Nothing Beats a Londoner: Nike's Love Affair With London
Nothing Beats a Londoner: Nike's Love Affair With London
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date May 31, 2018
In early February, Nike unveiled a new ad on YouTube: “Nothing Beats a Londoner.” Within a few hours it had gone viral. Some Londoners didn’t like it, claiming that it relied on played out stereotypes like the supposed ubiquity of Skepta among London’s youth. Others, like The Fader, marvelled at it, equating it to “Space Jam, but British.” Subjective assessments aside, it confirmed something that has become increasingly apparent over the last few months: Nike—and its subsidiary, Converse—are banking on London in a big way.
Older sneaker aficionados will know that this is by no means a new development. Despite hailing from the United States, London is at the heart of Nike’s cultural footprint and the brand is deeply ingrained in the city’s landscape, going back to Nike’s transformative decade in the 1990s. Nike’s sales in the U.K. grew by 600 percent throughout the nineties, making it one of the most profitable markets for the brand. By 1999, London was home to a flagship NikeTown and, today, the brand’s Oxford Street store is Nike’s biggest; it’s a testament to the importance placed by the company on developing business in the British capital.
The rise in popularity around the turn of the millennium—and accompanying growth in sales—owes to a few factors. The first was the plethora of premium sneaker retailers in London. The UK has always been home to a vibrant sneaker community, on par with the US, and, as such, its retailers commanded the same type of respect as those stateside.
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JD Sports was, in the ’90s and ‘00s, the U.K.’s foremost purveyor of limited Nikes thanks to a fruitful relationship with the brand that allowed it to release a host of JD exclusives. Nike itself, in discussing the Air Force 1’s history in London, equates the popularity and importance of JD Sports’ SMU program to that of the legendary CO.JP projects (effectively, Japan-exclusive drops). The JD Sports SMU program—and those of fellow London-based retailers who followed suit, like size?— extended beyond the Air Force to cover a wide array of Air Max trainers over the years. This is part and parcel to Nike’s popularity in London: despite being an American company, there existed an almost shadowy, UK-only arm of the brand that allowed young Brits to make it their own.
Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, Nike bet heavily on parlaying a presence in football (soccer for us North Americans) into wider cultural acceptance. It worked and football remains, to this day, an important part of the brand’s wider appeal. Nike trainers became increasingly ubiquitous among London youth, who wanted to emulate their sporting idols, like Arsenal’s Ian Wright.
From there, Nike began to permeate throughout the emerging garage scene (grime’s forefather). Underground raves were dotted with pairs of Nike Zoom Spiridons, Air Max 95s and Air Max Plus. As the garage MCs became symbols for London’s youth, those sneakers became must-haves. In London, Nike found itself at the perfect intersection of sports, culture, and exclusivity, to the point that the Nike Air Max Plus is often held up as the trainer most emblematic of London’s sneaker culture. Tuned Air was adopted by the underground scene and came to be a best-seller among London streetwear retailers, while languishing (relatively) in other markets.
If you need contemporary proof that London’s affinity for the Swoosh has always been palpable, look to the fact that the city’s youth seemed reluctant to embrace the BOOST wave that swept through sneaker culture over the last few years. Recognizing this, Nike—losing ground in the sneaker market where it was once the unquestioned king—has turned to London once again to inject cultural cool into its brand. The move has been perfectly timed: British popular culture has been penetrating the global mainstream over the last few years, with everything from grime to British TV becoming increasingly popular stateside. Younger British brands, too, have become increasingly present and popular on a wider stage and Nike has tapped into that for collaborations.
The “Nothing Beats a Londoner” spot is a testament to Nike rekindling its relationship with London’s cultural personalities. Part of Nike’s cultural force in London is that there is strength in unity: with so many high-profile ambassadors, it’s hard to ignore and touches almost every type of potential consumer. Footballers Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) and Harry Kane (London) recall the football adverts of the ’90s, while the presence of grime MCs Skepta, Giggs and Dave are a nod to the role the genre has played in Nike’s popularity. It’s interesting to contrast their influence and relationship with Nike to that of fellow grime mainstay Stormzy, who is an adidas ambassador. Stormzy, for the most part, contents himself with rocking adidas tracksuits and sneakers, while occasionally providing the music for an adidas Originals commercial or appearing in a shoot. Stormzy’s relationship with adidas is no small deal, but it doesn’t carry the same cultural gravitas as, say, Skepta’s Air Max 97 SK from late 2017.
