff, the Free series shoes are cool. I think 1986 was when it started to slide for us, there were still some excellent styles to come but nothing in comparison to what had been.
Cop that! Collaboration wise, you have done your fair share, recently teaming up with Patta for the dope Varsity jacket and the Lifestyle S.M.U. windjammer. How do you conceive projects with these other labels?
We get a lot of offers from brands but generally prefer to work with the stores themselves. I think collaborations can be tricky because you can easily go down a route that could end with a product that doesn’t really reflect the brand the way you want it to. The ideas seem to flow when you’re working alongside other creative people, such as Gee and Edson from Patta, it makes for an enjoyable and interesting process. We’ve collaborated with a lot of stores now including Beams Tokyo, Cali Roots Stockholm, Bodega Boston and Microzine London.
What’s next on the horizon with Trainerspotter?
There’s collaborations in the pipeline with US brand MISHKA and Japanese brand KIKSTYO, these will probably be in stores SS08, which is exciting, some cool products for French electro superstar Kaminski and then hopefully making our mark Down Under. Otherwise, we’ll just keep on keeping on as usual!