In Praise Of Reebok Classics

Hey, remember when Reebok Classics were the shoe of choice for "burglars" and "tracksuit and baseball cap wearing chavs after goods to sell for their next hit of crack"? Well the Daily Mail does. And even though they aren't the most reliable source of measured social commentary, they still allude to a perhaps less rabid strand of public sentiment at the time, i.e. if you wore Reebok Classics you were a shifty fucker.

It's hard to imagine now. The explosion of grime has put artists wearing Nike and Adidas in the centre of Radio One pop culture. Streetwear emporiums like us here at Wavey Garms and Duke's Cupboard sell vintage Classics, Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts and Ralph Lauren puffas to white middle class art students (Shouts to Goldsmiths Uni for giving us business all year round). Brands like Supreme and Off White have become high end fashion – partnering with classic brands like Louis Vuitton. The hipster's been replaced with a new type of lad. Sportswear isn't just for 'lowlifes': rich kids can wear Kappa trousers without fear of reprisal or mockery from their peers or parents. And amidst it all – the subcultures and social statuses – is the revival of the most egalitarian shoe ever made, the Reebok Classic.

"This is the not the first time the Classic has been marketed in retro terms or in terms of how the trainers were worn in the past," says Alistair O' Neill, fashion historian at Central Saint Martins. "I think now trainer manufacturers are more ready to reboot former designs to fulfil the demands of the current market place, for example the Stan Smith."

The Classic began, like most street fashion, as a purely functional sportswear item. It's first incarnation was the Freestyle Lo, released in 1982 as Reebok rode the wave of the women's aerobic fitness movement to make a shoe that was fashionable yet gym ready. It's other variations, the Freestyle High, ExoFit, Classic Leather and Workout have been a staple part of street fashion ever since. But with Reebok being a British brand, it's also had a more prominent part in UK culture.

Reebok Classics Senior Brand Manager Nicholas Oram explains: "In the UK, Reebok was impacting the numerous subcultures and movements that were developing, markedly through 90's rave culture, jungle, hip-hop, pirate radio for example."

Over in America they were paving the way in the 80’s with Run DMC and their Adidas shell toes. And whilst in the UK we always repped the brands, we never really had a shoe that was as iconic as the shell toe until the Classic came along and gave a pilled up hug to the UK Garage and Acid House scenes. Without wishing to sound too jingoistic, the Classic was a proper British shoe worn by proper Brits getting properly off their nut to proper pioneering British dance music, and that's something to have a proper sense of national pride in, for once.

And it may have been the shoe of choice for ravers, but it's legacy has continued long after that. By the mid to late 90's, Classics – alongside Stone Island and Aquascutum – were the uniform of football hooligans up and down the country. But by the early 00s, as UK garage had broken into the mainstream, putting Dreem Teem, Shanks & Bigfoot and Artful Dodger into the charts, and Classics became more associated with dance music than the terraces. And as UKG paved the way for the grime scene, Reebok Classics went with it.

"I remember in the mid 90's around the area I grew up Reebok Classics where the trainer of choice by the older, cooler boys which you would most likely call 'chavs' now," says our guy Andres Branco, founder of Wavey Garms "They were also a hit down the workings man's club and pubs with the geezers who like a pint and a proper bashed £30's worth of charlie."

"The early 2000's saw the rise of Mike Skinner and The Streets who were essentially your archetypal Classics consumer at that time," adds Nicholas Oram "His music and lyrics embodied what the brand stood for and with the UK garage scene starting to have impact, the brand partnered with Mike for a number of ad campaigns."

Now, the Classics devotees are the a new wave of lads: a kind of post hipster devoted to vintage sportswear and appropriating working class 90’s terrace style, but with none of the subcultural brand barriers that defined the hooligans, emcees and ravers. It's Champion mixed with Supreme. Palace with Fila. Elessee sliders and Nike shotter bags. There's no subcultural brand identity – it's ironically self aware.

"I knew Reebok Classics would come back in when I started Wavey Garms," says Andres "Many middle class hipsters were trying to be more ironic than ever wearing Burberry shirts and Aquascutum scarves. They were bound for a comeback."

These days, when brands like Alexander Wang are collaborating with Adidas and models are seen wearing shell suits on the catwalk, it seems that we're going through another phase of fetishising of the working class aesthetic. It’s never been cooler to dress like the very people that the mainstream media were openly demonising only ten to 15 years ago.

"I definitely think the Classic has got a working class association, an association with the man in the in street," Alistair explains, "So it's a leveller, which you can't say about every style of trainer. Not every man is going to be wearing a Stan Smith for example."

But it may also be the case that this resurgence in street fashion, just like The Strokes with skinny jeans and Converse in the mid 00’s, is down to music. As grime goes mainstream, is it worth asking whether music subcultures and identities still influence what we wear?

"I don't think it's necessarily just the music,” Alistair adds, “I think it's the communities that are interested in the music styles and those kinds of clothing styles, and when you bring those things together a group identification is formed. That's what sticks, not just one element but a fusion of those things, that's what makes it distinctive."

It's pretty much certain the latest fetishisation of street fashion – or "athleisure" as fashion mags will call it – will be just another trend captured by marketing men that will probably dissolve in five years or so, when suddenly it’s not fashionable to do photoshoots in front of London estates anymore. And Reebok Classics will probably go back off radar for a while. But whatever happens, the Reebok Classic will always be a shoe that's binded a lot of this country together, and has in some sense been a unifier for a wide range of UK subcultures. But really, above all, they just look fucking great with pretty much any outfit you put on.

Written by: Tom Usher

Illustration by: Reuben Dangoor


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  • Check out to see all the Reebok vintage and classic shoes from the 80’s and 90’s

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  • Cool article even if you was not around in the era of the classic you can feel the sentiment of the times it arrived an how it evolved
    Clever , I’m going to listen to the streets now an find those classics

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  • I like your article, as one of the designers of the classic range (I worked on them from ‘83 -’89). Reebok never went out to capture that market. trainer culture in the UK was the adidas samba and city series. The Classic leather was an attempt by the running category manager to boost his sales as they were flagging compared to the new Aerobic segment. So Classic used the same materials as the aerobic footwear on a running base, the shoe was aimed at the west coast of the USA and became very much Yuppie footwear. it took until around ’87 for JD to catch onto the classic leather, at which point the special makeup team that developed these shoes started to go to town on the shoe and pushed it more mainstream streetwear.

    best wishes

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