That Dave, the barely-legal grime star, starred alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr. in the latest Nike Mercurial football boot commercial is, arguably, bigger than Stormzy’s wide-ranging adidas deal. His song could have easily been used to score the advert, but his appearance within speaks to how Nike is leveraging the cultural capital they’ve accumulated in the British capital: for Nike, London isn’t about a massive market, it’s about a cool market. Why else would an MC be in an ad for a football boot—while wearing a Stone Island, not a Nike, vest, no less.
Elsewhere, the presence of non-celebrity influencers has kept Nike in touch with London on an organic level. Publications like The Basement, and the community that drives it, have shown an unabashed love for the funkier trainers of yore that are now making a comeback. Look no further than Alexandra Hackett, aka Mini Swoosh, for proof that Nike finds some of its greatest cultural ambassadors among London’s youth.
Originally from Australia, Hackett moved to London two and a half years ago and has gained a cult following thanks to her extensive collection of deadstock Nike and her unique way of repurposing vintage Nike pieces into unique garments. Hackett’s love for Nike comes from her self-described “interest in new technologies and developments in production techniques,” where the brand has a “rich history.” Hackett told Dry Clean Only that while she’s “had a personal love for Nike for some time,” it wasn’t “until relatively” recently that she started collecting archival pieces to experiment with.
Hackett is now working on a menswear brand of her own, ALCH, that she tells us “explores the whole process of deconstruction and reconstruction, working mostly with non-traditional fabrications.” Besides birthing a brand though, her love for Nike led her to work with the Swoosh itself, most notably as part of the Vote Forward campaign that gave way to the Sean Wotherspoon-designed Air Max 97/Air Max 1 hybrid.
This is part of what makes Nike’s relationship with London different. It is willing to listen to and work with brands, stakeholders and cultural figures in the city. Recall that Kanye West left Nike for adidas because Nike was unwilling to yield much creative and design freedom to non-athletes. In London, non-athletes have been embraced as much as athletes and the brands tapped for collaborations have arguably been chosen as much for their ties to the community as for their name brand recognition. Take Samuel Ross’ A-COLD-WALL*, with whom Nike has collaborated on a series of Air Force 1s that have been among the most popular releases of the last few years. A-COLD-WALL* is known to Dry Clean Only readers and Grailed users, but, outside of London, the brand was relatively unknown when the agreement was first struck. Ross and A-COLD-WALL*, though, are deeply rooted in London’s high street scene and for Nike that was clearly worth something.
For Hackett, this openness (as far as collaboration is concerned) is what makes Nike’s relationship with London so fruitful. She told Dry Clean Only that she “feel[s] like it's really important for any brand of its size to continue to work with independent collaborators so that they can really speak to consumers authentically. The more variety in the collaborators, the more reach they'll have to unique target audiences.” On that front, Nike has succeed as far as London is concerned.
In the immediate aftermath of the “Nothing Beats a Londoner” campaign, Nike announced a series of “Beat This Week” events designed to challenge people and bring Londoners together. One of the events was a dodgeball tournament organized by LPAC (Last Pick Athletics Club), a group that “wants to change the way young people view healthy living,” explained Tayler Prince-Fraser. Prince-Fraser is one of five people behind LPAC and is also one of the owners and creative forces behind The Basement, so he’s particularly well-connected to London’s youth culture. He told Dry Clean Only that “Nike are making a huge push to engage with young people and it's working—you only have to look as far as any social media platform to see that.” Prince-Fraser echoed Hackett’s conclusion, adding “if [Nike] continue, like they did with us, to let young people create the events, the content, the moments, then they will continue to connect with the grassroots.”
