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Shoe Gazing - interview with Rob May of Laces Out!

Posted by Ali Johnson on

Shoe Gazing - interview with Rob May of Laces Out!

Sneakerheads can be found in all walks of life, from the football casual to the movie director. But what makes the footwear such a special commodity in popular culture? Rob May, the founder of Liverpool-based trainer festival Laces Out! chats to Sam Turner.

This article was first published in Dorothy's Studio Stories Magazine (Issue No. 1) in Autumn 2021.

− Rob May, interviewed by Sam Turner

“You wouldn’t start up a festival of trousers would you?” I’m trying to get to the bottom of why trainers (or ‘sneakers’, or ‘shoes’) illicit such obsession while other items of clothing do not seem to engender the same level of dedication. Rob May is the founder of Liverpool-based trainer festival Laces Out! and he’s helping me get to the sole of the query.

“I can’t even explain it for myself,” he flounders. “I know when I was younger it was never a new tracksuit, it was always a new pair of trainers [I wanted]. My thinking back then was: ‘I can wear a new pair of trainers with this shitty old tracky that I’ve got on and it makes me feel fresh, it makes me feel like I’ve got a completely new rig-out on’. I couldn’t do that with a new pair of trousers and an old pair of trainers, but you flip that. That’s what it was for me.” Both of us looking at Dorothy’s Sneakerheads print – an intricate amalgamation of scores of references spanning the worlds of music, film, sport and fashion, all in action across the iconic silhouette of the Nike Air Max I – we agree there’s more to it.

Before it becomes a full-on Freudian exploration, Rob tells me the origins of Laces Out! and how the event dovetailed with his nascent love of shoes. “I was based in the Baltic Triangle at the time, working on a magazine called Open. I introduced some fashion and sportswear stuff into the mag because that’s what I’m into. I was saying to the editor, ‘let’s do a page on shoes, trainees’, cos we were madly into it and we know that most people in Liverpool care about their trainers.”

The section of the magazine took on a life of its own. Rob scouring the internet for the latest trends with readers hungry to learn about new collaborations, styles and innovations. From his online research he uncovered a gap in the market for an event. “I noticed that there were events going off around the world, a couple in Europe, a couple in America and just one in the UK at the time [Crepe City]; a reselling event where people can buy, trade and sell. But nothing that represents what comes with it; the culture, the music, art and all the other things that sit in the trainer community.”

With Ace Ventura’s unforgettable line coming loose from a recess in his brain, and a booking in the Baltic Triangle’s up and coming Camp and Furnace venue penned in, Laces Out! was born. For Rob and the team it was important that the intersection of trainer culture and popular culture ran through the festival, something borne out in the Sneakerheads print. “The stuff we put on alongside of the traders; the panel talks, the after-event and stuff like that, we like to mix it up,” he tells me. “We like to bring people in like [NewYork hip-hop DJ] Bobbito Garcia, people like [sneaker brand Patta founder) Edson. People who you wouldn’t necessarily know what their involvement in the sneaker industry was until you came to Laces Out!.”

The hip hop strand of sneaker culture is a subject we return to again and again. The three figures sat in the smashed air bubble of the Air Max I on the Sneakerheads print loom large. Rob sees Run DMC as key personalities in sneaker culture on the far side of the pond. Their music was championed by Laces Out! guest Garcia and their intrinsic relationship with Adidas nurtured a now vital pillar of the industry with collaborations between brands and popular culture figures dominating the landscape.

Such brand loyalty isn’t limited to the now altogether more contrived world of showbiz endorsements, however. “A lot of people that come to Laces Out! are brand loyal, generally the older generation,” Rob tells me. “Many with Adidas because of the history with the brand and how it kicked off with the footy fans, the casuals as they call themselves, they’ll generally only wear Adidas.”

Football casuals of the 1980s and the legacy of this culture clearly paved the way for a community celebration like Laces Out! here in the UK, while in America another sport dominates. “Back in the day, 80s, 90s, basketball shoes in America were the king, that’s what was selling, but over here they weren’t really a thing,” Rob explains. “Over here it was more tennis shoes, indoor sports trainers. Nowadays it’s started to crossover because of social media and because everyone’s got access to basically anything they want. I’ve noticed key figures, sport figures, basketball players will be wearing trainers you’d only usually see over here or in Europe.”

A collaboration which neatly brings the worlds of sport and film together in the form of a shoe is Nike’s Spiz’ikes. “Spike Lee was another iconic figure in Nike’s history,” Rob informs. “At the time he was going to a lot of basketball games, wearing the Nike shoes, he was getting the rarest stuff and still does. They used him in a few campaigns. He got his own design, the Spiz’ikes [collaboration with Lee, Nike and Michael Jordan]. These different cultures cross over and influence each other and that’s what drives this culture, this community.”

The community Rob speaks of clearly has a hunger for a collaboration driven by reference points found in music, sport or film. This is illustrated by figures from Michael Jordan to Bruce Lee, Dizzee Rascal to Forrest Gump running riot across the trailblazing Air Max I on the Dorothy print. But it’s another character that caught Rob’s eye which leads to another famous crossover. “The Back To The Future reference stood out to me,” he tells me. “One of my all-time favourite films. I loved the shoes, the Air MAGS, which came on actual sale 20 years after the film.They’re now madly popular and worth about £20-30 grand.” Nike’s Tinker Hatfield, who we see waterskiing in the rendered shoe – a nod to the neoprene eureka moment behind the Huarache silhouette – was asked to design a shoe for the film which would fit in the futuristic diegesis of 2015. Another sneaker legend was created.

The world of sneakers is populated with countless stories and characters similar to this, with culture informing design and vice versa. The creative minds behind the collaborations and the heroes like Marty McFly who carry the legend are adding to the story each decade. This is why obsessives flock to Laces Out! and why more than 50 references can be woven in and around Tinker Hatfield’s mould-busting design. It is a way of life that has been forged on the terraces of football stadia, courtside and in playgrounds, enriched by the osmosis of style has happened through silver screen and across dancefloors.


This article was first published in Dorothy's Studio Stories Magazine (Issue No. 1) in Autumn 2021.

Dorothy’s Inside Information: Sneakerheads print is available to buy here

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