There was a time when trainers with credibility were – whisper it – outlandish. That’s what they were celebrated for: their riot of colour, finish, texture and tech. All the things that were not so easy to wear on the body found a home on one’s feet. Trainers shouted

At least, most did. Running like a seam of brilliant light through the sneakerverse was a counter-trend for the plain and stripped back, for understatement to the point of minimalism. For trainers that were all white. Trainers that were typically found pounding courts were now found pacing shopping centres, in moshpits – ultimately, even, at the bottom of a suit. 

In 1931 adidas created its first specialist product for playing tennis, in leather rather than canvas. By the late Sixties the white of the “tennis boom” was becoming the go-to shade for all manner of sports. The Superstar, for example, redefined the basketball shoe. White went running. It did aerobics. Over the decades adidas produced iconic, oft-copied sneaker silhouettes to meet all athletic needs. And they all looked on point in white.

Yet whiteness of shoe – a key quality underpinning what would become the trainer’s infinite variety – seemed to transcend these sporting origins. The white plimsoll would become the footwear of post-War, anti-establishment and then arty counter-cultures, the everyman choice for men who were definitely someone: think Jack Kerouac or John Lennon, David Hockney or Andy Warhol. Then, beyond that, its more advanced cousin, the white trainer, would over subsequent decades likewise find a deep and widespread resonance. 

From Eighties hip hop (Run DMC and “My Adidas”, naturally) to Casuals in London and Liverpool, from Nineties indie to Noughties grime, the white trainer has always found a place. You can be a Modfather (step stylishly forward, Mr. Paul Weller), brothers-in-arms (hello, the Gallaghers of peak-Oasis) or thinking-rave guru (guten tag, Mr. Karl Hyde of Underworld). And for every fleet-footed British musical hero, there was a tall-walking American: from Public Enemy to LL Cool J via – of course – Run DMC (RIP, Jam Master Jay).

Talk about cultural dominance. And, every step of the way, in every direction, the march of the adidas white trainer has been documented in the pages of The Face. As shown in the imagery here, pulled from 25 years of magazines, this is a peerless archive chronicling a matchless shoe. The Face x adidas is one collaboration that has never faded.

Uniquely, the white trainer has also had a parallel existence, suggesting a certain anti-fashion nerdishness. It’s the shoe of Forrest Gump, of Floridian retirees, sometimes of “dad style”, as ironically cool as that may momentarily be. 

It’s all, of course, in how you wear it.

In part this is because the white trainer is as generically appealing as a pair of jeans. And, like jeans, they can be enjoyed boxfresh, searing and unsullied. Or they can appreciated for the inevitable creasing and dulling that map a passage through their wearer’s life – a pair worn not just until the next release, but until it falls apart.

Perhaps the world, indeed, can be divided into two camps. Those who keep the baby wipes and whitener close to hand. And those who feel just a bit self-conscious until their white kicks are sufficiently clobbered. 

But as adidas has shown in its constant reworking and updating of the white trainer, it’s also a blank canvas. We mean that literally. That explains why it’s been subject to endless customisations and interpretations – the Stan Smith alone by designers Yohji Yamamoto, Jeremy Scott and Alexander Wang, not to mention the hundred-plus limited editions. 

But it also works figuratively, which explains its continued appeal, even as fashion around it forever churns and changes. Prep or pop, street or catwalk, it works. The white trainer is so direct, so stark, it goes with nothing. So it goes with everything. It exists in sharp contrast. 

Yes, there’s an architectural purity to the white adidas shoe. Unlike so many sneakers, it’s more form than fancy – but also an anonymity. That makes it ideal for ever-more relaxed dress codes at work. The white trainer might be considered the very negative of the traditional office look.

Perhaps it’s really that which has sustained the white trainer over the last decade, and given it new life. Without denying its inherent sportiness or youthfulness, turning its back on its many pop cultural nods, or foregoing its essential optimism, the adidas white trainer somehow looks not just ever contemporary. It also looks grown up.

Presenting, then, firstly, a gallery of iconic stars in iconic adidas moments...followed by a deep dive into the Face archive for a soulful, sole-full trip into classic white trainer history.

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LL Cool J

Paul Weller

Run DMC

Opens with a bang with two crucial 1980 launches: The Face, and the Campus shoe.

Originally called the Tournament, under its new name this basketball style becomes a Beastie Boy favourite and the definitive skate shoe. The decade when the adidas white trainer helps hip hop finds its feet, and its beat…

...providing sole and soul to New York street dancing (anyone remember Smurfing, as featured in The Face in August 1983?), East London casuals (‘The Ins & Outs of High Street Fashion’, The Face, July 1983 and The Face, August 1983), and to the grand designs of OG politicised fashionista Katherine Hamnett (The Face, September 1983)...

The decade, too, when the adidas white trainer becomes the discerning musician’s footwear of choice, whether you’re rock god (David Lee Roth, The Face, October 1984) or rap don (Run DMC, The Face, November 1984)…

The Eighties’ greatest hits:

1984 Adicolor Hi:

Released with a pack of felt tip pens, the Adicolor allowed owners to make their own customisations

1986 Rivalry:

The signature shoe of Patrick Ewing, the NBA legend insisted he be involved in its killer design

(Image here shows the 2019 Home of Classics iteration, inspired by the 1986 Rivalry)

1986 Continental 80:

Known as the adidas Continental throughout the 1980s, renamed for its 2018 re-release. Also appearing at this time: the original Powerphase, later reimagined as Kanye West’s YEEZY Powerphase

(Image here shows the 2019 Home of Classics iteration, inspired by the 1986 Continental)

1988 AR Trainer:

Designed to function as well on all playing surfaces, the AR redefines the tennis shoe

(Image here shows the 2019 Home of Classics iteration, inspired by the original 1988 AR Trainer)

FROM THE FACE ARCHIVES

Italia 90! It’s all about the most stylish ever World Cup, an unknown Kate Moss’s first magazine cover (The Face, May 1990), and sharp adidas kicks and strips.

Then it’s about the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations, held in Tunisia (and featured in The Face, March 1994) at which Nigeria and Zambia wore the three stripes with pride... ...while also noting that cutting-edge fashion photographers like Mario Sorrenti equally loved a classic white shoe, adaptable enough to be paired on a man with a floor-length wrap (The Face, April 1993) – or, simply, accessorised with another supermodel, the almighty Ms. Naomi Campbell (The Face, January 1994).

Those same high-end photographers also loved British club kids, busting some breakdancing (The Face, July 1998) and equally reliant on a solid adidas grip. Even when their soles were reaching for the ceiling.

The Nineties’ greatest hits:

1991 Torsion:

Build in a pioneering plastic arch support and you have one of the most effective – and distinctive – runners on the market

(Image here shows the 2019 Home of Classics iteration, inspired by the original 1991 Torison)

1993 EQT Racing:

Short for “Equipment”, the EQT strips back the running shoe to bare essentials – minimalism with maximum impact

1997 KB8:

Proving that not all white sneakers need be streamlined, the KB8 – Kobe Bryant’s first branded shoes – brought aggressive form and new Feet You Wear tech