Richard Benson: Trainer For Thought
Black trainers have a tendency to look a bit wrong, really. They sound like a good idea, because black ought to suit such tough, purposeful and utilitarian footwear, and yet somehow they can end up looking dull – not only dull, but almost like something one might have been given by the NHS in the 1950s to help with problem feet.
Yes, I know Nike Roshes look nice in black, and there’s the black-upper/ white-sole Air Max 1, and those very early Jil Sander Pumas, but look at the rest: even trainers as beautiful as the Adidas Superstar and New Balance 576 look clumpy in black, and the black Reebok NPC II, a strange 1980s throwback of which many people seem inexplicably fond, has a good claim to be the least appealing sneaker in history. The NPC II has a peculiar design to start with, and like so many other sports shoes, it seems somehow lengthened to clown-shoe proportions by that colourway.
So it is perhaps surprising that one of the most interesting and potentially significant trainers of recent times should only be available in black, its colour part of its whole point. The Nike Blacklisted Nike Air Max BW, a pared-back version of the Air Max Classic, was designed in collaboration with the London grime artist Skepta and released this spring. Skepta, if you don’t know, is 33-year old Joseph Junior Adenuga from Totteham, north London, brother of radio presenter Julie Adenuga and fellow recording artist Jason Adenuga, known as Jme. At the time of writing, Skepta’s album Konnichiwa was number two, being held off the top only by Radiohead, he had recently featured in an ad campaign for Uniqlo and, like other London grime musicians, he was making inroads into the American market.
Skepta’s relationship with fashion features in some of his tracks. To be fair, fashion and clothes are a fairly common theme in grime as a whole, but particularly meaningful for him. “Fashion week and it’s shutdown / Went to the show sitting in the front row / In the black tracksuit and it’s shutdown,” he rapped in last year’s Shutdown, presumably referencing the Nasir Mazhar show in which Mazhar showed a jacket designed in partnership with the artist. The black tracksuit is the important bit there. When he hit mainstream success in the “grime wave” (TM all music writers ever) that saw him and his peers achieving chart success circa 2010, he was rocking Vuitton and Gucci and the rest, but then, in 2014, he abruptly renounced them in much-quoted lines in That’s Not Me: “Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin ’cause that’s not me / True, I used to look like you / But dressing like a mess? Nah, that’s not me.” (When he repeats this later in the song, the Gucci becomes LV.)
He has since made it clear in interviews that he was rejecting high-end labels because their marketing didn’t feature people like him and his peers, who were buying them for the status. “I was just getting tired of going to the area where I hang around and different estates and seeing the kids hanging round, always looking stressed out and troubled. But they’d always have a $500 bag and Balenciaga trainers,” he said earlier this year. “You can do so much with that money. When I was younger, I was influenced by the guys who were older than me, so I thought maybe it was my time – because I can afford to buy Gucci or Louis if I want, let’s be real – to sacrifice, because I thought maybe these kids are doing it because of me. So I wanted to get back to wearing clothes that are for us. The marketing teams at Nike and JD Sports, they came for us. The people modelling in the windows are people like Jamal from SBTV. I want the kids to see that maybe they should be aligning themselves not just with a price range, but the people who are designing for you.”
This seems an interesting quote in a time when we are often told that youth politics and youth culture aren’t what they were, that apathy and consumerism have triumphed, that fashion is all about the big brands. Skepta and other grime artists do reference fashion and brands – he has said he favours unbranded black attire, but he also uses brands as signifiers, as with Nike and Sports Direct. He has referenced the latter in videos, and did a promo event for Konnichiwa in a Sports Direct store. But the relationship with them might prompt some marketing managers and journalists to have a rethink.
