Born in the mid-’80s and run from a trading estate in the twee British village of Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire, SPX was once the most outlandish sneaker brand on the planet. Yet, by the early ’90s it had collapsed and the shoes were resigned to the cultural scrapheap, along with brick mobile phones, Garbage Pail Kids and most of Michael Jackson's nose.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the very same shoes have become an unlikely torchbearer for freedom of expression among a rebellious Chinese youth, all the way on the other side of the world. Throw in an Italian journalist, a Taiwanese businessman, Sergio Tacchini, a cancelled contract with British Knights, a handful of K-Popstars and a Chinese boy band, and you have one of the strangest and most intriguing stories in the history of high-top sneakers.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of SPX.

It is 1979, and British businessman Clive King is lucky enough to pick up the rights to sell Sergio Tacchini in the UK. King's convivial and laid back attitude sets him out from other distributors. His understanding of football terraces as well as board rooms gives him a unique insight into the new street-level hunger for upmarket brands.

In 1984 the contract ends and King is on the hunt for a new brand. During a visit to a sneaker factory in Korea he spots a conspicuous new look shoe with the word 'TROOP' embroidered all over it. After many trips to New York, and several clandestine hotel room meetings with TROOP founders Teddy and Harvey Held, King secures European distribution for the brand along with his good friend Herman Gazan from Holland. This was in an era when TROOP was on its way to becoming an $80 million business in the US.

“TROOP flew off the shelves and we were blown away by the rap music influence with the brand,” King tells us down the phone from the Edinburgh headquarters of his current company, Brandshop, which has three stores in London.

“On seeing this I was on the next plane back to New York to speak to Jack and Larry Swartz to try and pick up the British Knights brand for the UK. The meeting went well, I thought, only to return home and receive a fax (remember this is back in the day!) indicating that they did not want us to distribute TROOP and BK together. As the opportunity vanished of working on something so hot you couldn’t get your hands on it, I began to explore the idea of SPX.”

From Sergio himself, King had learnt a valuable lesson about taking inspiration from designer products to influence sportswear that was perfect for the era of excess. It was soon time to try this out for himself.

The best way to understand SPX designs is that they were the only products to make TROOP sneakers look conservative. The acronym SPX was said to stand for Sport Performance eXtreme, but rumour had it the letters actually came from a sticker on a freight package! The Street Slam model, available in five colours and both lo- and hi-top, was the first model produced, with nubuck overlays and the SPX pattern on prominent display.

To get your head around the SPX design philosophy, imagine a product meeting where different gimmicks and design quirks are discussed, and then every single one is implemented in one shoe. With a generous dash of the Nike Air Trainer 1, the Street Slam was festooned with straps, logos, branded hits, italic script and one giant gold lace buckle. The letters SPX even featured in three pseudo air bubbles at the back.

It was, naturally, a monster success.

Not content with merely turning the concept of shoe design up to 11, SPX wanted more. Along came the matching tracksuits, the Lennox Lewis endorsements, and the complicated “Air Support System,” which pumped fresh air into the boots. Unsurprisingly, in a time when excess and success went hand-in-hand, it was hard to know when things were getting a little out of hand.

Anyone with a passing interest in SPX may well have read the famous Sneaker Freaker interview in the 2000s, where the company's self-proclaimed product designer Mike Rhodes gave a warts and all account of the rise and fall of the company. Charting everything from the $80,000 cost to set up the sole units of the Street Slam model, to the intimate workings of the company's inner circle, it was a fascinating insight.

“The people who were buying the stuff were, I don’t know, ten to twenty-year-olds I guess,” explained Rhodes at the time. “All Clive’s guys were salesmen, really, that’s what they were.”

He goes on to talk about the design: “There was a crossbrace system that just happened to accommodate the ‘X’ in the SPX. So I wrote a load of bullshit about it being a crossbrace system and allowing lateral movement and all this sort of stuff. People like to think there was some kind of system going on.”

Speaking to King in February this year, it's clear that this interview is not forgotten. He is surprisingly assertive that what Rhodes said in the interview was largely incorrect.

