Rishi Sunak sambas

THIS WEEK, BRITISH prime minister Rishi Sunak committed a rather heinous crime. No, it didn’t involve corruption within his ranks, sex on the desk with his secretary or secret dossiers being shoved into shredders, as has become par for the course in modern politics. Instead, he appeared in a Downing Street interview wearing a pair of Adidas Sambas.

The internet predictably reacted with glee, pouring shit on the poor PM, who hastily issued an apology for choosing to dress so far above his stylistic station. Because although Sunak is often regarded as something of a dish in political circles – even a trendsetter – in style circles, or the catwalk that is the street, he falls at the bottom of the food chain. Not only is he a politician, he’s a dad. Sunak should be wearing loafers with orthotic inserts, for heaven’s sake.

Sambas, of course, are an iconic retro sneaker that have seen a revival in the past year or so thanks to celebrity high-priestesses of fashion and influence, like models Hailey Bieber, Kaia Gerber and Bella Hadid. In these rarefied ranks, Sambas were becoming ubiquitous to the point of being close to overdone anyway. Sunak’s appearance in them is certainly the final straw, threatening to end this particular chapter in the classic shoe’s storied history.

But while it’s a death nell for the shoe among the kids, it could yet prove a boon for Adidas’ bottom line, as Sambas become popular further down the cool chain among mums, dads and, er, dorks.

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“No one wants to see politicians trying to be cool,” says Simon Wood, editor-in-chief of footwear bible Sneaker Freaker. “It’s like thinking of your parents having sex, but this won’t have an impact on Adidas sales. The average 12-year-old girl doesn’t give a toss what the prime minister of Britain is wearing when she’s buying sneakers. Sambas are popular because times are tough, and they’re great value [$180]. If anything, it might help sales.”

Indeed, the Samba, an enduring cultural touchstone since being launched back in the ’50s is largely impervious to prevailing trends and indifferent to who actually wears them. Once the outcry over Sunak’s faux pas dies down, the shoe, as Wood says, will likely go even more mainstream, before being discarded for a time until it’s reclaimed once again by a future generation. The classics never die, they just get dug up and worn again.

But the Sunak debacle does reveal a few things that don’t reflect well on our image-obsessed society, one ruled by fashion elites from whom many of us take our stylistic cues. Sunak had no business dipping a Samba-clad toe into these shark-infested waters. It reminded me a little of Anthony Albanese’s Women’s Weekly photoshoot before the last election, when our then prospective PM wore a pair of stylish white trainers.

The Betoota Advocate, in their merciless way, duly delivered an epic headline: “Albo visits flood-affected areas with plastic bags over his new fuckboy sneakers”. But otherwise the member for Grayndler didn’t cop too much scorn, as he had been styled for the shoot and it was Women’s Weeky, not Dazed & Confused – he wasn’t getting too ahead of himself, in other words. Besides, we probably shouldn’t blame politicians for these sartorial cockups. It’s the scheming, focus group, data-driven bureaucrats who surround them who come up with these transparent fashion follies.

Women’s Weekly

While we’re being generous, it’s worth noting that the reporter who was interviewing Sunak was wearing a pair of New Balance trainers. Not only has no one lit her up for her choice of footwear but the fact that both parties are choosing to dress down for what would once have been a formal occasion, shows that either the casual dressing trend has peaked, or alternatively that the words of a nation of podiatrists have been heeded and that even people in high profile jobs such as these are wearing more comfortable footwear.

Who is allowed to wear what is an interesting aisle to take a metaphorical stroll down. Brands cultivate and curate their images as carefully as individuals do their personas and self-images. It’s amusing when cashed-up bogans line up outside the stores of prestigious luxury fashion brands or downmarket celebs flaunt their wares on the red carpet. Aspiration and exclusivity are built into a brand’s value proposition, but it only takes one or two painfully uncool people in the public eye to puncture the illusion marketers and brand strategists have spent years building. Then a castle that was built on sand can crumble, though as we’ve observed with the Sunak-Samba fiasco, sales may actually jump.  

But there are levels to this. In the final season of Succession, there is a delicious scene in which Tom makes fun of Greg’s date to Logan’s 80th birthday party (delightfully referred to as ‘Bridget Randomfuck from the apps’ by Kerry), for the size and garishness of her bag, which is clearly supposed to be from a high-end fashion house.

The ultra-rich, at least, in the world of Succession, are turned off by conspicuous consumption, choosing to wear unbranded clothes that nevertheless cost a bomb, discretion being the ultimate marker of taste, perhaps. It is, of course, hard to aspire to anything when you’re already in the one percent, so perhaps that’s why you go the other way and dress down; see Logan’s cardigans and Kendall’s nondescript baseball caps.

Now, while I am far from being a one-percenter or even a stylish guy for that matter, I have often strived to eschew brands where I can – minimal branding is my brand – if for no other reason than a label’s baggage is a further weight on my already conflicted identity.

Of course, like everyone, I use the cold calculus of the street to guide my purchases: if I see a pair of sneakers I like on a ‘cool’ person, I find them even more desirable. But the same shoes on a dag instantly lose their lustre. Who hasn’t splashed out on some new kicks only to see them “ruined” by a suburban dad at school pick-up? Even a similarly stylish colleague wearing the same trainers can be problematic, revealing that both of you, rather than individuals who exercise free will, are merely slaves or clones serving fashion’s hive mind. It’s enough for you to consign your once fresh kicks to the back of your wardrobe.

Despite all these overthought misgivings, however, I recently did something I don’t normally do. I joined a well-established and pervasive trend – the Nike Dunks. Dunks have been everywhere for the past few years and I was reluctant to jump on board. But then I saw a particularly alluring red ‘Chicago Split’ model on a Japanese sneaker website. So, I bought them, thinking no Aussie fashion plebs would have them and I’d get nods of approval from IYKYK dudes on the street.

Well, the pay-off came quick – a young security guard at Melbourne airport said, “like your shoes, mate” and I burst with pride for a day or so. As I trod the streets, I was heartened by the fact no one else on these shores seemed to have this particular colourway.

My smugness vanished, however, at the gym this very morning, when I saw another guy wearing them. Now, I’m not going to say he was a complete dag because he wasn’t. But my heart sank. I didn’t even want to make eye contact. But it was too late. We clocked each other and the look of quiet disgust on the guy’s face was unmistakable. I realised I was probably mirroring him but we both managed to pull it together to exchange wry smiles. As I walked away a horrible thought occurred to me. I was the older, daggier party in this stylistic shootout. It was I who had climbed above my station. I was ruining red Chicago Split Nike Dunks for him. I was Rishi Sunak.

Obviously, this is the kind of devastating blow from which there’s no coming back. I may as well jump on the Samba trend as the rest of the style peasants are about to do. Loafers and orthotics can’t be too far off, the circular irony of the fashion-consumer vortex being that if you get to that stage, you obviously no longer care about the image you project, which in many ways is what being cool is all about in the first place. I’m surrendering now before I really get hurt.


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