The highs and lows of an It-shoe: how Adidas Sambas took over the world

‘Adidas have managed to improve them, somehow’ … the ubiquitous Adidas Samba. Composite: Telegraph Design/Getty Images
Rishi Sunak may have rendered them uncool this week, but the trainer has risen to ubiquity in the past few years. So what is it about this fairly simple design that is so widely loved?

On the train from Peckham in south London to Dalston in east London the other day, it became hard to ignore: everywhere I looked were Adidas Sambas. White ones. Black ones. Those Wales Bonner ones with the pony fur and leopard print. Little silver ones. Black leather ones with studs.

The humble Adidas Samba, once the reserve of football fans, Britpop kids and the odd skateboarder, has become as ubiquitous as battered Converse All Stars in the 00s indie sleaze years. Last week, even the Conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was seen in Adidas Sambas – a move that many have hailed as the final nail in the coffin for the popular trainer. Sunak has since issued a “fulsome apology to the Samba community”.

The truth is though, even before Sunak “styled” the Samba with navy trousers and an ironed shirt like everyone’s worst Hinge date, the trainer had become inescapable. Early last year, a TikTok clip of a row of people wearing Sambas on a London train went viral. But this isn’t just a London thing: over the past two years, UK-wide searches for ‘Adidas Samba’ have more than doubled. And, in the celeb world, everyone from Hailey Bieber to A$AP Rocky, Rihanna and Harry Styles have been papped in the trainer. Your mum and her mates are probably wearing them. They even make tiny Sambas with Velcro straps for babies now. Every time the clocks go forward, the Samba gets hailed as the trainer of the summer. So, what gives? What is it about this particular, fairly simple shoe?

The now-infamous photo of Rishi Sunak ‘ruining’ the popular trainer. Photograph: @rIshisunakmp/Instagram

It is not hard to see the appeal of the 74-year-old trainer. With its classic three-stripe design, gum sole and rounded toe, the Samba is visually pleasing – and versatile. When I bought a pair of black Sambas in 2022, I loved how clean and smart they looked. At about £75, they are affordable for an “it” shoe. But, for a lot of young people, it was the brand’s 2020 collaboration with menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner – trainers that are now going for up to £4,000 on some sites – that really elevated the Samba to stratospheric levels. Tiarna Meehan, a 23-year-old London-based fashion graduate, bought three pairs of Wales Bonners in 2022. “It’s the juxtaposition between the typical streetwear shoe with details like lace and delicate stitching that make [them] so appealing,” Meehan says.

Meehan believes “the hype on TikTok is definitely a driving force” behind the trend. This is something I hear often. Bea Acworth, 24, who sells secondhand Sambas on Depop from her home in Edinburgh, says the rise of TikTok’s “blokecore” aesthetic (based around vintage replica football shirts, baggy jeans, Sambas) in late 2022 made the trainer a must-have among gen Z. The model Bella Hadid was constantly photographed in Sambas, which was like pouring oil on a fire. A Depop representative says that since the start of the year, searches are up 142%. In the past month alone, they are up 20%.

The Samba obsession doesn’t exist in a bubble. Look on TikTok and you will see that there is a wider hunger for nostalgia (see also: Adidas track tops, low-rise jeans, Timberland boots). Adam Cheung, 29, a streetwear expert and founder of Typed Hype, a digital zine about trainer culture, noticed that retro trainers in general started having a moment circa 2022. “Sales for New Balance, for example, increased by 115% that year alone. So when hype surrounding retro trainers began to rise, the Samba was an obvious choice. Adidas began churning out more and more colours so they’d have one that’ll complement everyone and anyone’s personal style and aesthetic.”

Putting his best foot forward … A$AP Rocky wearing a pair in New York City in 2021. Photograph: Robert Kamau/GC Images

It’s true: there is a Samba for everyone (data on the amount of colourways doesn’t exist, but ASOS is now selling more than 100 styles). And there isn’t a typical Samba-wearer. You are just as likely to see a 45-year-old dad who dresses like Liam Gallagher in Sambas as you are a 21-year-old fashion influencer on TikTok. Shropshire-based Pat Frost, 58, who works as the England football team’s kit manager, has been collecting Adidas trainers since the early 2000s. He estimates that he has 504 pairs, 240 of which are Sambas. “I started buying them and just carried on,” he says. “If I keep going the way that I’m going, they’ll be worth more than my house. I’ve had a specially made room in my garden to store and display them.”

Frost is not fussed by the sudden uptick in Samba wearers. “They’ve always been cool. They’ve never really gone out of fashion. [We had] the ‘terrace culture’ in the 70s and 80s; everyone would wear them then.” It’s a sentiment echoed this week by the head of British Vogue, Chioma Nnadi. “I think Sambas are a classic,” she told BBC Woman’s Hour. “I don’t subscribe to a trend living and dying.”

If anything, Frost says, the quality of the Samba has improved over the years. They have not become flimsier as a result of increased demand. “They’re a really nice-looking trainer nowadays. Adidas have managed to improve them, somehow. They haven’t had a complete overhaul, they’ve just improved the making, stitching, the colourways.”

Not everyone is convinced. A lot of people say the Samba craze has gone too far – and that the shoe has become that most unappealing of things: basic. When the Tory prime minister is wearing a trainer, you know it has jumped the shark. Others had already cashed in their chips. Meehan sold their black and green Wales Bonner pair on Depop last year for a few hundred quid. “It paid my deposit to move to London,” they say.

Still, Sambas are a timeless classic, and though they may become less hot, most people, like Nnadi, agree that they are unlikely to disappear in the long run. They are way too pretty for that. “The Adidas Samba has been around for seven decades,” says Cheung. “I don’t doubt for a second that they’ll be around for seven more.”