“Mike Rhodes did not design any product for SPX that actually sold in store,” says King, getting straight to the point. He goes on to explain that he did the designs personally himself. “His design content was minimal, other than just discussions, but I must say he s a very good cartoonist.” Ouch.

“Later when Mike was employed by my company and started to design the SPX footwear and clothing himself, that was the decline of the brand, although I blame myself for letting him convince me that he was up to the job. Now on reflection, that was a bad decision.”

The day that SPX completely collapsed, says King, was when his bank left the UK. Other reports suggested bad sponsorship deals had led to its demise. Street style had also moved on. It was the end of the road – or was it?

Enter stage right Bernie Pai, King's agent in Taiwan at the beginning of SPX. Pai decides to buy the SPX trademarks from the receiver in the late nineties.

Meanwhile, in Italy, music journalist Giosuè Impellizzeri has been collecting SPX sneakers since buying his first pair at the age of 13. Having collected everything he can lay his hands on, from footwear to merchandise, he finally finds a contact for the company that Pai is trying to resurrect and writes them an email.

Impellizzeri and Pai hit it off, and the Italian is quickly working on SPX's big comeback. His spare time is juggled between brand web promoter, launching the official Facebook page, creating a database of pictures, building relationships with young artists to promote the brand, and, when all that is done, fighting the counterfeitters in Asia.

“I guess I am one of the people who best knows the details of SPX history,” he tells me. “After the owner, obviously. Since the first day, I always found SPX different than the other sneaker brands. It has more details, creating something totally fresh and unusual. Probably, it is a case where you love it or hate it.”

Since the early 2000s, Pai has focused his efforts on building the brand in Japan and Korea, then expanding from there to other Asian markets, such as China, last year. While the shoes may crop up in specialist European stores as something of a novelty, the company believes the eclectic, ostentatious designs — which are an evolution of the nineties, fashion gangster design language that first made the brand so sought after — sell particularly well in Asia.

While the last figures showed SPX shifting some 30,000 units globally, the company sent 3,000 pairs to China in just one month last year, mainly due to a tie-in with brand CRZ. Pai is feeling good. SPX could again be more than just a piece of footwear, becoming a way to help Chinese youth find their identity in the same way it did the hip hop scene in late-’80s Great Britain.

“The China of today is an exciting place,” Pai explains. “Although they are obviously experiencing growing pains as they continue to adapt and develop as a society, there is great excitement there, especially among young people. The Chinese youth crave something different, and mix Western culture and attitudes with their own experience. We see SPX as signifying the freedom of expression that is fighting to get out.”

And if SPX is anything to go by, the Chinese youth of today are no shrinking violets. If you thought the SPX sneakers of the eighties were outlandish, you haven't seen anything yet. The multi-coloured Street Gangster model, for example, has no less than five tongues and is a solid favourite. Faux fur, animal prints, gold studs — you name it, it'll be on a pair of SPX.

Whereas SPX sneakers were once celebrated by boxing stars and superstar DJs, one of the current faces of the brand is serial peroxider Chad Future, an American K-Pop star. Then, of course, you have the SPX-rocking TFBoys: a Chinese Pokemon-wielding boy band formed by corporate mega agency TF Entertainment. Kento, a chunky Italian rapper, has also collaborated with the brand, completing a rather disparate lineup of ambassadors.

“I'm still a music journalist,” says Impellizzeri. “I've been writing about electronic music since 1996. SPX and electronic music are always strictly connected. Since I discovered SPX in the early ’90s it was considered a brand here for DJs – SPX was printed on many artworks of Italian vinyls. This special link is still alive, more than 20 years later.”

So where next for SPX? — the brand that has done it all, and then some. Well, the shoes are available for purchase in the US, and the idea is to roll out the brand with a concerted promotional push in both US and European markets soon.

“We are receiving requests every day from European people who want to buy SPX,” says Impellizzeri. “So, probably, it is the right time to come back and increase our Euro fan base – not just for old fans, but for a new generation.”

Even King is happy with the way things have turned out. “I am pleased that the brand lives on – it's a great feeling. It's very nice to see your own baby grow up.”

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