SNEAKERS by Neal Heard reaches its 20th Anniversary – Q&A

Two decades is a long time in anyone’s language and a lot can change. In terms of fashion and trends, it’s also a commonly-referenced period in which things can rise, fall then return again. Twenty years is long ago enough to feel like it’s consigned to history but recent enough to still touch and feel.

Having spent the 80s and 90s growing up in South Wales, Neal Heard cemented his name in the pantheon of trainer culture when he released the seminal SNEAKERS book back in 2003. And now, twenty years later it returns, looking in very good shape, proving Neal knew a thing or two back then. He still knows a thing or two, so we had a quick chat to him about the last couple of decades and why the book returning after 20 years makes sense.

Hello Neal, how are you today?

Being naive and Welsh, I usually answer honestly to these questions but years of experience have taught me people don’t want to hear the truth, so I’m great thanks, all good…:)

Have you been up to anything interesting lately, aside from relaunching your excellent book?

Ooo I’m always lurching between despair and highs, so I’ve almost constantly got something on the go. I’ve started the Lover’s Guide to Rugby Shirts so I have been visiting some amazing archives, which has been a genuine honour. Lover’s F.C. released the collab with EA Sports FIFA which was surreal, as me and my boy always play that. So now we do so with my own team and I have a couple of other collabs/projects brewing away too so busy with all that, whilst bringing myself down to earth by watching Newport County just hang on to League Two status.

I first knew your book before I knew you. It was way before its time wasn’t it? What compelled you to release it when you did?

It was actually just right place, right time. I had no idea that I could actually author a book, it wasn’t on the radar, though I had always been a historian. But I happened to sell a rare pair of Nike shoes to a lady who knew how to date them by the tongue code (rare now but super rare to know back then). So we got chatting and she was the commissioning editor for Carlton books so one thing lead to another and we jumped into bed, ha, sorry 50-something humour, no I just volunteered that I would love to write a book on Trainers and it developed from there. You have to remember at the time, everyone literally laughed at the idea of a book on the subject, whereas now, even cobblers start telling me about how Jordan changed the world.

The initial release was before the internet had really got a grip of sneaker or trainer culture. Have things changed for the better?

I guess like most things, like football for instance it’s kinda been hijacked and taken from something for purists to a behemoth of money-making and hype. But amongst it, people still love trainers so though I yearn for simpler times, it’s also not all bad.

Pre-internet, what did the world look like to you as a footwear enthusiast?

The world in that scene has changed so much that it’s almost impossible to explain to people, especially younger people as they just cannot imagine it and I haven’t the time or patience to explain. The analogy is to imagine talking about 78 records to someone who downloads, where do you begin?

I remember you talking about finding rare hauls of shoes and essentially buying the whole lot to resell. Does that differ from today’s hyped-up raffles and sneaker resellers?

I had this said to me recently, but though I can see a link, it’s very, very tenuous. We went searching for those shoes because the brands literally weren’t making them anymore. There was no hype, no raffle, nothing, you had no idea what you would find and if you found a pair it might be one of only a few in the world, without a marketing campaign to sell it.

The book cemented you as a bit of a face when it comes to footwear. An influencer before influencers. Did it open doors for you and create opportunities?

I have to admit that after the book came out in 2003 it was one of the most depressing times in my life. I got paid peanuts, it was stressful and I had to constantly compromise to get it near to my vision. The main thing was I fought the battle for a British take on Trainers, myself and all my peers and those older heads who had loved trainers from the football terraces. I was aware of Hip Hop, and I was vaguely aware of Basketball but to quote Morrissey, ”It said nothing to me about my life”…

The whole scene was under constant siege from a media who hated football lads and their culture, and the Americanisation of all culture and in this case Trainers. I fought the battle against ‘Sneakers’ and I lost badly, I wanted nothing to do with it. It was a world of homogenization and aping New York. I wanted no part of it and walked away and so gained nothing from the opportunity. As Billy Bragg said, I went from Top of the Pops to signing the dole.

Your other passion is football shirts. Have you worked on anything interesting via your Lovers F.C brand lately?

Yeah, we got the EA FIFA collab out, I’ve worked with a really cool photographer, Louis Bever, who re-creates football shirts in the style of 18th Century art paintings (it’s way cooler than it sounds) and am working on a collab or two in the background, we’ve even made our own Lover’s F.C Beer…

I always like to quote Ollie from Too Hot when talking about vintage items. He called them ‘cultural artefacts’ once and it stuck in my head. Football shirts and footwear are both strong symbols of the culture they sit within aren’t they?

Without a doubt, they are cultural artefacts, and as such they have the ability to transport us across space and time and are also connectors, across languages and countries.

What do you make of how footwear has changed since your original book, and was there anything you saw coming?

To be honest there was more I didn’t see coming. I’ve always lived by the maxim less is more, so you can imagine how I feel about it all.

Would you ever consider releasing your own range of footwear?

I would love to – hint hint….I’ve come close a few times.

Back to the book, when and where can people get it?

It’s out in all good bookshops, it’s now £25 mind! But what’s more important? Putting bread on the table or reading about Trainers…we all know the answer.

And yourself, where can they find you on instagram etc?

I’m the aptly named @nealheard and @loversf.c on IG

You can get a copy of the newly printed SNEAKERS book here, and at all good bookshops.

Mark Smith

I had pizza for tea.

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