“Grime style” – not a phrase anyone would really use – is both easy and difficult to describe. It’s basically high-street sportswear, mostly Nike, mostly darker colours. As with any people in any place or time, the more stylish kids have a way of putting it together that looks particularly good, but the point is that it’s street fashion that people wear every day. It’s real and ordinary, which is why referring to it as a style at all seems wrong, though it does carry meanings and charges. Like the sound and lyrics of grime, it was a reaction against the high-rolling bling of UK garage in the early 2000s. As Tony Portelli, the owner of 4Liberty Records and a veteran of the garage scene recalls, “Grime MCs and artists evolved from UK garage in London with pirate radio instrumental. UK garage originated from US garage/house music, with the added sprinkle of jungle/D&B, to make the sound bigger and rougher for ‘club culture’. US/UK garage music was about partying; grime was telling a social story, describing day-to-day life, and that led those young Londoners down the street- clothing path. Brands like Nike were the natural mirror image.”
That naturalness and comfort are the point. “Grime is about pure expression and the freedom to be yourself, to say how you feel, being real,” says Zezi Ifore, a DJ and TV presenter and one of the most insightful commentators on the London music scene. “It sounds too deep to say the clothes are a reaction to something, but they’re about where you come from.” If that doesn’t sound “deep” enough, bear in mind, as Ifore points out, that if you’re black and in the wrong part of town, simply wearing a hoodie can get you banned from venues and hassled by the police. In that context, a simple bit of sportswear becomes anything but simple.
The Blacklisted Nike Air Max BW is full of nuances. The austere black lines pick up perennial associations between wearing black and alienation, but insiders will also note the air pocket, which Nike made bigger than it would have been on the regular shoe. That would have pleased anyone who remembers the excitement you got from the size of the air pocket in new Air Maxes. “I remember when the Air Max 97 came out,” says Ifore, who grew up in south London in the 1990s. “The first time I saw them, it was in an advert in my sister’s Vibe magazine. They were silver with reflective bits, but most important, they had made the air cushion go all the way around. I thought it would be like walking on a cloud. I just stared and went, ‘Oh. My. GOD.’”
Nike is the only brand Skepta would have wanted, if not the only one he would have worked with. He and his peers belong to the generation who, as kids in the early to mid- 1990s, were captivated by Nike’s incredible run of trainer innovation that brought us, among others, the Nike Air Maxes 90, 95 and 97. Adidas’s 1970s throwbacks might have appealed up north, New Balance and Converse shone in Shoreditch, but in diverse, inner-city London, it was always all about Nike. As Ekow Eshun, the author
and cultural commentator, says, “That’s because so much of our imagery was from the US, and Nike always had the men who were dominant in US sport – black gods like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tiger Woods.
“With Adidas, the key references are to football and to Europe. With Nike, it’s about figures who were not only sportsmen, but entrepreneurial, self-made, serious, cultural players who could say, ‘The world is mine’, but who had done it all on their own terms. That was the same dream you were chasing – the dream you have to chase, because you can’t expect mainstream society to give success to you.”
And there’s the point. Disillusioned with the mainstream, grime artists have famously used the internet and social media to build a strong and highly successful independent scene. The drive has not been solely about money; it has also been about disbelieving anger with mainstream media and businesses who nick ideas from black subculture while doing nothing to support it or challenge the racism that affects it. Ifore: “So much style has been borrowed from working-class black kids and yet there has been no change in our power or position in society. Models wear hoodies or trainers or rude-girl hairstyles, and it’s seen as rebellious and exciting, but if someone of colour wears them, they’re seen as thugs or lowlife. And now see privileged kids – art-school kids or whatever – picking up on the style without knowing what it’s built on, and it makes me sick.
“This is why what Skepta is doing is so important, showing people they can be proud of who they really are. He’s made it political, and by taking ownership of his own culture, he’s got the brands coming to him. That changes things. Now people can copy it all they like, but now there is an alternative voice to the appropriation.”
Of course you can say it’s only a trainer, it’s only a tracksuit, it’s only about music. But then again, it’s hard to think of another example of a youth culture understanding its value to the organisations who, for decades, have found it so easy to use and drop it as and when they wanted. I’m sure someone will be able to cite precedents here and there, but for labels to be told that their inspirations know what’s going on, and want a say or else they’re not playing, seems quite new to me, and something of which the fashion industry should perhaps take note. That’s not just a black trainer.
Text by Richard Benson
Illustration by Charles Jeffrey
Taken from Issue 44 of 10 Men, TRIBE PACK QUEST, on newsstands now…