Wade Smith bites the dust

by John Connolly

Liverpool based designer fashion store Wade Smith has collapsed after its bank refused to provide any more financial backing. The retailer's founder and owner, Robert Wade Smith, has placed his business in administrative receivership following the move. Wade Smith was a pioneering salesman whose Liverpool shop specialised in importing rare trainers and was the first of its kind in the UK. A brief excerpt of this article was originally printed in Neal Heard's book "Trainers", here is the article in its entirety...

 

Robert Wade Smith started out working for Peter Black’s adidas division on the production line of their bag-making factory in Keighley, Yorkshire . This was part of his management training and after two years hard labour on the shop floor, he was offered the position of controller to 25 adidas concessions in Top Man stores across the U.K. It was during Robert’s tenure as controller that he noticed the city of Liverpool ’s desire for the brand with the three stripes. At the time, the biggest selling shoe in Liverpool was Stan Smith. Sales for the shoe in 1979 began at around six pairs per week, then jumped to twenty, then fifty and so on. In the months leading up to Christmas, Top Man in Liverpool sold an astounding 2000 pairs! Another popular item in Liverpool was the adidas ST2 padded kagoule, which between 1979 and 1981 Top Man sold around 20,000. During this three-year period, Top Man Liverpool took £750,000, which accounted for one-third of all adidas concession business in the U.K.

 

Seeing an obvious growth in the market, Wade Smith was keen to branch out, asking the management to stock a more-varied selection in Liverpool . Unfortunately, adidas were against this. Convinced it was a passing fad, they were worried that if the bubble burst they’d be left with redundant stock. Regardless of the management attitude, Wade Smith managed to convince them to import 500 pairs of adidas Wimbledon, a dual-density PU soled top-of-the-range tennis shoe priced at £29.99 to Liverpool . The first 500 Wimbledon imported were made in Austria and had the adidas name and logo on the middle stripe. Wimbledon shoes made later in Yugoslavia did not. Punters looking to buy Wimbledon were shunning the Yugoslavian-made shoes because of this. Stan Smiths had been priced at £19.99, the giant leap in price and the insistence on detail proved to be the start of a trend where punters wanted rarer and different trainers. To confirm this theory, Wade Smith persuaded adidas to let him have 10 pairs of adidas Forest Hills for his Top Man concession in Liverpool . Another groundbreaking tennis shoe, Forest Hills had been designed in conjunction with NASA and adidas insisted that it only be stocked at top tennis clubs around the UK . Of the 500 pairs imported by adidas, around 493 stayed in a warehouse for nearly a year. Not put off by the £39.99 price tag, Wade Smith managed to sell all his 10 pairs in October 1980. He got the remainder of the stock and they were gone by December! At this point, Wade Smith decided he was getting his own shop but it would take 18 months to get the show on the road.

 

Wade Smith went to see his chairman, Thomas Black, to pitch his idea. Obviously, if adidas U.K. refused to stock him, he would be in trouble. Thomas Black was surprisingly friendly and confided that he himself wished he had started his own business and agreed to supply. Unfortunately, the adidas U.K. management were not happy with Wade Smith going over their head and he was duly frozen out, losing his position as controller and given a representative job. As the months passed by in 1981, Wade Smith was frustrated as he saw over 7000 pairs of the classic German casual footwear Palermo , Korsica and Tenerife sold in Liverpool . The M.D. continually harassed him and each month asked when was his new shop going to open. In July he was made redundant by adidas, effectively semi-fired. This gave him the incentive he needed. Wade Smith travelled to Liverpool and found a back street premises in Slater Street with £1500 a year rent. At this price, he knew that three pair of trainers sold a week would suffice to keep the business going. After fitting the shop out, it was due to open on Monday 1st November. Wade Smith arrived on the Monday to find his new shop had been broken into and thieves had taken 70% of his stock. Having sold not one pair of trainers, the break-in could have finished him. Here was a 21-year-old, in the middle of Liverpool being taught a big lesson about trading in the city. This only made him more determined to succeed, he thought when something like this happens right at the beginning, nothing else could be worse! Wade Smith made £140 in the first week, not great business but just enough to break even. He noticed a steady flow of lads in the shop wearing adidas Trimm Trab. Asking where they got their trainers, the standard answer was always Brussels , which football fans probably travelled via on their way to Ostend.

 

Wade Smith shut the shop in its second week of business and naively made the journey to Brussels with a few empty suitcases, only to find nothing there! He bought a few pairs of Puma, as they wouldn’t supply him at the time but it was adidas he was really after. Before boarding the ferry at Ostend , Wade Smith walked into a café and bumped into five lads sitting on Head bags with Ellesse ski coats on their backs and Trimm Trab or Grand Slam on their feet. Wade Smith asked if they had any trainers they’d bought on the continent, he’d buy the lot but they seemed uninterested in his proposal. He explained that he’d just opened a shop in Liverpool and they said they might have one or two pair to sell. It wasn’t until the train journey home from Euston that one of the lads finally came down and asked him to take a look. The lads opened their bags and Wade Smith saw pound notes staring back at him. As well as Ellesse and Lacoste clothes, they had Trimm Trab in all different colours, Munchen and Grand Slam trainers. He offered to buy them all however the lads didn’t sell them there and then. The next day, they came to the Slater Street shop, which amazingly had six or seven lads waiting for it open (Wade Smith had posters in the window advertising the fact he’d gone to Brussels for more stock). The lads he’d met on the trip brought two Head bags full of trainers. Wade Smith managed to haggle them down to £16 each and duly bought 25 pairs, mainly Trimm Trab, a few pairs of Munchen and a few pairs of Grand Slam. 10 minutes later, the lads waiting for the shop to open all bought a pair each for £34.99. He’d taken more money in that 10 minutes than he’d taken in the first ten days the shop had been open. For the rest of the day, a steady stream of people headed for the shop to buy trainers. Wade Smith sold 23 of the 25 pairs purchased in the morning. In trading terms, this was to be the most magical day in the shops history and indeed the beginning of the Wade Smith shop.

 

On the back of this success, Wade Smith hired a van and arranged for the remainder of his overdraft to be withdrawn. He drove to London and collected 30,000 deutsche marks in cash. After high-tension journey to Aachen (just outside Cologne ), Wade Smith sought to buy as many adidas as possible from the main dealer there. All in all he got 475 pairs and the dealer asked him to comeback in the morning with a banker’s draft. Wade Smith advised the dealer that he wanted to pay now in cash and the dealer was astonished. Never having sold so many trainers for cash in one day, he gave Wade Smith another 5% discount. After a few minor troubles with customs, he eventually got back to Liverpool . Wade Smith made a couple more similar journeys to Germany and in the following seven weeks, he sold £27,000 worth of trainers. This was the very pinnacle of the cult for rare imports in Liverpool . Soon enough, Wade Smith was importing direct from Austria , Germany , France and Ireland . Indeed, this was his most bullish and buccaneering period. 

 

Although it is near impossible to repeat the buzz he created in Liverpool all those years ago, to this day the Wade Smith reputation has been built on selling rare and hard-to-find products. The revolutionary attitude in the early 80’s saw Wade Smith create a following in Liverpool that will hopefully re-surface again... 

 

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