Prince-Fraser and Hackett both had similar hypotheses about the root of the Swoosh’s ubiquity in London. Hackett told us that Nike’s, “become such an integral component in any Londoner’s wardrobe [because] kids start wearing Nike as part of their school uniform when they’re young so the brand literally grows with them as they mature.” Tayler Prince-Fraser spoke to something similar, telling us, “When I see an Air Force 1 or an Air Max 90, I think of high school, I think of where I grew up and my time as teenager.”
Getting a foot in the door from an early age is important, per Prince-Fraser, who argues that the brand’s collaborators, “then naturally have an affinity to the product, so when they collaborate or work with Nike, not only does it seem authentic and real, it also naturally influences the next generation of consumers and influencers.” It’s why Nike can roll out commercials featuring a veritable “who’s who” of London youth culture—the brand was so well-ingrained in the city’s culture during the ’90s that virtually everybody had a positive experience with it. Real people genuinely want to work with Nike and that makes the excitement around the brand even more pronounced.
The London-centric approach has trickled down to Converse, which is owned by Nike. For years now, Converse has desperately tried to dissociate its success from that of a single shoe: the Chuck Taylor All-Star. That led, among other things, to the dismal failure that was the Chuck II, which is now noticeably absent from the marketplace. In its stead, Converse has wagered heavily on the One Star. The campaign to make the One Star Converse’s fashion-savvy sneaker has flowed through London, where the company seeded suede pairs to buyers and editors during London Fashion Week in June of 2017.
In the months that have followed, Converse unveiled One Star collaborations with Foot Patrol—a subsidiary of size? and one of the most influential sneaker boutiques in London (if not Europe)—and young, independent label Paria Farzaneh. When taking into account an ongoing partnership with British-born Jonathan “J.W.” Anderson, the pattern becomes clearer.
It all came to a head in the last couple weeks, with a couple of marketing moves centred around the One Star that solidified Nike Inc.’s London gambit. First, Converse announced the One Star Hotel, an event that would showcase a host of young British talent, like the aforementioned Paria Farzaneh, MadeMe, Mimi Wade, Tizzy T, Slowthai and IAMDDB, as well as New Yorker A$AP Nast. Simultaneously, the brand unveiled a new marketing campaign with 15 year-old Instagram mainstay Leo Mandella (aka Gully Guy Leo) as the new face of the One Star in London— scroll through his feed attentively and you’ll notice a lot of Converse and Nike product. It’s worth noting that this happened while the lion’s share of streetwear focus was on Los Angeles for the NBA All-Star game. Converse—at its roots, a basketball brand—preferred to create a veritable cultural happening in London over Los Angeles. The apparent logic being that if the One Star can take hold in London, then the youth movement will carry it up the metaphorical streetwear and fashion echelon. Those we’ve spoken to in London have clearly implied as such.
Taken separately one might not think much of any of the events and actions. But, on the whole, it’s obvious that Nike has been making a concerted effort over the last few years to make London a bastion of the Swoosh, impervious to the European-based Three Stripes or any other brand that might come to compete. It’s in London that Nike’s extension beyond performance footwear and clothing is most apparent; the brand means something to Londoners. For Nike, it’s important to protect that. When its sales were slipping, it could rely on a cultural foothold in London—it’s no coincidence that some of the models being churned out by Nike at the moment have roots in the ’90s trainers that were popular in the English capital Nike has history on its side in London and its banking on the British cultural movement continuing its success beyond its borders to help its brand.
Perhaps most impressively, Nike has tapped into authentic London culture. For all of the comments bemoaning the seeming tardiness of using Skepta, the creatives Nike has worked with represent London well. They are a well rounded mix of established veterans—Skepta and J.W. Anderson—up-and-coming stars in their industries—Dave and A-COLD-WALL*—along with everyday people who cover music, fashion and street culture more broadly. Nike hasn’t changed anything, it’s always seen London as a key cog in its business. Now it has simply doubled down on its efforts in London at a time when more people outside of the UK are paying attention to what’s going on in the British capital. For both Nike and Converse it appears to be working.