Adidas Handball Spezial: the greatest trainer ever?


This piece was originally in Umbrella Issue Nine

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to get everything you want – certainly when it comes to trainers. Over the last 15 or so years, models which had mythical status have been reissued in often bizarre – and rather inauthentic colourways – leading to dilution of what made them so desired in the first place. 

One trainer has managed to escape this fate – adidas’ Handball Spezial, a shoe which looks as streamlined and modern as it did when it was released back in the 1980s. Curator of last year's Spezial adidas exhibition in London, and perhaps the world’s leading authority on British trainer culture, Gary Aspden, shares some of his thoughts on this most underrated of sports shoes. 

Umbrella: Where do you put the Spezial in adidas’ Hall of Fame?

Gary Aspden: The beauty of this shoe is that it isn’t one of adidas’ most famous shoes but it is without doubt one of their most consistent. Its design is utterly timeless. 

U: What do you like about it?

GA: The fact it’s so subtle and understated. When I see anyone wearing Handball Spezial's here in the UK it’s a pretty good indicator that they know their onions when it comes to trainers. I’m glad that it’s never been a ‘hype’ shoe. It bears virtually no relation to American culture or hip-hop so consequently sits outside of the frame of reference of many people (especially outside of northern Europe). It’s a shoe that has a distinct association with British youth culture, particularly working class, football fashion.

U: Can you expand on that?

GA: I love the fact that it was designed for a sport that has absolutely no relevance in the north of England (do you know many people from Lancashire who play handball?) and yet was immediately and unquestioningly adopted by hoards of young northern scallywags. The shoe, its name, the sport it was designed for are as Germanic as it gets for me. I’ve always loved the fact that adidas was a German brand. Whether by accident or design the shoe has never been picked up the hipsters and can’t really be worn ironically’ – it’s like it’s been given an exemption certificate from all that nonsense and yet its popularity with a certain section of people never seems to wane. 

U: Do you own a pair?

GA: Well, years ago I had a one-off pair made in brown nubuck for Noel Gallagher by the factory in Scheinfeld (near Herzogenaurach) although my personal favourites are a pair that I picked up in Japan in 2001 . All-white leather upper with the brown sole and gold ‘SPEZIAL’ stamped on the side. I’ve never worn them!

U: Anything else we should know?

GA: The name ‘Spezial’ was used on various Adidas shoes in the late-’70s/early-’80s but the Handball Spezial outlived them all. The shoe and its name in many ways encapsulates everything I love about Adidas – essential in the truest sense of the word.

U: When did you first see the shoe?

GA: I saw a blue and white pair in the window of Gibson's Sports in Blackburn on my way home from school around 1983. They were sat alongside the white/black adidas Universal and they complimented each other as they both had those brown soles which I immediately picked up on. Gibson's was great for adidas trainers, the guy who ran the place used to get the catalogues out and would sometimes buy shoes from some of the local lads who had “parallel imported” them so he had some good bits. An ex-girlfriend of mine worked there in the late-’80s and lost her job for giving shoes away to her mates. She had got into acid house and embraced its ideals wholeheartedly. Times were different, I guess. 

U: Are the re-releases different to the original?

GA: They've never needed to be re-released as adidas have always continued to manufacture them. There may have been some tiny fluctuations but unlike some other styles, the silhouette of that shoe is pretty much exactly as I remember from when I first saw them. That purity is a big reason why I suggested we use the Handball Spezial as the foundation for the adidas Manchester shoe back in 2002.

U: What would you wear it with?

GA: Socks… they’re always good with a nice soft pair of Burlington socks.



Adidas Spezial are available from Size?

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